Interfaces of the Word

The designer James Macanufo once said that if paper didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it. Paper, inscribed with writing and then with printing, enabled recorded history. Media theorist Friedrich Kittler once wrote that print held a “monopoly on the storage of serial data.” Even as writing represents a locking down of knowledge, one of “sequestration, interposition, diaeresis or division, alienation, and closed fields or systems,” Walter Ong pointed out that it also represents liberation, a system of access where none existed before. After all, we only write things down in order to enable the possibility of referring to them later.

Herbert Bayer, “Diagram of the Field of Vision” (1930).

People would make fun of you if you were working on software for communicating with the dead even though that’s half the purpose of writing. — @mathpunk, November 1, 2014

“Written genres,” Lisa Gitelman writes in her book, Paper Knowledge, “depend on a possibly infinite number of things that large groups of people recognize, will recognize, or have recognized that writings can be for. To wit, documents are for knowing-showing.” This “knowing-showing” is the liberation aspect of writing and printing, the enabling of access. She continues, “[J]ob printers facilitate or ensure the pure exchange function. That is, they ensure value that exists in and only because of exchange, exchangeability, and circulation.”

“Digital documents… have no edges,” she adds. A “document” in digital space is only metaphorically so. Every form of media is the same at the digital level. Just as genres of writing emerge from discursive fields according to the shared knowledge of readers, “the ways they have been internalized by members of a shared culture,” digital documents are arranged in recognizable forms on the screen. The underlying mechanisms doing the arranging remain largely hidden from us as users, what Alex Galloway calls “the interface effect.” It’s kind of like using genre as a way to parse massive amounts of text, as a different way to organize and understand writing.

Rita Raley outlines what she calls “TXTual Practice” in her chapter in Comparative Textual Media, describing screen-based, “born-digital” works as unstable, “not texts but text effects.” Her essay moves away from viewing the digital document and other such contrivances as metaphors and toward employing Galloway’s interface effect. Galloway’s view casts the old argument of interfaces becoming transparent and “getting out of the way” in a bright and harsh new light, writing that their “operability engenders inoperability.”

Yet another book on the topic, Lori Emerson’s Reading Writing Interfaces, takes on the “invisible, imperceptible, inoperable” interface, starting with ubiquitous computing. Once our devices obsolesce into general use, “those transparent devices that achieve more the less they do,” as Galloway puts it, they escape everyday criticism. The interface stuff hides in those edges that aren’t really there. The words I write now float and flicker on a screen in a conceptual space I barely understand. Emerson cites the mass seduction of the Macintosh computer interface and the activist digital media poetics that critique that seduction.

If paper didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it. Would anyone say the same for the screen?


Emerson, Lori, Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2014.

Galloway, Alexander R., The Interface Effect, Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2013.

Gitelman, Lisa, Paper Knowledge: Toward a Media History of Documents, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014.

Raley, Rita, TXTual Practice. In, N. Katherine Hayles & Jessica Pressman (Eds.), Comparative Textual Media: Transforming the Humanities in the Postprint Era (pp. 183-197), Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.

Kittler, Friedrich A., Discourse Networks: 1800/1900, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990.

Lupton, Ellen (Ed.), Type on Screen: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Developers, and Students, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2014.

Ong, Walter J., Interfaces of the Word: Studies in the Evolution of Consciousness and Culture, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1977.