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Contemplating a Cathedral? Think of a Computer Icon


By Steven Johnson

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Harper Collins

272 pp., $24

If you ever wondered why the federal government is spending millions of dollars trying to get Microsoft not to put a particular icon on its Windows 95 desktop, and why Microsoft is spending millions in return for the right to do so, you'll want to read "Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate," by Stephen Johnson, the editor in chief of Feed Magazine (

It all has to do with the computer screen as a vestibule - in this case, the entryway to the new virtual world of cyberspace where time and distance evaporate into electronically communicated words and images. The possibilities in this new dimension are infinite.

Johnson argues, and does so quite convincingly, that the icon on a computer desktop is as important a symbolic entrance into another world as were, for instance, the great cathedrals of the Middle Ages.

Just as it was too difficult for many in the Middle Ages to "imagine heaven," and so saw these giant churches as a way to represent it in simple (if not enormous) human terms, so it's hard for many of us to image cyberspace. The simple icon takes on psychological import, evolving into a powerful symbol like a nation's flag, or even a religious object. It becomes the way for us to see an endless data space to which each computer gives us access.

Whoever controls these icons, the design of this interface, will exert enormous control and influence through symbolic means over much that takes place there. Like commerce, for instance. Which electronic storefront do surfers enter? This is why the government and Microsoft are fighting each other so hard.

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Displaying an impressive knowledge of literature, philosophy, architecture, and culture, Johnson shows how interface design is the legitimate successor of other artistic innovations that help societies understand new concepts. The icons on the desktop are merely the latest collection of symbols that we have chosen or invented to help us gain access to these other worlds.

These insights might lie dormant, however, if Johnson's writing were too technologically wooden. Happily, it's anything but. As a writer Johnson never overloads the reader with jargon. Meanwhile, he gives his readers credit for some intelligence about what these changes mean and assumes that if you're reading the book, you're interested in what is going on in the world around you.

If there is any flaw, it is that Johnson is probably overly optimistic about what will happen to society and culture as we learn to use this new interface. While he is quick to point out that new interfaces create new problems that we often struggle with for decades, he tends to assume that everything will work out all right in the end.

Perhaps it will. But with a writer of this depth and imagination, it would have been interesting to see him speculate more on the adverse effects of societies adapting to these new interfaces and technologies, and how we could prepare for them.

Ultimately, what Johnson is writing about is a new way of thinking. "Interface Culture" challenges us to look at this new paradigm with open eyes. That's because this new image is young enough that it is still possible to affect its design and purpose. Anyone who is interested in this task will find "Interface Culture" a necessary and useful guide.

* Tom Regan is the supervising online editor of e-Monitor.

How One Author Saw His Reflection in a Pixel

I can't imagine writing without a computer. Even jotting down a note with pen and paper feels strained.... I have to think about writing, think about it consciously as my hand scratches out the words on the page, think about the act itself.... Pen and paper feel profoundly different to me now - they have the air of an inferior technology about them, the sort of contraption well suited for jotting down a phone number, but not much beyond that.

So now I wonder: what force finally brought me over to the other side? what was it that finally allowed me to recognize myself in those bright pixels on the screen, to see those letterforms as real extensions of my thought? I wasn't totally aware of it at the time, of course, but I can now see that what drew me into the language-space on the screen was nothing less than interface design.

- From 'Interface Culture'

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