Why technological concepts are smarter than sociological ones; interfaces I

A key question in philosophy and civil sociology (as opposed to the ordinary State sociology) is to grasp how entities and objects communicate, interrelate and every now and then shape new emergent bodies.

Engineers already have one such brilliant concept: interface. But before elaborating on that, let us see what happens when an average sociologist ”borrows” the terminology of technology:

/…/ interface analysis grapples with ‘multiple realities’ made up of potentially conflicting social and normative interests, and diverse and contested bodies of knowledge. It becomes imperative, then, to look closely at the question of whose interpretations or models (e.g., those of politicians, scientists, practitioners or citizens) prevail in given scenarios and how and why they do so (Long 2001: 88)

In two sentences much of the world disappears and we are left with the ”multiple realities” of human access, where there is nothing but ”social” and ”normative” interests. And the only objects connecting are ”politicians, scientists, practitioners or citizens”. What a weak interface! No wonder sociologists never seem to find the missing masses.

To understand concrete things and events, such as workplaces, scientific laboratories, parties, infrastructure and telephones, we are far better off by turning to computer science or industrial design.

Interfaces can be made of hardware or software, of object-oriented code, or in the case of soft humans; by places, protocols and translations.

We take the average desktop computer. It has multiple hardware interfaces, some of them on the outside such as USB-ports, VGA screen connections and ethernet plugs. These in turn follow specific protocols to interface with other devices, such as keyboards, screens and the internet (TCP/IP is (one of) my religions <3). Besides these pretty blackboxed protocols (to hackers and programmers they are gray or white) there is usually a GUI (graphical user interface) and/or CLI (command line interface). The average Macintosh user only uses the GUI to render advanced computing understandable to his or her performances. Different interfaces enables you to do different things, with different speeds and accuracy, and a computer off the shelf can thus be many different things. The same hardware interfaces can be configured to be either a web server, a crypto-device or just a word processor for someone writing a novel. This is one example of the fantastic power of interfaces and their ability to make things multiple!

But it’s not only computers and state of the art technology that comes with interfaces. Take a library. It also has plenty of hardware and software interfaces. There is a catalogue of thousands of books, there are chairs and tables for interfacing with books that you pick off the shelves, and if the library is nextlevel, it is equipped with a café where humans can interact using the protocol ”language”.

Once you study one of the interfaces closely, you can find even more interfaces. The library catalogue is programmed with lines of code that interact with computer hardware, which in turn synchronizes data via the network interface. The books in the shelves are usually in the standard ink-on-paper GUI, with exception of tactile alphabets and audio books. And the café interface of interacting humans may be configured to promote people sitting together, excluding perhaps certain people by adjusting the price of coffee, etc.

Interfaces are always created with a certain degree of plasticity, so that they are able to go beyond a single-purpose link. The USB-port is able to talk to thousands of devices, linked in a serial fashion. The Tahrir square is able to host millions of people overthrowing a dictator, and my notebook allows me to scribble down text in all languages, and as a bonus feature I can draw pictures, diagrams and funny cats.

But the plasticity is always conditioned and configurable. My firewall prevents malicious code from entering my network interface, the electronic gates of the library tries to stop book-thieves, and by using academic jargon in the pub, I can in a very unsympathetic way exclude people from entering a conversation.

But on a philosophical level there is a more profound feature of interfaces. They seem to interdefine sensible objects. With a few keystrokes on my command line interface I can turn an old half-wrecked computer into a web server, that can be reached and interacted with over the internet. By hanging out in cafés talking about cool clothing, aesthetics and trendy cigarettes, I can turn myself into a hipster, and by reconfiguring a street with concrete barriers the local municipality can change the identity of a noisy traffic-saturated street to a posh walk for window-shoppers (gentrification).

These are only a few preliminary thoughts on the roles of interfaces and objects. Perhaps more will follow another day.

9 svar på “Why technological concepts are smarter than sociological ones; interfaces I”

  1. I think you omitted the power/hegemony aspects of interfaces. Who decides the rules, who retains the easy implementation on the own side, and dumps the hard on ”the other”? Is it efficient when all aspects are considered – entropy on the outside always increases more than it can be diminished on the inside of any system.

    This horrendous swedish word ”operatörsansvar” contains it all. Those powerful enough to define the interface standard leave for ”the others” and for all third parties to take the costs and damages on the other side that the clean and easy to implement rules on the hegemonic side incurs.

  2. Viktualiebrodern: It is my intent not to use such words as power or hegemony, precisely because interfaces are power. This is a very important principle of object-oriented ”immanence” of sorts.

    Power does not exist outside interfaces or assemblages, there is no power pre-dating the actual things that surrounds us. Power is made through very concrete things. A highway excludes people that do not own a car, and make them dependent on public transportation, expenisve apartments create homeless people and the petit bourgeois bars along the main street exclude people wearing sneakers. This is all power and ”hegemony”, but these aspects do not pre-date the objects, interfaces and assemblages. Instead of asking for something a priori to the real world, we need to examine in detail how the world is assembled.

  3. Interfaces are indeed an underapplied concept that has a lot to give. But bringing up interfaces and objects seems to beg the mention of object-oriented programming languages. You mention the plasticity of the USB port as an example. A defining feature of OOP is polymorphism enabled by compatible interfaces, which is an extension of that idea: objects that occupy a given role need not be of the same kind, but by exposing identical or compatible interfaces (according to some set of rules) they become interchangeable.
    In OOP, the interface is a predefined interpretation of what it encloses, encapsulates. The existence of a predefined interpretation enables plasticity, the rapid erection and disassembly of structures.
    But the price of that plasticity is that sometimes (most of the time?) we are unable to get behind the interface, the predefined interpretation. Hardware can be hacked if you have the right tools, but in software, objects typically cannot peer behind other objects’ interfaces to see what is there.

    I’m not sure what you mean when you say that philosophically, interfaces can redefine objects, but in the OOP world, your examples make me think of traits or ”mixins”, little additions to an object that extend its interface and enable it to serve new purposes.

    Extremely interesting analogies!

  4. Interesting!! Could interface be part of an occasionalism? I am trying to develop an occasionalism with concepts like translation, intervention, resistance and resonance.

    Black box is too much container, and something hidden behind or inside, for me. Maybe one can save Latour’s idea with black boxes using Deleuze’s camouflage (not behind a camouflage but making itself invisible like many animals). What is invisible could then be on the outside (relations, connections, interfaces, parts, subroutines, thinking, conversations, organizing) rather than behind or inside.

  5. Per: I think so, yes. One very important feature of an interface is to translate (in Latour/Serres sense) between objects. Your brain can not process binary data, so we invent a graphical user interface with nice windows, buttons and mouseclicks to translate between the human and the computer. Then we arrive at a human-computer assemblage.

    You are right that blackboxing is a way of thinking ”containers”. But I still want to preserve the concept, because without withdrawal, without ”hiding”, we can never get any work done. If I were to ”see” or realize all the complex aspects of the computer I am using right now, I would never be able to write this comment. The computer-human assemblage only functions if both the human and the computer can withdraw, and extract only a few translations. I type on the keyboard, something appears on the screen, I press a button, and a comment is made. For the human-computer assemblage, the drivers of the keyboard, the IP-protocol, the WordPress software etc. are withdrawn to objects yet fully active and at work.

    But I also like ”camouflage”. But I’m not sure there is an inside/outside distinction. What is hidden to me, may be thought of as outside me. But that outside is extremely inside for another object, or set of objects. When I press ”Post Comment” on the button below, I activate a writing to a MySQL-database, which resides deep in a server hall in Stockholm somewhere. That computer, and that very event is dislocated from me in space. I never see it. Except when it breaks down, because then I have to login to the machine and try to find the error, then patch it and fix it. But as long as it just works, it is hidden to me. Yet, there would not be a comment posted unless it worked flawlessly.

    Withdrawing, camouflageing, hiding, does not mean falling out of the world. In a sense it is what is most hidden from us in our everyday lives, that is what is functioning at its very best.

    This is why it is important to intervene and enter situations of resistance in what appears to be camouflaged. For example, the most well functioning power relations are those that are camouflaged from our attention.

  6. Christopher: ”Withdrawing, camouflageing, hiding, does not mean falling out of the world. In a sense it is what is most hidden from us in our everyday lives, that is what is functioning at its very best.”

    I agree with you, but I am not sure the concept black box does (agree with you). I think Harman might be reproducing solipsism, but for objects. And the black box is maybe dragging Latour into that corner of mystification too. We have to find ways to save this important insight from Latour and Heidegger, but not recreate a new mysticism.

    In salsa both dancers, both objects, have to forget both one’s own and the other ones moves. Never watch the feet, not your own, not the other ones. You will lose the beat. The feedback will create an information overload.

    In hammering, the hammer can’t rely on information or feedbacks every second, it would take too much energy, it would not be much hammering. It has to get into some kind of resonance, minimizing information and energy, get into a dance with the carpenter.

    I still think camouflage might be a better concept than the black box. But the problem with camouflage is that it is saying that one is hiding from the other. The hiding, or blocking information, is a way to relate, to be able to dance together. It might be even more important to hide from yourselves. Every relation, every object, will be too complex for itself to be able to dance or dance with others.

    So I guess I am looking for a better word than camouflage. Anyone?

  7. Per: Indeed. There is no need for mysticism, if there is nothing mysterious about it.

    As you said, we need to forget to get things done. We need to forget about our feet while dancing salsa, and we need to forget our fingers when typing fast on a keyboard.

    But, this withdrawal of the feet and the fingers is only functional, not mystical. It is neither something hidden nor camouflaged, it is in a sense pragmatic. For the dance to emerge, or the sentences to appear on the screen, a function of the floor-feet- leg-assemblage or the eyes-brain-finger-keyboard-assemblage is to reduce complexity, make flows go in a certain direction and not in a thousand other ones.

    When I drive a car, I do not think of the minute details of the road. However, if I stop the car and look really closely on the road, I will find a texture of asphalt, some paint, perhaps even a few insects. The road as an object has many sensible interfaces, one of them being a firm ground for rubber tires, another one for little bugs and insects, another interface is directed at the sun, changing physical properties as the heat changes. The crucial point is that none of these interfaces are hidden, they are merely hidden to me driving a car.

    When we interact with other people, we always need to ”hide” from ourselves. If all my desires, beliefs and affections were to erupt simultaneously, I would be a lunatic. But here again, there is nothing mysterious, subconscious or sublimed at work. It is only a matter of speed, distance and selection, just like the road withdraws from my attention when driving 90 km/h on the road to Borås.


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