Navigating Virtual Cities

The Greek poet Simonides was famous for building memory-places: stories turned into architecture, the original information spaces. Doug Engelbart expanded upon this idea of information-space and brought us the interface: a translator of the zeros and ones of computer language into the words, concepts, images, and associations of human language. Interface maps the virtual cities of the 21st century.

Virtual City

Key concepts and terms that, thanks to the innovation of Doug Englebert, we all (or should all)  know:

GUI: graphic user interface.

Bitmapping: Each pixel on the computer screen was assigned to a small chunk of the computers memory. When the pixel is lit up, it is a zero and when it is dark it is a one. Your scanner converts text or images into bits. Bitmapping allowed for a machine to be seen as an environment to explore as opposed to an extension of our body.

Principle of direct manipulation: For the illusion of information space to work, you had to be able to move things around and make things happen. Instead of typing in obscure demands, the user could point to something and expand it, drag it across the screen, drop it somewhere. Though, in reality, the graphic interface added another layer between the user and the information, the information seemed closer than ever.

The mouse: You’ve seen it. You’ve used it. It’s “a users virtual doppelgänger.” It allows us a direct experience with the computer. Without it, using our machines, Johnson suggests, would be more like “watching television, zoning out beneath a steady stream of images that are kept distant from you.” It allowed the user to enter the virtual world and manipulate it. With the mouse, users could project themselves into the virtual world and stumble upon things.

After discussing Englebart, Johnson goes on to talk about metaforms; more specifically he talks about the metacommentaries of 90’s television: Hard Copy, Pop-Up video, Beavis and Butt-head, etc. Why? These metaforms are parasites that attach themselves to the mass media body and provide media about media. It is data making sense of other data because the “datasphere is too wild and overwrought to navigate on its own.” It provides filters, so to speak. “Instead of stories, we have riffs, annotations, asides. We are a nation of commentators…” Given the lack of interactivity of television, however, we are not commentators. We outsource our commentary to Butt-head. Johnson called these metacommentaries ghosts of technologies to come. The information on television is hard wired but on the computer, it’s a different story. There is a blurred line between producer and consumer. The metacommentaries of 90’s television were meant for a digital world.

You may be wondering, “Okayyy, well where exactly do these Firefox add-on’s we were sent links to come in to play in all of this Johnson, Engelbert, metacommentary, interface business?” And to that, I would respond with a quote from Stephen Johnson, “With more access to global networks of information we will require a new visual language.” These tools provide another interface for users to interact with.

Hyperwords makes every single word on every single Web page usefully interactive. To use Hyperwords, select any text on a web page and you are shown a pop-up menu. Then select a command such as movie database, Wikipedia, Google definition, etc. Hyperwords provides shortcuts for is to navigate information on the web.


Ubiquity also provides shortcuts. It is a collection of quick commands that act as mashups of web services. Users can get information and relate it to other web pages. Ubiquity takes a disjointed web and bring everything the user needs to them.


ShiftSpace is an open source layer above any website. It creates a kind of messgae board for users to interact with one another and share information. It intertwines past and future forms with shifts like notes, and highlights. A statement on Shiftspace’s website reads,

While the Internet’s design is widely understood to be open and distributed, control over how users interact online has given us largely centralized and closed systems. The web has followed the physical transformation of the city’s social center from the (public) town square to the (private) mall. ShiftSpace attempts to subvert this trend by providing a new public space on the web.

Many of the interfaces we interact with on the web are quite closed and don’t display much of a public sphere. We see what we’re shown and consume what the authors write, but there is no real forum for discussion aside from websites with comment abilities. Even then, administrators may delete a user’s comment. ShiftSpace allows for a more open, user modified way to interact with web pages. Two of the more interventionist shifts on ShiftSpace are ImageSwap, which allows a user to grab any image on the web and swap it in place of other image, and SourceShift, which allows users to freely edit a page’s HTML code.


Add-on’s like this are greatly changing interfaces and have a lot of  social and political significance. The metacommentaries that were before their time found a suitable home where we all have the ability to be commentators, thanks to layers like ShiftSpace. Open discussions and the public square has found a home on the Web.

5 responses to “Navigating Virtual Cities

  1. In this post Lynn says that Add-on’s and the way that they are changing interfaces have a lot of social and political significance. I agree with this statement and think that they could create a culture where people become used to manipulating their media. In this society people would no longer be willing to passively receive information and entertainment, as the do with television. I would be interested to hear what everyone else thinks. What are the social and political ramifications of the changing interfaces?

  2. I feel from this article is information and data overload. We are living in a world where information is king. We want to gather and collect as much information as possible and filter it down in order for us to process it and apply it to everyday life. Of course, the internet and digital tools such as bitmapping is helping to shape the online world. Soon, I feel that there will be our own avatars that are alive in a digital world that will collect the information for us. In effect, it is an almost living, organic being within the digital world, acting as our ambassador to every site to collect and filter out data and information. There are huge political ramifications, as new laws will be created to govern over this new world.

  3. This idea of avatars to gather data I feel is a perfect example of what Johnson says about messages evolving faster than the medium. The idea of technology facilitating personalized information is what Bush and Englebart called for. It is what makes digital technology unique for it is something that paper and pen can never accomplish. Yet Bush wrote about trails in 1945 and it has taken till now with ShiftSpace to actually bring to life the idea and not something that is just similar to it. I think how Engelbart’s ideas have become so commonplace now is a sign about the future and how today’s ideas that are considered impossible will become common place. I think niche marketing and the focus on tailored experiences (the idea behind Gallatin) is the major current social implication of people’s experience with information-space. The fact that people are demanding technology to allow them the most personalized experience possible has already ready effected older technologies (such as television) and is effecting what the web is capable of. I wonder how long it will take for the digital medium to catch up to the messages.

  4. The idea of information gathering reminded me of one of the characters from the book World War Z. He is a small Japanese teenager who spent every waking moment researching on his computer. He was obsessed with information, whether that be “the blood type of the prime minister’s cabinet… or the location and condition of all shin-gunto swords of the Pacific War.” So much so that when his parents die from the zombie outbreak, he fails to notice.

    Speaking of avatars filtering information, here is a link to the Bing commercials that I have been enjoying:

  5. I find the idea of how graphic interface has changed our perception of reality, in terms of direct manipulation, really interesting. Because of the graphic interface, users believe that when they click on certain icons, a certain effect will occur. They have more faith in the outcome because they can visually see what happens. However, the irony lies in the fact that the graphic interface acts as a further layer, hiding the real functionality that occurs on a computing level. It is strange to find that users put more trust on the computer once the graphic interface developed, when in fact graphic interface is what is further shielding them from what is actually happening. It is interesting to find that users construct their reality through such a shield.

Leave a Reply to shootingrose Cancel reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s