Astronauts of Interface

Struggling to name a new field

A new community of researchers is mixing human computer interaction with complimentary ideas: with aspirations from utopian urban planning, with excitement about new types of creative community, and with post-consumption models of man/machine collaboration, for issuance.

They gather under strange banners: Tools for Thought, Computing and Humanity, CDG/HARC, Livable Media, Computer Utopias, the League of Considerate Inventors, and so on.

All these names are trying to articulate a hunch the group shares—to name why the work seems so important. But they don’t fit perfectly: Why emphasize thinking over feeling / moving / practicing together? Why stick with Engelbart’s focus on knowledge work now that interfaces mediate so much of our daily lives? And surely the rhetoric about knowing what’s best for humanity (or humans) could turn off our less hubristic friends?

I’d like to propose a new frame for what these researchers—I’m one of them—are doing: We are exploring alien interfaces and protocols.

We recognize that in the rush towards widgets kits / REPLs / newsfeeds / APIs / career programming / five star ratings / chat rooms / ecash / etc, other possibilities were found and forgotten, and whole worlds left unexplored. So now we are stuck here on Earth with a conventional set of interfaces and protocols, mostly motivated by business concerns or historical accidents.

But many of us are staring at the stars, hungry.

We know we need to go there and bring something back. It’s important because the interfaces we use to communicate with one another and with machines—they form a protocol and a network that defines what’s possible in a human life. This has been true with economic protocols, with social protocols, with legal protocols. It’s more true than ever with the protocols of intermediation.

Perhaps this kind of frame — that we are astronauts of interfaces — would open our movement to a wider variety of participants, would scale down the hubris, but would still offer a clear motive for bringing something powerful and transformative back down to Earth.

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