The Next Level: Alexander R. Galloway’s “The Interface Effect”
By Patrick JagodaJanuary 25, 2013
The Interface Effect by Alexander R. Galloway
“MEDIA DETERMINE OUR SITUATION,” the late German media theorist Friedrich Kittler observed at the beginning of his 1986 book Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. What Kittler meant by this pronouncement is that media such as radio, cinema, and television change our sense of space, time, and social relationships; they condition human experiences and perceptions. In the 1940s, in the midst of cryptographic warfare and the construction of the first digital, program-driven computers, it might have still been possible to take stock of the global media “situation,” Kittler suggested; by the mid-1980s, however, he found himself writing from within an oblique media environment.
From our own perspective at the beginning of 2013, the global situation (especially as it is experienced by many people living in the First World) may seem more mediated than ever. With the advent of the World Wide Web in the 1990s and the proliferation of mobile devices since the turn of the 21st century, we have experienced extraordinary transformations in the frequency, speed, scale, and quality of human communication. More and more, our daily lives are structured by emails, message boards, texts, instant messages, video conferences, social networking sites, and screen-based entertainments. According to 2012 estimates, Facebook has now reached more than one billion active members, the Internet is nearing 2.5 billion users, and worldwide cell phone subscriptions have exceeded the six billion mark. Once the tools of fringe communities and wealthy institutions, digital and mobile media now take a central, even infrastructural, role in shaping an increasingly informatic society.
For many Americans, then, a great deal of contemporary life is mediated by interfaces, including laptop, smartphone, and television screens. That this perpetual mediation so often goes unexamined speaks to the importance of Alexander R. Galloway’s new monograph The Interface Effect. Galloway’s ambitious book aspires to be not only a theory of interfaces but also a broader rethinking of the field of “new media studies,” an academic discipline with precursors in the media theories of Marshall McLuhan and Raymond Williams in the 1960s that emerged properly with scholarship produced alongside the rise of web culture of the 1990s. In recent years, new media scholars have focused on topics such as software (Lev Manovich, Matthew Fuller), hardware (Friedrich Kittler, Wendy Hui Kyong Chun), new forms of social interaction (Geert Lovink, Sherry Turkle), information networks (Tiziana Terranova, Eugene Thacker), digital technologies and human affects (Mark Hansen, Jodi Dean), development platforms (Ian Bogost, Nick Montfort), and the emergence of electronic literature and new digital art forms (Katherine Hayles, Henry Jenkins). Galloway has made important contributions to a number of these conversations with previous books about the politics of code and digital media (Protocol), computer networks (The Exploit, cowritten with Thacker), and videogames (Gaming). The Interface Effect returns to all of these areas while also analyzing other topics, such as the relationship between software and ideology, the aesthetics of information visualizations, and the “gold farming” phenomenon that has influenced the cultures of massively multiplayer online games.
As its title suggests, Galloway’s newest book concerns media interfaces. To its credit, it provides neither a formal definition nor an exhaustive taxonomy of this concept. An interface, Galloway argues, is not a stable object; it is a multiplicity of processes. In other words, an interface is not merely a laptop LCD or a television screen. It is not the Windows 8 operating system or Mac OS X. It is not a hypermediated heads-up display of the contemporary videogame with its myriad forms of information (health levels, map position, speed, time, messaging options, and so on). Galloway mentions many such objects in The Interface Effect, but does not dwell on them. In the first place, he observes, media studies scholars have too often privileged screens and displays. This disproportionate focus on visual interfaces ignores other critical objects, such as “nonoptical interfaces (keyboard, mouse, controller, sensor); data in memory and data on disk; executable algorithms; networking technologies and protocols; and the list continues.”
But it’s not merely that media studies has been focusing on the wrong objects; it goes wrong, Galloway claims, by sticking to the matter and form of objects at all. An interface, for Galloway, is “not a thing”; it is “always an effect” — a technique of mediation or interaction. The conceptual move here departs from the object-centered approach taken by critics such as McLuhan, for whom media objects are technological extensions of the human body; and his position differs, too, from Kittler’s contention that media objects carry their own technical logics that only intersect obliquely and occasionally with human perceptions. Galloway draws from a different philosophical tradition, including thinkers such as Martin Heidegger, which “views techne as technique, art, habitus, ethos, or lived practice.” In this view, media are not “objects or substrates” but rather “practices of mediation.” While his approach risks casting too wide a net (what, we might ask, is not mediation?), it also promotes a form of thought that is open to ongoing interactions that unfold in complex systems. Thus, Galloway’s method shifts attention from stable interface objects to dynamic interface processes. A computer, from this perspective, is no longer a media machine that standardizes and absorbs all other media, including print texts, audio recordings, films, and games; it is a process of translation among different states.
Galloway’s characterization of interfaces as processes has numerous implications for his broader approach to new media studies. The Interface Effect builds on the work of Marxist critical theorists such as Fredric Jameson, new media scholars such as Wendy Chun, and Galloway’s own work in earlier books such as Protocol. Galloway juxtaposes his distinctly political method with the one Lev Manovich adopts in his groundbreaking text The Language of New Media (2001). “Manovich’s strength,” Galloway observes, “lies in the description of digital technologies as poetic and aesthetic objects”; he is particularly interested in formal innovations of new media (defining, for instance, what he sees as the five fundamental aesthetic properties of digital technology: numeric representation, modularity, automation, variability, and transcoding). In place of this formalist focus on the “poetics” of new media, Galloway prefers a more political and historical method. For him, the limitation of Manovich’s approach — which, despite maintaining some historical dimensions, often treats new media as aesthetic objects that have essential qualities — is that it obscures the contingencies of how people actually discuss, develop, and use new media in concrete practices.
The Interface Effect proposes a different approach to new media. “[D]igital media ask a question,” Galloway writes, “to which political interpretation is the only coherent answer.” If politics — understood broadly to include the organization of a common world not only through state governance but also in relations among actors within families, work environments, oppositional movements, and other social forms — is in large part a question of mediation, then the study of new media cannot ever be primarily formalist or apolitical. Digital environments, from social media sites to virtual worlds to video conferencing spaces, both enable and limit different kinds of political encounters. For example, in recent years, commentators from Evgeny Morozov and Malcolm Gladwell to Michael Hardt, and Antonio Negri (to name just a few) have addressed the use of Twitter and Facebook in revolutionary situations. Some critics have argued that the effects of social media in Moldova in 2009, Egypt in 2011, or the United States during the ongoing Occupy Movement have been overstated for a variety of strategic reasons. Other critics have praised the ways that networked media have, in these same situations, emphasized interconnection and promoted collaboration as a technique of contemporary political action. In any case, as Galloway’s statement emphasizes, political interpretation is unavoidable, even fundamental, to discussions of the concrete uses of new media. Political discussions of digital technologies and cultures remain urgent, especially in a historical moment when some of the discourse surrounding new media studies and promoting the Digital Humanities remains untenably utopian, frequently inflated, and insufficiently critical of the ideologies of data.
How, then, does Galloway’s notion of “the interface effect” promote a politically oriented form of new media studies? An interface, for him, becomes a technique for thought: an “allegorical device” that makes the social world accessible in an age of information. We are accustomed to thinking of an interface as a user-friendly surface that hides the depths of code; for Galloway, though, it serves a way of thinking in terms of interpenetrating “levels” or “layers.” Let’s take the example of the heads-up display for the Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game World of Warcraft, which Galloway mentions in his chapter “The Unworkable Interface.” World of Warcraft is a fantasy-themed virtual world that, at its most popular moment, claimed a community of approximately 12 million monthly subscribers who inhabited its space for an average of 20 to 30 hours a week. While it is often called a “game,” World of Warcraft is more properly a nonlinear world that contains within itself numerous games, objectives, and activities. Amidst other pleasures, such as role-playing, narrative exposition, and commerce, this world promotes a competitive process of “leveling up” which players (as individual characters and organized “guilds”) pursue through ludic quests.
World of Warcraft could certainly be interpreted as a popular digital entertainment, or a software object. But, for Galloway, it is something more. An allegorical approach suggests multiple political processes at work in this digital environment. Earlier cultural forms such as novels or films can be said to reveal a world and, to varying degrees, to immerse an audience within it. Instead of exposing or unveiling, World of Warcraft does something else. It simulates worlds. As Galloway observes:
In contrast to the cinema, in order to be in a relation with the world informatically, one must erase the world, subjecting it to various forms of manipulation, preemption, modeling and synthetic transformation. The computer takes our own superlative power over worlds as the condition of possibility for the creation of worlds. Our intense investment in worlds — our acute fact finding, our scanning and data mining, our spidering and extracting — is the precondition for how worlds are revealed. The promise is not one of revealing something as it is, but in simulating a thing so effectively that “what it is” becomes less and less necessary to speak about, not because it is gone for good, but because we have perfected a language for it.
Instead of knowing a world, designers and players of World of Warcraft form a world through software expansions, ludic actions, and networked interactions. These processes are part of the reason Galloway contends that, unlike cinema, the computer cannot be considered through the philosophical category of “ontology” and approached at the level of sensory experience. Instead, the computer is “an ethic” that can only be analyzed through human and machinic actions, processes, and effects. Through virtual worlds such as World of Warcraft, we see the decline of “ideology” in Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser’s sense of “an imaginary relationship to real conditions.” In place of an older category of ideology, we now have a process of computer modeling that, in Galloway’s phrase, offers us something we might call simulation: “an ideological relationship to ideological conditions.”
The interface effects of World of Warcraft help us grasp this move from ideology to simulation (and from ontology to ethics) in more concrete terms. For example, the screen image with which the World of Warcraft player interacts tells us something about the political form of a computer-generated world.
The game’s changing image is not an interface in the sense of a “window” or a “screen” that transports a player into a fictional world. Certainly, the image includes the beautifully rendered fantasy world of Azeroth with its orcs and draenei, its enchanted forests and treacherous caves. However, as Galloway observes, there is also the “thin, two-dimensional overlay containing icons, text, progress bars, and numbers.” Immediacy and hypermediacy exist side-by-side. They also interact through the game’s actions and objectives.
The importance of this 2D heads-up display, and its relationship to the 3D fantasy world, suggests a distinctly contemporary politics: namely, the interplay of layers foregrounds the centrality of information-oriented labor in the early 21st century. As Galloway concludes, World of Warcraft is “not simply a fantasy landscape of dragons and epic weapons but a factory floor, an information-age sweatshop, custom tailored in every detail for cooperative ludic labor.” The centrality of information processing, at the level of the display, repeats at the level of gameplay and mechanics. The process of “leveling up” an avatar by accumulating “experience points” requires players to engage in repetitive and often addictive mechanics — a form of activity that the game industry aptly calls “grinding.” Galloway’s analysis thus treats interfaces as processes through which players engage with a social world — a media “situation” in Kittler’s sense — that in many ways exceeds human understanding.
Many of the interfaces Galloway considers in The Interface Effect — Norman Rockwell’s “Triple Self-Portrait,” HyperText Markup Language, visualizations of the Internet, Frank Gehry’s Stata Center, and the Fox television series 24 among them — operate as mediations of what the philosopher Gilles Deleuze has called “societies of control.” Since this concept is central to Galloway’s argument, and raises a number of important questions and implications, it deserves a brief explanation. In a short essay first published in 1990, Deleuze developed the notion of “societies of control” as an elaboration on Michel Foucault’s earlier idea of “disciplinary societies.” In Discipline and Punish (1975), Foucault posited that the 18th century brought with it a new form of power that became visible in all types of institutions and sites of confinement, including the school, the factory, the psychiatric institution, the hospital, the army barrack, and the prison. The form of power that emerged in this period was no longer based on the older model of top-down sovereignty. Without losing its older repressive character altogether, power grew increasingly productive of new forms of life. Power became distributed across institutions and turned inwards, transforming into a kind of self-supervision.
Deleuze’s insight is that, following World War II, another major historical shift in power took place, giving rise to a shift from “discipline” to what he calls “control.” Unlike earlier sovereignty or institutional discipline, control took place not in molds or confined sites but rather in modulations or dynamic networks. The shift from disciplinary to control societies has entailed many transformations: from factories to multinational corporations, from the discrete material labor of industrialism to the flexible information labor of Post-Fordism, from singular signatures to passwords, from uniform consumption to the monetization of diverse affects, from a separation of work and leisure time to a perpetual blurring of these domains, and so on. “One of the key consequences of the control society,” Galloway observes, “is that we have moved from a condition in which singular machines produce proliferations of images, into a condition in which multitudes of machines produce singular images” (italics his). This shift, to put it in more concrete media terms, can be traced in the transition from cinema to Wikipedia: from auteur production to crowdsourcing. To return for a moment to the example of WoW, a player of this game belongs precisely to a control (rather than a disciplinary) society insofar as she creates content, scans and sorts information, manages guilds, and laboriously grinds her way to more experience points.
To be sure, digital media have by no means caused or determined the shifts in social, economic, and political life represented by “societies of control,” but they have co-emerged with them. Technological processes and interface effects thus provide optimal means for making sense of the complex political situation in which we find ourselves today. This analytical effort is one to which The Interface Effect, through a series of careful close readings and compelling philosophical reflections, makes a significant contribution. One of the intriguing propositions that Galloway puts forward is that “we do not yet have a critical or poetic language in which to represent the control society.” The violence and excess of the disciplinary society, with its institutions and confined sites, has long since been rendered aesthetically. We see the methods of disciplinary societies, for instance, in Foucault’s own description of the architecture of the 18th-century Panopticon prison or, more recently, in the infamous photographs from Abu Ghraib. However, Galloway contends, the dynamics of the contemporary control society and its distributed information networks have not been captured in comparable detail. They remain, at least for the time being, unrepresented and “unrepresentable.” Galloway suggests the extreme difficulty of representing the informatic present in many ways. One compelling example concerns information visualizations.
Such visualizations, he argues, remain aesthetically uniform. These maps consistently take on the familiar node and link structures of networks, regardless of whether they are mapping the Internet, neural networks, finance systems, or representations of global viral transmission.
Though I find Galloway’s observations persuasive, I found myself asking, as I read The Interface Effect, whether the control society and the networked present have, in fact, remained completely unrepresentable to date. Contemporary literature and popular forms have engaged extensively in what I have elsewhere called “network aesthetics.” For example, we see representations and intensifications of the control society in novels such as Don DeLillo’s Underworld, films such as Stephen Gaghan’s film Syriana, and television shows such as David Simon’s The Wire. Galloway himself mentions attempts at information visualization, such as Gehry’s Stata Center or the “glitch art” of the Jodi collective, that depart from the predictable network maps, but he finds them less engaged, at an algorithmic level, with the qualities of an informatic era. Though I share Galloway’s wariness about the uniformity of contemporary network poetics, I would also posit that a number of contemporary art pieces have started to offer substantive and varied responses to Deleuze’s societies of control. These works — which include a variety of procedurally-rich digital game experiments with networks (thatgamecompany’s videogame Journey), affect (Jordan Magnuson’s “notgame” Loneliness), information (a variety of transmedia Alternate Reality Games, including my own Speculation, codesigned with Katherine Hayles and Patrick LeMieux), and the types of subjects produced social media and their interfaces (Ian Bogost’s satirical Cow Clicker) — have exceeded the limits of the all-too-common information visualizations that Galloway discusses. Nevertheless, even with these emerging counter-examples, Galloway’s central point remains convincing: it is difficult to find an aesthetic alternative to today’s dominant realization of the information network.
The Interface Effect raises many critical questions about the ways that contemporary human beings mediate a historical present that invariably eludes us. The book also meditates, intensely and extensively, on methods through which we might access that present. Despite a widespread movement by many scholars in recent years away from critical traditions inaugurated by Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, Galloway insists on the continued usefulness of these earlier theories for understanding our hypermediated moment. We live in a historical period, after all, that is characterized by the assumption and celebration of newness. (This apotheosis of novelty is, in fact, apparent in the very disciplinary formation, and the name, of “new media studies.”) In response to this neophilic culture, Galloway argues that “new methodologies of scanning, playing, sampling, parsing, and recombining” may be less radical than a return to older critical theories. In my own thought, writing, and design practices, I maintain a sense that valuable insights can still emerge from a spirit of play, despite its unquestionable incorporation, in recent years, into what Galloway calls “ludic capitalism” or the “play economy.” I see promising forms of critical play available, for instance, in the work of serious game designers (and theorists) such as Mary Flangan, Gonzalo Frasca, and Jason Rohrer. Nevertheless, Marxism and psychoanalysis prove extremely revealing, in Galloway’s expert usage, for the ways they expose the variable ideologies inherent in new media processes. The interface effects that he traces also suggest, importantly, that ideology is itself a kind of conceptual interface — an open-ended problematic rather than a problem to be solved.
Galloway ends his book on new media with a fascinating proclamation: “No politics can be derived today from a theory of the new.” This conclusion may be surprising in that he does, after all, identify something “new” about digital media: they are an “ethic” and not, like the older form of cinema, an “ontology.” Nevertheless, the newness of the digital is not critical to Galloway. Newness remains a logic of market accumulation, not rejuvenation. Thus, Galloway’s provocation is this: “The world does not need new ideas. The challenge is simply to realize what we already know to be true.” Whether or not Galloway’s readers accept this challenge, they will have to take seriously the questions he raises about today’s digital class, which does not merely consume but communicates, generates content, games, remixes, and mods, ceaselessly. Does a critical response to an always-on world require disengagement? Does it call for active opposition? Does it suggest still more radical forms of play? And how, then — in a world made new and renewed, constantly, at the click of a key or the swipe of a finger, in real time — do we access and mediate our situation?
Patrick Jagoda is an assistant professor of English at the University of Chicago and a coeditor of Critical Inquiry. His scholarship examines how contemporary American fiction, film, television, and digital media aestheticize global networks (including terrorist networks, economic systems, and computer webs). He also works on several projects related to digital storytelling, transmedia game design, and new media learning.
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