Interfaces

I’m sure this isn’t an original thought (so very, very few are), but it was novel enough to me that I needed to write it down…and that’s pretty much what a blog is designed for.

I’ve written and talked about how libraries need to become comfortable with the containers of our new digital content, as since we move into the future the containers (ereader, ipad, tablet) will be important to users. We already know, more or less, how to deal with content. I’ve also been thinking about the interfaces that we use to access this content, and it just hit me:

Print is the only example of a media where the User Interface, Content, and Container have been, historically, the same thing. With music and video, we are completely used to the container, the content, and the user interface each being distinct: we put a tape into a player, which we control with kn0bs or buttons, and the content itself is ethereal and amorphous. With print, until very recently, the content, container, and interface were all the same thing…a book, a magazine, a broadsheet, a newspaper. All are content, container, and interface wrapped into a single unit. This may point to one of the reasons that people seem to feel a deeper connection to print materials than to the 8mm film, or the cassette tape.

I’ve been thinking a lot about these distinctions between container, content, and interface….I think that these three concepts could inform the way that libraries conceptualize what we do, and maybe find better ways to do it.

6 thoughts on “Interfaces

  1. Print comes in a number of different interfaces and they were not as intuitive as people think. In pre-web days I used to work with new college students who had never seen a scholarly journal before and there were surprising points of confusion. Once you bind them it's a book and not a journal anymore, right? All those volumes of that journal on the shelf are copies of the same thing, right? But once they learned how it works, that same interface model repeats across thousands of different journals, with only minor variations (ToCs at the back of the issue? Freaks!) Today, each content provider gets to decide the best way to show the same kind of content, so lessons learned about interfaces aren't that generalizable even when it's exactly the same kind of content.

  2. Oh, I agree. I didn't say that print had GOOD interfaces. :-) It was more the general concept that the container (bound periodical) and the interface (TOC, etc) were the same object. One could argue, though, that there are instances where an interface (an index or controlled vocabulary list) would be a separate object from the actual content you cared about (the journal, or gov doc). But that's the exception to the situation, not the rule.

  3. While I agree that the interface and container are functionally equivalent in printed works, you definitely don't want to lump in content. Though, maybe I'm unclear on what you mean by content. If you are talking about content qua data (ink-on-paper symbols, combinations of pixels, etc.), then perhaps it would be better to describe the difference in terms of mediated vs. unmediated content, insofar as we have direct (perceptual) access to the content contained in a printed work, though we lack direct access (i.e., we need to decode the bits) to the content contained on a digital device. On the other hand, if by 'content' you are talking about meaning, then you're in McLuhan country and content is largely irrelevant. I'd vote the former.

  4. No, I'm definitely talking about mediated content…I've no desire to take the hardline McLuhan route. I think what I meant (and I've not given it a lot of deep philosophical thought) was something like this: Content is the information encoded that can be experienced by a sufficiently advanced intelligence and meaning or other forms of knowledge can be extracted from it. Some minor quibling about the “experienced” part because I'm not sure how I feel about machine-learning and such in this particular context. For example, with a book, I'm talking about the meaning of the words, the grammar, the experience in the head of decoding the raw text into story. With a video, the watching and experiencing of the moving pictures and sound and the integration of it into meaning.

    One could argue that a necessary part of the Content is the physical feel of the book itself, and I could probably find specific instances where that may be the case. But I don't think that's the rule, but the exception.

  5. (Sorry for the long-windedness…I tend to be talkative in the morning)You seem to be advocating both approaches, so I'm still a little confused…The choice in defining 'content' seems to be either (1) that by 'content' you mean the primary data transmitted by an information medium, or (2) that by 'content' you're referring to the semantic meaning encoded by the data. Whether the content is mediated or unmediated only really applies to the first definition. In the case of a print (unmediated) source, the data are well-formed bits of text that are directly perceived by the reader. In the case of an e-book (mediated), the data are floating-gate transistors of varying charges (or polarized magnetic particles) that need to be translated into text. This, I suppose, is the content=data approach, and the issue of translating the data into a human-readable form is the key distinctionOn the other hand, you seem to want to follow the second approach: a content=semantic meaning account wherein the content of a text is primarily decided by the propositions expressed by its constituent sentences. I think this is a pretty standard account of content and definitely worth pursuing. However, you certainly do not want to equate the medium or container with the propositional content: that's what McLuhan did (more precisely, McLuhan made a tremendous category mistake w/r/t the data/propositional content distinction). As to the physical feel of the book, I think it’s a matter of either aesthetic content or some sort of metadata. That is, the book itself can be seen as a datum that carries certain information over and above the information encoded in the printed text and this information is primarily aesthetic in nature. Likewise, a Kindle or iPad carries some informational content independent of the text-on-screen. But, in either case, the information encoded in the text is independent of the information encoded in the medium.In sum, the most significant difference between print and other media is in the means by which we access the data. As to the information, the container is largely irrelevant: Hamlet dies on an iPad in exactly the same way as he does in print.

  6. (Sorry for the long-windedness…I tend to be talkative in the morning)

    You seem to be advocating both approaches, so I'm still a little confused…
    The choice in defining 'content' seems to be either (1) that by 'content' you mean the primary data transmitted by an information medium, or (2) that by 'content' you're referring to the semantic meaning encoded by the data.

    Whether the content is mediated or unmediated only really applies to the first definition. In the case of a print (unmediated) source, the data are well-formed bits of text that are directly perceived by the reader. In the case of an e-book (mediated), the data are floating-gate transistors of varying charges (or polarized magnetic particles) that need to be translated into text. This, I suppose, is the content=data approach, and the issue of translating the data into a human-readable form is the key distinction

    On the other hand, you seem to want to follow the second approach: a content=semantic meaning account wherein the content of a text is primarily decided by the propositions expressed by its constituent sentences. I think this is a pretty standard account of content and definitely worth pursuing. However, you certainly do not want to equate the medium or container with the propositional content: that's what McLuhan did (more precisely, McLuhan made a tremendous category mistake w/r/t the data/propositional content distinction).

    As to the physical feel of the book, I think it’s a matter of either aesthetic content or some sort of metadata. That is, the book itself can be seen as a datum that carries certain information over and above the information encoded in the printed text and this information is primarily aesthetic in nature. Likewise, a Kindle or iPad carries some informational content independent of the text-on-screen. But, in either case, the information encoded in the text is independent of the information encoded in the medium.

    In sum, the most significant difference between print and other media is in the means by which we access the data. As to the information, the container is largely irrelevant: Hamlet dies on an iPad in exactly the same way as he does in print.

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