Review of The Metainterface: The Art of Platforms, Cities, and Clouds | Leonardo/ISAST

Review of The Metainterface: The Art of Platforms, Cities, and Clouds

The Metainterface: The Art of Platforms, Cities, and Clouds
Christian Ulrik Andersen and Søren Bro Pold

The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2018
248 pp., illus. 39 b/w. Trade, $30.00
ISBN: 9780262037945.

Reviewed by
Andrew Prior
September 2018

The Metainterface examines interface aesthetics and culture, explored through a framework of art practice – particularly net art, software art and electronic literature. Anderson and Pold use the central concept of the ‘metainterface’ to designate “a situation where the computer’s interface seemingly both becomes omnipresent and invisible, and where it at once is embedded in everyday objects and characterized by hidden exchanges of information between objects” (p. 5). The authors are not new to this field and have been developing an approach to interface criticism for some years, including editing the fascinating Interface Criticism: Aesthetics Beyond the Buttons (2011). What is new here is the emphasis on the omnipresence, invisibility, and algorithmic power of interfaces, which have become so densely interconnected as to represent a marked change in our environment and culture. Going beyond an emphasis on graphical user interfaces, the metainterface refers to a multi-layered media ecology that includes, for example, the internet of things, cloud computing, smart cities, the proliferation of tablets, smartphones or wearable media such as the Fitbit or iPhone and so on. Such convergence is extremely powerful, yet also utterly banal: the rhetoric of smart citizenship and interface culture has been thoroughly accepted and assimilated (what city wouldn’t want to describe itself as “smart”?), yet because of its centrality, the assumptions of the metainterface become hidden and therefore all the more important to question.

The first chapter, Interface Criticism, makes a case for both the importance of interface criticism itself, as well as the veracity of art-practice to provide a space for reflection, critique and action. Indeed, the whole book is structured around a series of carefully curated artworks (from software art and film, to photography and poetry) and the analysis of these, which are used to pick up on key issues involved in the metainterfaces. The chapter continues by developing important methodological points on the book’s approach to interface criticism which emphasises not only aesthetic issues, but also the relationship between signs and signals; computers as symbolic processing machines; the formalization of labor into code; and the embedding of ideology within code, graphical user interfaces and software, in such a way that ideology is hidden-in-plain-sight. This discussion is used outline both the currency and the general conditions of the metainterface, in preparation for the more particular examples explored in subsequent chapters.

The Metainterface Industry explores the industry that has grown around the metainterface, in particular arguing that monitoring and datafication have become a new mode of production and exploring ways in which this new industry is challenging, exposing and superseding the established ‘cultural industries’. Indeed, the concept of a metainterface industry draws specifically, though not uncritically, on Adorno and Horkheimer’s ‘culture industry’. Anderson and Pold argue that while the predefined, sameness of a mass-culture industry may look very different to the flexibility and personalization of the metainterface, users are nevertheless enrolled into the modes of the production of the metainterface industry: ‘The metainterface immediately looks flexible, open and smart to users. Never has so much cultural content been so readily available, on so many cultural platforms, but the amazing efficiency of the new metainterface industry comes at the expense of monitoring, control, and strict licensing’ (p.76). Following Benjamin, Steigler, and others, they also note the shortcomings of Adorno and Horkheimer’s totalizing logic and failure to account for the positive aspects of media and technology, discussing a number of artworks that can train our interface literacy, and are able to do so not because artists, ‘have better insights into society and politics. Rather, it is because artistic production can be a material exploration of its own technological means of production […]’ (p78).

In The Urban Metainterface: Territorial Interfaces, Anderson and Pold consider the city as a text (the semiotization of space) and the far-reaching implications of an environment in which signification, data and processing are densely entangled – and indeed, often orchestrated to encourage what Henri Lefebvre described as ‘controlled consumption’ (p 91).  While there is a long tradition of reading city structures or the communications and signage within cities (the panorama, diorama, billboards and so on), the shift to networked, digital infrastructure significantly changes the reading and writing of the city. In particular, Anderson and Pold chart the progression from optically mediated power structures (for example, the panopticon and spectacle), to an algorithmic gaze. The shift to smart technologies makes the city malleable: ‘with Airbnb, any apartment in the city holds the invisible potential of a bed and breakfast; with Uber, any car can become a taxi and any person its driver. […] Theoretically, anything can signify anything. All one needs to decode and access the city is the right interface’ (p 83). Yet, this shift makes it increasingly difficult to read the city, involving as it does organizing principles that ‘easily [evade] attention, but nevertheless structures perceptions and understandings of the city’ (90). Anderson and Pold point to artworks like London.pl (2002) by Graham Harwood and Spoken Streets (2015) by Clara Boj and Diego Diaz, as examples that reveal the unconscious grammar of the city through their weaving together of signs and scripts.

The concept of cloud computing epitomises much the underlying logic of the metainterface as a highly interconnected, global phenomenon that also hides much of its infrastructure, appearing as nothing more material than a cloud. The ramifications of The Cloud Interface are explored in Chapter 4, focusing in particular on politics in a globalised world mediating by network technologies – through projects like Shelley Jackson’s (2014) Snow—A Story in Progress, or Tantalum Memorial (2008) by YoHa and Richard Wright: ‘a memorial to the more than 4 million victims of the Congolese Coltan Wars (p134). Anderson and Pold explore the ways in which the cloud interface—which includes commercial and national standardisation—changes sense perception, warping spatial and temporal experience, but also creating a phantasmagoria that, ‘hides its origins, and in this sense, the cloud, and the cloud’s metainterface can also be seen as a disguise of capitalism that operates on the level of social and collective dreams’ (p138).

The fifth and concluding chapter seeks to develop Interface Criticism by Design by “speculat[ing] on the potential of applying a critical perspective in interface design, and how to actively relate to and reflect the fissures of production in interface design” (p. 9). The authors contextualize their approach through building on, and critiquing, participatory and critical design practices. For Anderson and Pold, the shift from interface to metainterface requires a concomitant shift from the design of tools to the apparatus around the tool: the environment, the communities, recursive publics and so on. Given the book’s focus on the clouded nature of the metainterface—its intangibility, complexity and black-boxed character—it is unsurprising that their suggestions focus on ‘reflecting the realities produced by the metainterface’ (p160). In part, this is about revealing the underlying characteristics of the metainterface, but interestingly the authors challenge the ‘understanding of critical theory as a mode of contemplation’, by simultaneously proposing interface critique as a practice (p182).

Accordingly, two key projects presented in the final chapter are by the authors themselves, and these practice-based explorations are used to enact (and discuss) interface criticism by design.

In all this is a fascinating book, full of examples of software art, film, photography and other media arts practice, that skillfully develops a materially, socially and politically grounded critique of interface culture. This is an erudite piece of scholarship that will make a lasting contribution to interface criticism, and sheds light on an increasingly central aspect of day-to-day life.