February 20, 2005

The Database Avant-Garde

Talk about flattering, Steven Johnson responds to my review of Interface Culture, taking minor issue with my characterization that there hasn't been a real emergence of an "interface avant-garde". And using his broad definition of the term "interface" he's clearly right.

If one is ooking at interface mainly from the perspective of information, as Johnson does, the broad definition is probably the best approach, if a bit confusing. If however we look at it from the perspective of the computer as a medium, I think a further articulation is warranted. Here we can use interface in its more traditional sense, as the inputs and outputs. In addition to interface we also have the database and the algorithm.

Now if we look on this level we can see that Johnson's examples of new interfaces for information (Google, Technorati, del.icio.us) actually are actually all actions on the database. The big exception is Google which has radically innovated on both the database and also on the algorithm. What we are seeing is not as much the formation of an interface avant-garde but more a database avant-garde. It all adds up to better access to information, improvements to Johnson's broad interface, but all done with out anything but minor improvements to the more traditional interface (which it should be noted is far larger then just the GUI). We may be interfacing better with our information, thanks mainly to our better databases, but the interfaces to our machines continue to limp along..

Posted by Abe at February 20, 2005 04:59 PM


Have you read Lev Manovich on this idea of database-as-medium?
http://time.arts.ucla.edu/AI_Society/manovich.html (probably excerpted from "The Language of New Media").

It occurs to me there's something here about the "avant-garde" of cheap mass personal storage (i.e. iPods) and the "playlist culture" Dan Hill and others have written about.

yeah, the whole database-algorithm-interface construction emerges from my reading of _Language of New Media_. He lays out all the elements, but ironically enough my critique is that he privileges the database to an absurd extent. I actually picked up _Interface Culture_ because I saw a deep need to reemphasize the interface. Manovich actually has a whole chapter on the interface, but it's not really about the interface as input output and more a historical reading of the evolution of the screen. Ultimately though I think its the algorithm that deserves the most attention..