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August, 2005

Looking Past the Interface

I've now written and deleted the start to this entry about ten times (I know it's cliched to start that way, but whatevs). I'm trying to write about the debate I got into over at Bokardo. Joshua Porter wrote this seemingly innocent paragraph:
You know you have trouble when people start calling something a “buzzword� and a lot of folks have been calling “Web 2.0″ a buzzword lately. I don’t think it is one, or rather I think that what it refers to is a real thing. If we end up calling it something else, that’s fine, but I believe that we’re seeing a huge shift right now: to the Era of Interfaces. (which may or may not be a buzzword in itself).
Of course, I wasn't going to let Josh get away that easy. So I asked:
Is it really an era of interfaces or is it an era of interface awareness? Maybe you’ve answered it elsewhere, but interfaces have existed for ages, we’ve just normally been content to let them fade to the background. What’s the big difference now?
Joshua was nice enough to engage my comment. He responded:
Noah, excellent question. I would definitely agree that whatever we are in has caused us to have more awareness of interfaces than before. In fact, awareness might be how you could define an era: what are people aware of? If it is interfaces, then we might be in an era of interfaces. You may have gotten close to what an era truly is…

We’ve had iron since the Iron Age, but there was only one Iron Age: a period of intense development when iron was the center of attention…perhaps we’re in an analogous age or era with interfaces.

Also, there was a tremendous amount of work done in the interface arena back in the 80’s during the PC revolution. I would say that the era we’re currently in is different from that because now we’ve added public programming interfaces, which allow for shared data, and thus allow interaction interfaces built on top of them that anybody can use. Quite a startling difference, I think, and that’s why I used “era of interfaces� to describe today’s environment.

Joshua raises some interesting points. What makes something an era? Is it that which we're most aware or that which has the largest impact? Was it the iron age because it was the center of attention or because it had the largest impact? Is there necessarily any difference between the two? Are you sleeping yet? With some of this in mind, I replied:
I’m not sure that an era is defined by awareness, I think an era is typically defined by the tool which makes the largest impact. It’s quite possible that with the massive amounts of data floating around and the ubiquitousness of digital technology that the digital interface could become the defining tool of a generation. On the other hand, mobile technology (the real stuff, not the laptops of today) may be a serious threat to the era title. Although interfaces may play a more important part than the tools (you could argue that for almost any age probably), mobile technology could end up overshadowing it in the future.
You know, the more of this entry I write, the less I think anyone else will be interested in it. But I digress. What I'm trying to get towards (slowly) is that what we are most aware of is not necessarily that which has the biggest impact. It's the medium/message thing again. What we notice is often not the effect but the cause. What's interesting in this case, however, is that I think Joshua is a bit ahead of his time (as usual) and has noted an effect as it shifts to a cause.

Let me explain (better): Most people would call this the digital era. Computers, mobile phones and iPods are everywhere. Data floats around the world at astounding speeds and we need ways to deal with the onslaught. Interface design is becoming increasingly important. People are starting to notice it with things like the iPod. However, if you asked them, the vast majority would most likely still talk about the device itself, or the ease of use, not the interface itself. As we move further into the future, however, these interfaces will further emerge, especially as the price of digital goods plunges. What will separate the good from the bad will increasingly be the interface that powers it rather than the device itself.

Add this to the interaction interfaces of Web 2.0 and you've got a lot of people thinking about their point of contact with their data. With that said, I'd like to raise another challenge, that requires looking further into the future. If, as Joshua and I have posited, the interface does take a more prominent role what becomes the effect of that? If interfaces are the medium, what's the message?

Mmmmmmmmmm . . . (Thanks for the conversation Joshua, and sorry for stealing all your comments and posting them, hope you don't mind.)

Update (8/4/05): I unlinked the word aware (from terrorism) and the word impact (from George W. Bush) because I'm not prepared to make that kind of political statement without any explanation. That's for another post at another time.

August 4, 2005
Noah Brier | Thanks for reading. | Don't fake the funk on a nasty dunk.