Archival Interface: Designing Access, Inscribing Power, Composing Arguments
Delivery as Interface Design
In the previous discussion of archival processes as canons of rhetoric, the work of creating access to the archive is understood as its delivery, its distribution to the public by crafting the intersection in and through which users experience the artifacts. In the case of the digital archive, this intermediary space is the interface. However, the interface must be understood as doing more than just providing access. Prior et al.’s reimagining of the canon of delivery entails understanding this space as having more than a merely distributary role; it is also taking a powerful mediatory role as well. They argue, “Delivery might be reconceived as mediation,” a definition that emphasizes the kind of “technical mediation—detours, delegations, and hybrids” that directs user access to content (6). In web-based discourse, this kind of mediation, as rules of navigation and directed user activity, is established by the interface. The idea of delivery a mediating force through the imposition of detours and delegations particularly speaks to the questions of interface design. As a construct, the interface is designed to control traffic and give commands to users, establishing navigational paths and signs that control the speed and direction of movement. In this way, we can extend the understanding of rhetorical delivery to include the design and construction of the operating framework that governs how users experience content, a mediation occurring between users and discourse at the site of the interface. For analog archives, the design at the point of contact between users and content is still a mediating force, especially if there are strict rules determining how much time can be spent with the materials, whether they can be handled, or if copies or scans are allowed. However, the powerful framing of the interface in the digital archive is especially influential in shaping how users navigate and understand the contents of the site. Careful rhetorical scrutiny of the digital archival interface is thus required, with additional attention being paid to this mediating function in addition to the ethical questions raised by conceptualizing delivery as access.
In some ways, digital archival interface design reflects more than just the rhetorical canon of delivery as access and mediation. It is a lamination of each of the rhetorical archival processes. Its structure will be built upon the corpus and categorization of the artifacts determined by appraisal and description. It requires additional decisions about arrangement by introducing navigational tabs, menus, links, and pages. The interface must use the elements of style embedded in digital design, with font and color choices and decisions about representative thumbnail and header images. And as a digital construct itself, it will also require efforts to preserve its efficacy through sustainability maintenance, just as does the artifact data. Given the complexity of its structure and implications for users, archival interface requires additional attention in order to better design archival interface structure. This attention is facilitated by interface scholarship from fields outside archival studies that can be productively applied to archival work. It is a subject that Collin Gifford Brooke sees as a boundary object, one rooted in technology, which is “transdisciplinary, cutting across the full range of activities we engage in as professionals, rather than subdisciplinary” (5). In this way, the interface is studied through a multiplicity of lenses across and within disciplines, including digital humanities and rhetoric, new media studies, and human-computer interaction among others. Examining the scholarship within these fields yields useful insights for archivists designing digital archives to produce more thoughtful and intentional interfaces.
Interface in New Media Studies
As a field, new media studies is concerned with communication, broadly defined, through digital technologies, as opposed to “old” media forms traditionally associated with print media. One of the key concepts in new media is the interface. Nicholas Gane and David Beer argue that as both “conceptual and material devices that occupy and enable key points of contact within networks,” the interface “might be studied to gain an understanding of how new media operate and the effects they produce” (53). In terms of the materiality, or physical manifestation, of the interface, Teena Carnegie explains that many in the field “commonly equate the interface with the screen in terms of the images and objects represented there,” specifically the “text and/or graphics of the graphical user interface (GUI) such as the files, folders, and windows that presently appear on many computer screens as part of popular software programs” (165). With an interchangeability between the tangible screen and the interface, this definition leads many scholars to then think of the interface, conceptually, as a kind of intersection, a contact zone where the user meets technology. Matthew Kirschenbaum explains that these kinds of definitions are common in the field, and they “typically invoke the image of a ‘surface’ or a ‘boundary’ where two or more ‘systems,’ ‘devices,’ or ‘entities’ come into ‘contact’ or ‘interact’” (523). More simplistically, it is a way of understanding conceptually that “whenever two things come into contact and interact, an interface exists” (Carnegie 165). The language here evokes a sense of the interface as a kind of physical space, populated by manipulable text and graphics, in which users and technology come together. However, the definition of an interface simply as a meeting space is incomplete; scholars are also interested in the actions that take place within that contact zone. For example, Rose Marra acknowledges that an important component of the interface are the technical aspects represented on the screen, in the contact zone, which she describes as “the physical arrangements and ergonomic configuration of computer systems,” but she also extends the definition to include “how the user interacts with the content to solve a task or to learn material” (115). Marra’s definition is significant in that it not only defines the interface in terms of its on-screen text and graphics, but it also introduces the idea that the interface cannot be separated from the user activities it facilitates. More than just the tangible screen and static icons, the elements of the interface provide users with tools to accomplish tasks and represents the potential actions that they can carry out. Because the interface is inextricably linked to use, scholars argue that we need to think less about what an interface is and more about what the interface does. Brooke notes that working toward defining new media concepts is less useful and that “the more valuable questions to be asked have to do with function, value, and practice” (196). He argues that we should be “focusing our attention on the practices made possible (and on those made more difficult or impossible) by the interfaces we encounter” (197). It is a call reiterated by Gane and Beer, who suggest that “it is possible and perhaps even necessary to think of interface as both a noun and a verb,” and contend that “if it is to be a useful concept it needs to address the interface and also how things interface” (68). In interrogating the nature of the interactions taking place in the interface, scholarship shifts its focus from thinking about where exchanges between users and computers take place toward thinking about the effects of that space on such exchanges.
One of the most significant reasons the interface is capable of influencing users, in addition to establishing the possible and impossible actions, has to do with the ways that the interface does not provide users with direct access to content. Rather, it presents them with a representation of content. This quality is what Bolter and Grusin call “remediation,” which is “the representation of one medium in another,” and they “argue that remediation is a defining characteristic of the new digital media” (45). In this way, the interface is a remediation that represents coded programs and operating systems into the medium of the graphical interface on the screen. It is the nature of the interface to serve as a contact point enabling exchanges between users and computers, but it is an enabling that can only take place indirectly by establishing a visual representation of and access points to selected internal functions and stored data. And it is a remediation that is necessary for cross-communication. It is what “enables humans to use computers, and to access the many layers of underlying code that cause software to function” (Lister et al. 388). It is a representation that, as Stephen Johnson argues, “makes the teeming, invisible world of zeroes and ones sensible to us” (17). He elaborates, “The interface serves as a kind of translator, mediating between the two parties, making one sensible to the other…the relationship governed by the interface is a semantic one…a computer must also represent itself to the user, in a language that the user understands” (14). By representation, the interface serves as a translator; it speaks multiple languages and facilitates mutual understanding. In it and with it, the user can operate the computer programs with ease by pointing and clicking on representative icons, actions that, when translated by the interface, can then be received by the computer in the codes and commands that it can process. Brenda Laurel also highlights the translational function of the interface, arguing that it is “commonly understood as the hardware and software through which a human and a computer could communicate” (xi). New media scholars working in this space argue that we must move beyond thinking of interfaces as “just technical devices” toward an understanding of them as “conceptual spaces or surfaces that mediate between different systems” (Gane and Beer 68). By invoking a concept of the interface as a mediator, there emerges an overarching assertion that the interface does more than create a contact zone; it also facilitates communication and mutual intelligibility between those interacting therein.
In addition to shaping relationships through representative forms that interpret and transmit actions, providing mediated access and communication, the power of the interface is also rooted in its imposition of an organizational framework in which users must operate. Gane and Beer explain this position by arguing that the interface is “a control structure is built into the fabric of new technology media—a structure that naturalizes automated ways of thinking and working” (59). Here, the structures of the interface are articulated as a control mechanism that works not only to shape what actions a user takes, but also influencing what thoughts they may have. Lev Manovich also argues that the interface is more than simple navigational tool, but that it is actually shaping how we think by creating a powerful conceptual frame through which we experience the world. He writes that the interface “determines how users think of any media object accessed via computer” (65). For Manovich, the power to determine how users think comes from the ways in which the interface organizes technological elements, often taking previously created digital objects and rearranging them into new amalgamations of content. He argues that in the process of “stripping different media of their original distinctions, the interface imposes its own logic on them,” and that “by organizing computer data in particular ways, the interface provides distinct models of the world” (65). These models strongly influence how users understand content by influencing how they see that content fitting into the larger system of information. Synne Skjulstad and Andrew Morrison also cite the structural imposition of the interface as a key feature operating on the user, arguing that “interfaces have come to be understood as more than a static, graphical layer lying between system and user” (413). Rather, we must start to see that interfaces “exist as devices for shaping and spatializing the organization, selection and articulation of what is to be communicated electronically” (Skjulstad and Morrison 413). These arguments suggest that the interface structure works to influence users’ meaning-making practices in much the same way that archival decisions of organization and arrangement do, by the juxtapositioning of artifacts against one another to privilege some relationships over other connections. There is certainly not one single or correct way to organize content and represent the relationship between elements in the interface, yet the final iteration of the interface presented to users will necessarily negate other possible structures. In this way, decisions about the interface design require decisions to be made about how to organize contents, which becomes a form of argumentation. It is a way of understanding that the interface imposes an organizational scheme on data that is otherwise “scattered aimlessly across the magnetic surface of the hard drive,” but the idea that this is the only way to represent the data “is an artifice, a visual metaphor…simply an illusion, a trick of the eye” (Johnson, S. 170). We are working under the illusion that the interface functions like a table of contents, corresponding to the fixed chapters of a book that have been set by an author, when in fact, the digital content has no chapters, no set order to which the interface must correspond. In the case of the interface, it is the other way around, with the table of contents determining location and direction of the materials, telling users how to understand relationships and chronology, an imposition of structure that could be done in innumerable ways. This communicative function, one that adds layers of organizational meaning to content, means that the interface is not just an access channel; it becomes part of the content and how it is perceived. It is occupying what Stephen Johnson calls “that strange new zone between medium and message” (41). More than neutrally representing the contents of the computer, translating them into a user-friendly set of actions, these scholars position the interface as participating in how content is generated. The organizational choices that give relational structure to content is a significant factor, at least as much as the content itself, in the knowledge that users produce as a result of the interactions in the interface.
New media scholars are also interested in understanding that knowledge, more specifically what kind of knowledge is being communicated by the imposed logic of the interface structure. In other words, if the interface is more than a medium, then what is the message? For some scholars, the answer is that the interface, in reflecting the designer’s “distinct model of the world,” is also reflecting a particular cultural model. It is the assertion that what seems like a natural or logical way of structuring information is heavily influenced by cultural norms related to knowledge. Stephen Johnson expresses this claim, arguing that the interface is “no longer a lifeless, arcane intersection point between user and microprocessor, it was now an autonomous entity, a work of culture as much as technology” (50). Gane and Beer make a similar observation, noting that by using the interface, “we are not simply interfacing with a machine but interfacing more broadly with culture, even if this culture is encoded in digital form” (56). Manovich also implies a cultural encapsulation in the interface, which he describes as not only a “metatool” for society, but also as “a key semiotic code of the information society as well” (66). Here, Manovich is arguing that although the interface serves an important function in society, it is also contains significant symbols of the society in and from which it is created. In a more concrete way, the interface also enables the exchange of cultural knowledge in addition to encoding it symbolically. Gane and Beer acknowledge the important role of “the interfaces used by the designers of…on-line museums” in mediating “human access to culture through digital technology” (56). The interface can increase our access to cultural artifacts, especially in terms of digital archives and online exhibits, by bringing them more readily into the experience of users by way of their digital forms, users who would otherwise be unable to experience them in their physical locations. The interface also allows for cultural exchanges between users, since as Carnegie explains, “the interface is a place of interaction whether the interactions are between user and computer…user and culture, and the user and other users,” making it “impossible to separate out the various interactions as they layer over each other” (165). The multiplicity of connections afforded by the interface create “the common meeting point and place of interaction for the technological, human, social, and cultural aspects” of our society, and “as such, the interface becomes central to building and determining relationships” (Carnegie 165). Gane and Beer also see the interface as a significant site for developing relationships with others and with our immediate surroundings, arguing that interfaces “help organize social connections, they retrieve information and feed it to our senses, and forge new relations with our lived environments” (65). The potential to build relationships afforded by the interface is one way new media scholars see the interface as a foundation for cultural exchange, as we are presented with the opportunity to see ourselves reflected in one another, our identities both reinforced and challenged, and to have our cultural knowledge is enriched by such exposures. In short, we can read culture both in and through the interface.
In working to identify the significance of how the interface works to influence users and contribute to knowledge production, new media scholarship also focuses intensely on issues of transparency. There is a recognition of the subversive nature of the interface as it is clearly operating in powerful, but often unseen, ways. In large part, the relative invisibility of the interface is a deliberate feature of its design. Carnegie explains, “Popular approaches to designing user interfaces frequently argue that the interface should be invisible” (165). Similarly, Alison Head notes that “many software developers say that the best designs are ones that users never give a second thought about. They describe this quality as invisibility, and it is the hallmark of effortless user interaction and good design” (4). For Donald Norman, and many other designers, the predominant view is that “an interface is an obstacle: it stands between a person and a system” (209). He concludes with the argument that the interface should be unobtrusive and avoid attracting attention to itself (210). This philosophical approach to what constitutes good design is rooted in the belief that “interfaces of high quality allow seamless crossing between…two worlds” (Poster qtd. in Gane and Beer 53). It is a belief driven by users’ desire to experience content with an unobstructed view and a heightened sense of immediacy, a desire to experience something digitally in ways that approximate, as closely as possible, the experience they could have in reality. It is what Bolter and Grusin see as the drive to “get past the limits of representation and to achieve the real…an authentic experience” (53). It is a cultural “imperative” to construct media in ways that “erase all traces of mediation” (Bolter and Grusin 5). However, by designing to meet this desire for immediacy, the interface will “manipulate the appearance of what might be called ‘reality’” (Gane and Beer 59). This manipulation of reality is an altering of the view that occurs by creating a false sense of an unmediated interaction. It is like standing close against a window, one that stretches from the floor to ceiling and from one wall to another, looking out onto a lush landscape. The transparency and wide expanse of the window, along with the individual’s proximity to it, causes the window’s frame itself to disappear outside the range of vision. Like the interface, the immediacy that is designed to be invisible, and the simulation of reality that is so pervasive, makes the physical structures that are enabling and framing that view nearly untraceable, which can cause the viewer to uncritically accept the presented version of reality as certain truth as opposed to a selected view of truth.
The invisibility of the interface skews users’ perceptions by creating a feeling of immediacy, of unmediated access, when the reality is that the interface is operating in powerful ways. In addition to this distorted view, the purposefully designed invisibility is also obscuring users’ sense of control and their restricted agency. Interface designers call this false sense of being able to independently move through digital spaces the “user illusion.” Alan Kay writes, “We coined the phrase user illusion to describe what we were about when designing user interfaces. There are clear connotations to the stage, theatrics, and magic—all of which give much stronger hints as to the direction to be followed” (qtd. in Johnson, S. 59). Intentionally drawing on connotations of magic, the analogy of the interface to a staged illusion is useful. In both cases, the audience, or user, does not see the inner-workings of the trick because they are both hidden behind screens and devices and because the magician artfully uses misdirection to guide the audience’s attention away from the action. Again, as Kay writes, creating this illusion is what designers “were about;” the goal is to make users forget the interface and to simply not see its exertion of control. This illusion is especially problematic when the interface is also gathering data in addition to directing action. Gane and Beer note, “The interface becomes increasingly ambient and unseen, leaving us unaware that our bodies and possessions might be feeding data about our movements and habits to back-end databases” (64). The digital surveillance tools built into the interface restrict user agency to move freely, and safely, through online spaces, but the interface “is so seamlessly embedded within the objects of everyday life that it conceals its own presence, together with its underlying purpose and workings,” which reveals concerning realities about “the politics of the interface”(Gane and Beer 64). However, these concerns will often go unnoticed and unaddressed as the powerful illusion of hidden design conceals their urgency. These arguments highlight that at the intersection of human, computer, and interface, the dynamics of power between the entities is invisibly imbalanced and purposefully misleading. Given these qualities that are so deeply embedded in the interface, new media scholars call for greater recognition of the implications of these power dynamics on user agency. Gane and Beer argue, “The interface is not a neutral mediator, for it shapes information and understandings in the act of translation between humans and machines. This raises, in turn, important questions of power and human agency” (67). Laurel also calls for the critical examination of “the balance of power and control” that is heavily weighted by the interface (xii). Maintaining appropriate balance, however, remains difficult as long as designers prioritize the invisibility of the interface under the premise that users seek and prefer immediacy with as unobtrusive a frame as possible. Changing this requires both entities to understand the potential influence of the interface, with designers accepting an ethical responsibility for users’ data and experiences and users demanding greater transparency into the underlying purpose of the interface.
What we learn from the totality of new media scholarship is that the interface exerts its power by determining possible actions, mediating content in translated representations, imposing logic and ways of thinking, transmitting and facilitating cultural exchanges, and altering reality with an illusion of immediacy, all while staying hidden from view and from scrutiny. Because of this, many new media scholars acknowledge that the “materialities of the interfaces require critical interrogation” (Gane and Beer 68). Carnegie also advocates careful interrogation, asserting that “the significance and pervasiveness of the interface” means that a clear understanding of “how the interface functions is of primary importance” (165). This is a call for greater analysis of how users and designers conceptualize the space and function of the interface and for an increased development of users’ awareness of its influence. However, the ubiquity and diversity of interface design and structure make any knowledge more difficult to generalize. Scholars within each discipline who use and develop interfaces for their digital work will need to carefully consider the implications of their decisions, and they should also include studies of how their various audiences and users engage their constructions to better inform future design decisions.
Interface in Archival Studies
The primary disciplines of concern for this dissertation are archival studies and rhetoric, and in particular how these disciplines speak to the issues related to archive creation and management in response to historiographic recovery work. However, this dissertation is delivering the archival material to users through a digital exhibit, and it therefore relies on the development of an archival interface. While new media scholars work effectively to raise concerns over the influence of the interface in both its material construction and conceptual principles, they do not speak specifically to how these concerns apply or manifest in the case of the digital archive. It is also a subject that is not well-discussed in archival studies, with Geoffrey Yeo concluding that “further research is needed to ascertain what kinds of interface are most effective” in delivering the archive to users (103). One notable exception is Margaret Hedstrom’s 2002 article “Archives, Memory, and Interfaces with the Past” that provides an in-depth discussion of the archival interface and the implications of its design. Hedstrom begins with the claim that “the emergence of computer interfaces as an increasingly common mode of user interaction with archives” demands that archivists engage critically with their development and understanding of how they function, both as technical devices and as abstracted representations of the archival materials (21). However, she is quick to note that they have largely been ignored in archival studies scholarship. She writes, “In research and practice, archivists have focused on the role of computer technology in the creation of records, their capture and storage, and the standards, processes, and procedures necessary” to maintain them, while “later acts of contextualization, representation, or use of digital archives,” such as how artifacts are rendered by the archival interface, “receive scant attention” (23). The scant attention given to the interface represents a significant gap in archival studies scholarship, but given the significance of the interface as established by new media studies, it is a gap that requires greater attention than has been given thus far.
Before proceeding, it is useful here to clarify how Hedstrom, and this dissertation, defines the digital archival interface. In these online spaces, the archival interface is most simplistically understood as the technical codes and tools that organize, arrange, and deliver the artifacts to the user; the digital objects that allow users to access and navigate the exhibit. It may also be important to note that there is a distinction that should be made between the archive and the exhibit and the archive and the artifacts. Typically, what is made accessible online is not the entirety of a given archive. Limited resources and material constraints are likely to affect digitization processes, meaning that what users experience online is better understood as an exhibit, a selection of materials that, hopefully, are representative of the archive in totality. It is also important to make a distinction between the artifacts and the archive. For many, the word archive is used interchangeably with terms like collection, records, or documents; the archive is simply what we label an amassment of objects. However, as suggested by Derrida’s term “archiving the archive,” we must understand that the archive is not simply an amassment; it is a deliberate, interested, historicized composition. When we mistakenly conflate the physical collection of artifacts with the processes and apparatuses constructed to organize and navigate the objects, we render invisible and neutral the powerful mediations the archivist employs to contextualize a static collection. In particular, in referring to an online exhibit as an archive itself, the structures and framing of the interface are subsumed and uncritically accepted. It is necessary to make a clear distinction between the collections of analog or digital artifacts and the archival interface itself, the objects on one hand and the framework constructed around the artifacts on the other. It is this framework can be understood as the archival interface—all that stands between the audience and the artifact. In this way, the digital archival interface must include both the technical tools and invisible choices that craft both what users can experience and how they experience it.
These invisible choices are made throughout the archival processes, specifically in appraisal and description, but that are especially occurring prior to users experiencing an artifact in a digital exhibit. Far before any decisions are made to directly develop the digital access and delivery systems of the website’s interface, the archival processes themselves represent a kind of analog interface that mediates user access to artifacts. This is an expansion of new media theories of the interface as it takes into account discipline-specific concerns and realities. If we understand the interface as a mediating force, then we must understand the archivist as part of it. Hedstrom explains this approach to the archival interface as both “a metaphor for archivists’ roles as intermediaries between documentary evidence and its readers and as a term which describes a tangible set of structures and tools that place archival documents in a context and provide an interpretative framework” (22). By adopting a view of their role as part of the intermediating interface, archivists can view their processes as “neither natural nor neutral” (21). For Hedstrom, the processes associated with description “are the most visible interface between archives and their interrogators” given the profound influence of “the interpretive spin that description places on archival materials” (38). There is also the powerful “interface of selection” (36), that is rooted in the archivist’s “choices about what to keep, how to represent archival documents and collections, how to design systems for access, and who to admit or exclude from interactions with archives” (26). Hedstrom concludes that what we learn “in probing archival interfaces” as broadly inclusive of the archivist’s decisions prior to digitization is that “what may appear as neutral and objective processes” of archival construction are actually significantly influencing the potential meaning made by the users who use them. Constructing the interface is thus a rhetorical process; it is communicative and persuasive. The appraisal and description decisions, along with the development of the digital structures that appear on the screen, are all essential elements of the archival interface. They work together to convey the artifacts’ value and how users should understand their significance. It becomes crucial then for all stakeholders to recognize the archival interface as the mediating space in which knowledge is co-constructed between archivists, record creators, artifacts, and users—each influenced itself by the social, political, and cultural contexts from which it comes.
Although untangling the forces that shape how an archival interface is crafted, how it is used and understood, and the effects it has on knowledge production is a daunting, maybe even impossible, task, it is a line of inquiry worth investigating. Perhaps, as suggested by new media scholars, the most productive area to explore is less about settling on a concrete definition of the archival interface and more about how it functions—thinking less about interface as an object and more about interface as an action. In the discussion of new media scholarship, one of the important ways to acknowledge the function of the interface is the recognition that it both encapsulates culture while affording opportunities for cultural exchanges. Similarly, Hedstrom argues that the object of the archival interface affords the actionable opportunity to interface with history and memory. She explains that in digital archives, “the design and functions of the computer interface offers one useful analytical device” for better understanding how “memories—both individual and collective—are created, represented, and retrieved” (32). Like reading culture in new media interfaces, so too can we read our relationships with memory in the archival interface. The ways in which the interface determines which remnants of the past are accessible, how they should be organized and described, and how they should appear on the screen are all capturing significant clues about what memories we value and reflecting views about how memory functions. However, Hedstrom also argues for understanding the “role of archives as an integral part of the interface with the past” (26). Here, the archives, in their entirety, function like interfaces, as “permeable boundaries that separate the past from the present and distinguish memory from consciousness” (27). In the same way the archival interface mediates users’ understanding of artifacts, the archive itself is a kind of meta-interface that mediates users’ understanding of the past. They are themselves a contact surface between humanity and history, and as such, they constitute an important interface.
In asserting that the archival interface is both allowing access to the past while also shaping the way it is understood, Hedstrom is acknowledging that the interface is imbued with significant power, just as new media scholars have expressed. She also claims that “the interface is a site where power is negotiated and exercised,” but she distinguishes that “for archivists, that power is exercised, consciously and unconsciously, over documents and their representations, over access to them, over actual and potential uses of archives, and over memory” (22). Although the power in the archival interface is more directly connected to artifact management, both Hedstrom and the new media scholars see the power in the interface as restrictive in nature. User agency is impinged upon by interfaces broadly, determining potential actions and movements, but more specifically in the archive it is the user’s access to memory that is likely restricted by the interface. It is then “the nature of the interface” to be situated as “a critical element in the interaction between documentary evidence and its consumers” (Hedstrom 22). These insights into the power of the interface also lead Hedstrom to call for greater attention within the field to how the interface exerts its influence and how archivists can more intentionally and critically engage in their design. She argues that archivists “should be active players in shaping new interfaces” and “to be cognizant of how their actions in selection, description, and design, enhance and constrain society’s options for accessing evidence and acting upon the past” (33). However, the invisibility of the interface that new media scholars have noted is also a key concern for Hedstrom, who recognizes that “interfaces enable and constrain certain activities in ways that are inconspicuous and often taken for granted” (21). As a countermeasure, Hedstrom advocates for deliberately designing interfaces that work toward transparency. She encourages archivists designing interfaces to not only “confront the interpretative nature of their work” but to also “exploit opportunities to place themselves visibly in the interfaces they construct” (21). This visibility, she imagines, would entail leaving “traces of self-conscious archival activities” for users in the form of detailed notes regarding “why certain records survived and others did not” and “by enriching the interface between archives and their users with information about the factors that archivists considered important in appraising, selecting, and describing records” (43). In imbuing the interface with details about archival processes and design decisions, archivists acknowledge their position within its construction. It ensures that archivists receive the “credit they deserve for building an important part of the interface with the past” and that they do not contribute to interfaces that “obscure from users the contingent and interpretive nature of archives” (Hedstrom 43). Hedstrom’s article crucially applies theories and concerns regarding the interface, many developed by new media scholars, to archival studies, and concludes with guiding recommendations for archivists to work intentionally and transparently to generate greater user awareness of the interface influence. However, aside from general advice, it is beyond the scope of the article to provide an analysis of the material and institutional realities that are often governing interface design and how to achieve these recommended goals within these contexts and available technologies. This dissertation is designed in part to answer Hedstrom’s call by putting these recommendations into practice and illustrating the tensions that arise in designing the archival interface while balancing stakeholder priorities, managing limited resources, and prioritizing transparency.
Interface in Rhetoric
Like archival studies, rhetoric is also a field concerned with archives, especially as part of historiographic recovery work. Through that lens, rhetoricians have worked extensively to theorize the archival space, its role in the circulation of power, and its potential for supporting social justice causes and redressing the oppressive erasures of marginalized groups. However, it is also a field like archival studies that has not devoted its attention in significant ways to the archival interface. There is some recognition by rhetoricians who work extensively with archives though, like Hedstrom, that archival interfaces are “constructions around and through which archival research must proceed,” and that these constructions demonstrate that “archival research can be shaped by practices used to define and categorize materials within ‘the archive’” (Ramsey et al.2). Alexis Ramsey also addresses one of the key concerns related to the interface in the chapter “Viewing the Archives: The Hidden and the Digital,” which is that by providing users access to content with a sense of immediacy, the interface can lead users to erroneously “assume that the archivist has been eliminated and no longer stands between the researcher and total access to the collection” (86). She warns, “Such an idea is misguided because it is the archivists who decide which collections warrant digitization and how that process will occur and be rendered on the computer screen. The archivist, though invisible, still controls access” (86). These observations and concerns align with Hedstrom’s assertions and the new media scholarship in general that the interface works subversively to influence users, and although the influence is often obscured it is significant and demands critical interrogation.
Although archivally-focused rhetoricians have not focused extensively on the archival interface and how it works in the specific context of digital archives, there is a far more robust tradition in rhetoric, particularly from scholars in the areas of digital rhetoric and in computers and writing, related to digital interfaces conceived more generally. For these scholars, there is an amplification of the calls for greater critical interrogation made by new media scholars given the pervasive and influential role that the interface has in digital communication. Since rhetoricians are trained to analyze and explain the production and efficacy of forms and language that shape meaning-making practices, the realities of the interface as both medium and message make it an ideal object for rhetorical scrutiny. Collin Gifford Brooke works at the intersection of new media and rhetoric, and argues that rhetoricians must take a cue from the new media attention given to the interface. He argues that we must examine the ways that digital content are presented and not just the content itself, advocating for “us to reconceive our basic unit of analysis” by “shifting our focus from textual objects to medial interfaces” (6). This shift in focus requires rhetoricians “to move from a text-based rhetoric, exemplified by our attachment to the printed page” to one “that can account for the dynamics of the interface” (Brooke 26). Synne Skjulstad and Andrew Morrison, working from a computers and composition lens, also encourage the broader field to attend more carefully to the interface. They write, “We need to “place attention on the constructedness of the interface itself as an object that mediates” (430). Skjulstad and Morrison’s position here is that the interface is a rhetorical form because it is a construct with a recognizably persuasive influence; it is “more than superficial styling” of the website’s appearance (414). In their view, the interface contains “compositional and communicative design potentials” and “encompasses a combination of elements drawn from a variety of media and communication traditions” (415). They conclude that interfaces, as a form of composition, “blur the boundaries of what may be seen as the interface and what may be seen as content,” and as compositions, they must be included as a focus of rhetorical scholarship (430). Anne Wysocki and Julia Jasken also attend to the interface in their article “What Should Be an Unforgettable Face…” from the perspective of rhetoricians working with digital forms of composition in the classroom. They too recognize that rhetoricians are well-suited to investigate the interface since “it is a visual communication space, sharing much with the printed page in its arrangements;” therefore, they assert, rhetoricians “can certainly bring our knowledge about ordering words to achieve particular ends with particular audiences” and “our understanding about how composition practices entwine with so much else” to bear productively on the discussions of the interface (32). However, they also conclude that the interface, as a constructed composition, raises concerns not only about “the decisions we might make about the arrangement of visual and interactive elements on a particular screen in a particular piece of software, but also concerns who makes these decisions and where and in what contexts, as well as what sort of audience is called into shape by all these decisions and factors” (33). These concerns about the interface designers and their motivations reiterate the questions raised in new media scholarship about the balance of power in the transactions between users and technology forged in and by the interface, with particular attention to how human agency is invisibly restricted. Wysocki and Jasken articulate these same questions by emphasizing that “interfaces are thoroughly rhetorical” in that they “are about the relations we construct with each other—how we perceive and try to shape each other—through the artifacts we make for each other” (33). It is this perspective of viewing the interface, in terms of how it functions to shape others, that rhetoricians have given the most attention. Rhetorical theories of the interface propose not only definitions of the interface as a composition, but also ways of understanding the interface as a kind of discursive power, where that power comes from, its broader effects on users, and ultimately, how we can mitigate the more detrimental ramifications of interface design.
Interface in Rhetoric: Power and Agency
The rhetorical discussions of power and interface are most notably introduced by Cynthia L. Selfe and Richard J. Selfe’s in their 1994 article “The Politics of the Interface: Power and Its Exercise in Electronic Contact Zones.” Like the scholars previously discussed, Selfe and Selfe also encourage scholars “to adopt a more critical and reflective approach to their use of computers” (482). In particular, they identify the site of the interface, defined as the “primary representations of computer systems or programs that show up on screens,” as a key aspect of that use requiring critical reflection (485). They contend that this attention is urgently required as the interface yields significant power over users by functioning as both a map and a border. Conceptualizing the interface as a map and a border offers useful analogies for explaining how power is established and exerted by the interface. The notion of the interface as a border is similar to the concepts established in new media scholarship that define the interface as a kind of surface or contact zone; it both maintains separation between entities and allows for controlled passages. Selfe and Selfe assert that the interface is a kind of border, and that studying “borders and their effects” is “significant” work (480). The significance stems from the essential quality of borders that, like “the geopolitical borders of countries,” it is the place at which “the formations of social power, normally hidden, are laid embarrassingly bare—where power in its rawest form is exercised” (481). We can see that interfaces are, what Mary Louise Pratt deems, “social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other,” which reveals between the clashing entities the “highly assymmetrical relations of power, such as colonialism, slavery” and “their aftermaths as they are lived out in many parts of the world today” (qtd. in Selfe and Selfe 482). They are “sites within which the ideological and material legacies of racism, sexism, and colonialism are continuously written and re-written” (Selfe and Selfe 484). These claims draw on several supporting argument, namely that the oppressive power of the interface comes from the cultural situatedness of interface designers who embed dominant forces in their designs in terms of access, representation, language, organization, afforded actions, and subversive design.
One of the first observations rhetoricians make about interfaces is that the exertion of power is linked to the cultural contexts in which they are created. They argue that we must recognize that all borders, whether real or digital, will necessarily have their creators’ “values built into them,” and that these values “are at least partly constructed along ideological axes that represent dominant tendencies in our culture,” especially as they “can serve to prevent the circulation of individuals for political purposes” (481-2). Wysocki and Jasken also arrive at a similar conclusion about the nature of the created interface as being “dependent on the attitudes and backgrounds of those who design what we see and not just an apparently neutral function or technical requirement” (45). They argue that “we have to see interfaces as not just what is on screen but also what is beyond and around the screen if we want to understand how interfaces fit into and support the varied and entwined sets of practices that shape us” (36). Nathan Johnson adds weight to this view as well, asserting that “information is embodied in globalized and standardized technologies that instantiate and project the values of history onto the present,” and that these “the values that undergird construction of infrastructure” will influence “how people, information, and technology interact in the present” (99). This suggests that digital information that users wish to access is embedded in technologies, like the interface, are developed from cultural and historical values that operate significantly upon users. Altogether, these claims call forth several issues that pertain to the archival interface, particularly in terms of access and the influence of the archivist’s situatedness. Selfe and Selfe offer these two important insights related to borders. The first is that the border construction, or the interface, controls the “circulation of individuals,” who can receive entry and who is excluded. This is particularly relevant to the archival interface, as Hedtsrom defines it to include appraisal practices, because determining what records to keep, which ones should be digitized, and who should have access to the materials are all significant decisions made by the archivist. However, these scholars also raise the point that the border construction cannot be extricated from its cultural contexts. The values—cultural, personal, and institutional—held by the archivist designing the interface will inevitably inform the construct, and this means that the interface will reflect and reinforce those values as well.
In recognizing the interface as an encapsulation and presentation of cultural values, Selfe and Selfe also argue that they function like maps. Like a geographical map, the interface will also generate a visual representation of a selected landscape, and the decisions about how best to represent that landscape are subject to culturally-reinforced influences that determine which features are highlighted and which are obscured, which political boundaries are reinforced, and most importantly, shape the dominant perspective from which the landscape is presented. The map and the interface are both navigational tools that facilitate travel, but it should not be neglected that they are also ‘flawed, partial, incomplete’ and interested vision[s] of reality, at least partly constructed from the perspective of, and for the benefit of, dominant forces in our culture” (Selfe and Selfe 486). It is important, then, in their view, that we recognize “maps are never ideologically innocent or inert” (485). In approaching the interface critically, with the same skepticism we apply to rendered maps, interface users are able to “read cultural information just as surely as they read geographical information” (Selfe and Selfe 485). However, reading the cultural values of the interface designer through the construction and design decisions of the interface map is not the only consideration to draw from this analogy. It is also possible to gain insight into the interface by thinking about another aspect of maps, which is the imposition of a singular, rational order onto the content it aims to represent. They argue that the power of the map “resides in the fact that they purport to represent fact—the world, a particular space—as it is in reality, while they naturalize the political and ideological interests on their authors” (485). In the same way, Selfe and Selfe conclude that “the maps of computer interfaces order the virtual world according to a certain set of historical and social values that make up our culture” (485). In these two claims, the authors are observing that there is an imposition on contents, whether they are digital or geographical objects, of a particular way of seeing and organizing the materials. This imposition culminates in a representation that, consciously or not, is working to normalize and privilege one perspective over any others possible. Like new media scholars who argue that the interface will impose a logical organization onto contents, and will generally present that one organizational schema as the natural or only scheme possible, Selfe and Selfe also see this in their concept of the interface as map.
The assertion that the interface exerts power of users’ access and perceptions is further discussed by Selfe and Selfe, among others, who work to identify the specific influences that interface constructions will have on users and how its design choices shape cognition. Selfe and Selfe identify the interface’s language as one such way that it exerts power. They argue that the “decision to use English as a default language” for the interface design, often with no option to translate these structures even if the content itself can be, has the effect of seeing “non-English language background speakers as a marginalized ‘Other’” while reinforcing “the socio-economic forces that limit access to software in other languages” (489). However, it is not only in the choice of an English-only interface in which this marginalization of the “other” is apparent. This is also seen in the privileging of linear ways of thinking that are associated with the “axes of class, race, and cultural privilege” and that reflect “the values of rationality, hierarchy, and logocentrism characteristic of Western patriarchal cultures” (Selfe and Selfe 491). This argument, closely linked to the imposition of logic and order as previously discussed, suggests that the organization of the interface is derived from western approaches to knowledge that privilege hierarchical structures and that are rooted in patriarchal systems. This is frequently cited as being evidenced in common iconography, such as file folders, trash cans, and paper clips, that form a recreation of the white-collar office “desktop.” It is also seen in the use of folders and subfolders for organization of contents that employs a top-down, linear structure that requires content to be assigned in clearly defined domains corresponding to a singular, dominant purpose. However, this approach can be extremely restrictive. Selfe and Selfe draw on the work of Ted Nelson to assert that the “conceptual structure of hierarchical file systems” is “both ‘oppressive and devastating,’” forming “an ‘enormous barrier’ to creative thinking” by imposing “‘intricate, fixed pathways that we must commit to memory’” and preventing users from “‘acting on inspiration’” (492). These fixed pathways of hierarchical organization in the interface are especially detrimental to users who see may see a multitude of connections between content and who want and need to visualize a more robust network of data.
Wysocki and Jasken explain that in their study of handbooks related to interface design, these linear approaches to organization, although culturally reflective, are also encouraged because they see the interface’s primary function as “serving to get readers to information quickly and easily” and that “ease and efficiency trump any other purposes a designer might have” (41). However, Wysocki and Jasken argue that the imposition of efficiency is an exertion of control over use, and it is one that can be limiting. They offer as an example “a student who wants her audience to look slowly and thoughtfully at causes of famine in Ethiopia and Eritrea” and for whom this privileging of efficiency forces her to understand “her audience only in terms of their quick and impatient greed for information (41). In this way, the interface disallows “designers to think of their audiences—and hence themselves—in any other way” while creating structures that “can only ask their audiences to behave in these manners while they are engaged with the interfaces” (Wysocki and Jasken 41). Here, one of the more significant cognitive processes influenced by the interface is one related to identity, to how users see themselves and others. It is a claim also made by Giroux, who writes that as interfaces are “historically constructed and socially organized within rules and regulations,” they will “limit and enable particular identities, individual capacities, and social forms” (qtd. in Selfe and Selfe 495). These cognitive restrictions, driven as they are by cultural values, impose limitations on users’ agency in mapping relationships between content according to their own needs and preferences as well as on how they position themselves against that content. It is another example of how the interface serves to preserve and replicate the power held by dominant cultures.
The power of the interface manifests in the cognitive processes it privileges and the ones it disallows, but rhetoricians working with interfaces also connect this, like new media scholars, to the power of the interface to control user actions. Wysocki and Jasken argue that the “choices that go into designing interfaces” will not only limit “the actions audiences can take” but also “the thinking they are asked to do (or not) and the attitudes they are asked to acquire,” resulting in users who are “restricted or silenced or reduced in complexity by what we produce” (45). There is clear evidence that, as Paul Taylor notes, the interface actively “manages the user’s actions by establishing possible and recommended actions” (qtd. in Wysocki and Jasken 34). Digital rhetoricians Joshua Reeves argues that this influence over user action is best understood as a “rhetoric of the possible” in the sense that the interface will powerfully guide the users’ experiences and set parameters for what is possible in the interaction. He writes, “Web interactivity is driven by a rhetoric of the possible that pushes users to continuously renegotiate their online activities within structured flows” (315). The structured flows of the interface force user to negotiate between what is made possible by the interface with what it is they want to do in that space. These claims clearly establish, as do new media scholars, that in examining the interface, we must accept that it “shapes actions, thinking, and attitudes” and confront the questions “of where and how agency exists or is constructed—or taken away—as we engage with computer interfaces” (Wysocki and Jasken 34). However, in acknowledging the power of the interface to manipulate user actions, rhetoricians also arrive at similar conclusions to new media scholars that this power becomes difficult to mitigate given that the invisibility of the interface makes it difficult for users to recognize its influence in the first place.
Scholars must grapple with this social phenomenon that makes interfaces “‘difficult to talk about’” since “their invisibility makes them seem ‘natural and inevitable’” (Carnegie 166). Selfe and Selfe observe this as well, noting that the interface is “represented and reproduced in so many commonplace ways, at so many levels that they frequently remain invisible to us” (481). It is also articulated by Wysocki and Jasken, who assert, “A continuing and ongoing tension with and about graphical computer interfaces is visibility. We are, at one and the same time, to see only them but then also to forget them, to not see them at all” (30). They conclude that “not being attentive to interfaces—allowing interfaces to be as invisible as they are designed to be—is to overlook how they shape not only what we see on a computer screen but also anyone who sits down to work at that screen” (32-3). Noah Wardrip-Fruin also argues that although it is imperative that we “engage software critically,” we must grow in our awareness of what “software’s output reveals and conceals about its inner workings” (qtd. in Brown 23, emphasis added). Yet despite these calls for greater awareness of the interface’s presence, Carnegie argues that as a result of the increasingly less intrusive design of the interface affording more immediacy, “awareness about the interface has not increased but rather appears to have decreased” as we fail “to view interfaces as being more pervasive than just the computer screen” (166). For Selfe and Selfe, the only recourse we have is to “‘work towards unconcealment’” of the interface in both our teaching and our scholarship (501). They argue that this will come only if “we can take with increasing seriousness the role of serving as technology critics” who can “recognize computer interfaces as non-innocent physical borders (between the regular world and the virtual world), cultural borders (between the haves and the have-nots), and linguistic borders” and develop “strategies of crossing—and demystifying—these borders (495). Carnegie takes a similar view, suggesting that “teachers and students of writing” can begin to mitigate the influence of the interface and “see the rhetorical implications that interfaces may have” by critically engaging in analysis of the interface structures around us “to bring the rhetoric of the interface into full view” (166). Yet critical discussions and strategies for engaging with interfaces cannot comprise the entirety of the solution. So long as users are subjected to the interface designs by those unwilling to acknowledge its marginalizing effects, there can be no liberation from them.
Rhetoricians, accustomed to thinking in terms of discursive production, are quick to call for the greater engagement of scholars in the design and development of new interfaces in addition to simply including them in the field as objects of study. They argue that bringing the awareness of the interface as a site of power and a sensitivity for the political implications of that power to bear on the composition of newly devised interfaces can begin to counter the imposition of power imbalances. Given the complexity of the interface and the significant ramifications of its design, we are now seeing, according to Liza Potts, a moment in the “in which a shift toward participating in and researching the design of interfaces…is becoming more prevalent” (258). However, the work of developing new, rhetorically-conscious interfaces must still be incorporated more significantly in our teaching and learning. Carnegie argues that “teachers of writing needed to increase critical understanding about interfaces, to participate in software design efforts, and to re-conceive, revise, redesign interfaces” (166). Selfe and Selfe express this call by encouraging rhetoricians to “begin to exert an increasingly active influence in the cultural project of technology design,” which critically includes the interface (484). The work of designing interfaces is further supported by Wysocki and Jasken’s claims that rhetoricians having the proper training needed to recognize the interdependency of form and content in users’ meaning-making processes. They argue that many interface designers focus exclusively on form, on the design of the interface, and they “see form separate from content, with form having no rhetorical function” (43). However, they contend that this view is problematic in that “when we are encouraged to look through form (as though it is arhetorical and ought to be invisible) to content, we miss—we are able to forget—how complexly and how strongly interfaces take part in the wide ranging, and certainly not always positive, effects that computers have in our practices, lives, and relations with others” (37). Rhetoricians though do acknowledge the powerful influence of form and would thus be well-suited to engage interface design that accounts for the rhetorical concerns, such as style and arrangement, associated with those formatting choices. Also seeing advantages in designing interfaces from a rhetorical perspective, Selfe and Selfe imagine that interfaces could be designed with “alternatives and supplements to hierarchical representations of knowledge” such as “bricolage,” an approach introduced by Turkle and Papert (493). This alternative approach to structuring content rejects the purely logocentric and hierarchical systems associated with interfaces developed uncritically from oppressive cultural values by instead developing interfaces that allow for “the construction of meaning through the arrangement and rearrangement of concrete, well known materials, often in an intuitive rather than logical manner” (Selfe and Selfe 493). An interface design that allows users to engage with bricolage “rather than reasoning with the help of a traditionally validated pattern of logical representation,” is one way to encourage what Turkle and Papert call “‘epistemological pluralism’” that could “especially benefit individuals who feel ‘more comfortable with a relational, interactive, active, and connected approach to objects’” (493). This intuitive and relational approach to understanding content and accomplishing tasks is often diametrically opposed to the linear structures commonly favored in interface designs, but it is one that scholars recognize as preferable among women and non-western cultures (Selfe and Selfe 493). If rhetoricians can successfully design interfaces, then it may be possible to create spaces that do not require users to “abandon their own culture or gender and acknowledge the dominance of other groups” (Selfe and Selfe 494). In considering other ways to organize content, it is possible to create more inviting and less marginalizing interfaces that validate the intuitive instincts that many bring with them into these digital spaces.
These arguments for engaging in design are clearly rooted in a belief that interface designers must acknowledge that ideological values are at play in influencing their design decisions, which means that the interface itself is unavoidably political and that any goals of neutrality are unattainable. More conscious design choices are needed to avoid being complicit in extending dominant cultures into digital spaces and the oppressive effects on marginalized users that are caused, even unwittingly, by the imposition of cultural values. Actively designing interfaces is a powerful way to engage with them critically and reeval “the partial and flawed nature of the map” while also working to “claim other vantage places as well” (Selfe and Selfe 495). This criticism is necessary as well, as Selfe and Selfe conclude, in order to guard against “an overly optimistic vision of technology” that is “dangerous in that it renders less visible the negative contributions of technology” (482). However, being able to make an interface is a necessary part of being able to critique it. Brian Ballentine makes the argument that although we understand that “the rules of a system have a profound effect on a user’s experience,” but that we cannot adequately “debate the system” without “access to and understanding of those procedural rules” (279). The argument implies that in order to address the problems with interface design and offer meaningful critiques, we must learn how they really work and how they are built by engaging those processes ourselves. These concerns with the circulation of power and the responsibility of rhetors to acknowledge the inherently political action of producing discourse bring the interface deeply into the field of rhetoric. In seeking to expose these power dynamics and root out the sources of unjust imbalances of agency, scholars like Selfe and Selfe and Wysocki and Jasken have focused on the interface, offering insights necessary for mediating problematic design and constructing interfaces that uphold the values of inclusivity and justice.
Interface and Rhetoric: The Role of Users
The questions of power circulation and the effects of invisibility as they relate to the interface are closely connected to key rhetorical concerns that stem from the field’s investment in the study of meaning-making processes as a function of discourse. In order to understand the complexities of these processes, rhetoricians examine discourse from multiple angles. It is certainly necessary to study the reasons why discourse is produced as well as the techniques and elements required to produce it, but these areas of focus have to do primarily with how discourse comes into being, even how it is shared with an audience. In order to fully explore meaning-making processes, it becomes necessary to also examine how discourse functions after its inception—what happens as a result of its delivery into the public sphere. This attention given to the effects of the discursive form and content is what brings rhetoricians to look at the interface as a site of power and restricted agency, but considering effects is a way of thinking more broadly about issues of reception. The questions of how discourse is received necessarily invokes an understanding that there is a receiver, an audience, or user in the case of the interface. By focusing on users’ role in meaning-making processes, rhetoricians offer further insights that benefit interface designers. By understanding meaning as co-constructed with users, and thinking through their perspectives in shaping knowledge production, interface design can be conceived from a more informed vantage point, better equipped to take into account the complexities of human-computer interaction.
As discussed, many scholars who study the interface recognize it as a powerful framing influence, exerting dominant values and imposing restrictive cognitive pathways; however, rhetorical views of the interface require that a more complex view of users is taken. Rhetoric scholars generally consider “the roles of audiences in appropriating and re-interpreting texts when they emerge and through time” (Campbell qtd. in Kennedy and Long 141). In thinking of the interface like a text, It must be understood that the form, by way of its structures and its designers imprinted values, is not working independently to create meaning. Scholars argue that the presence of the user must be accounted for in any analysis of how the interface works to shape knowledge. Brooke articulates this by cautioning scholars against thinking too narrowly about how meaning is constructed in new media objects, writing that meaning is made in the “interaction among user, interface, and object(s),” and that it meaning-making practices are “drawing on each without being reducible to any of those factors” (140). Robert Johnson also recognizes the user’s role in constructing meaning from the interface, writing that because it manifests “from the system, the user’s situation, the designer’s image of the system, and from the users themselves,” the interface itself “is derived from a true negotiation” (33). This intersection of negotiating entities necessary to construct the interface is what James Brown Jr. terms “human-machine collaborations,” of which the interface is an example. He notes that in attempting to understand “how an object works and how it creates meaning,” it is important to consider “the complexities of any interpretive effort” made by individual users (22). We must acknowledge the variables that users, as autonomous and uniquely embodied entities, bring to our analyses of meaning-making. Skjulstad and Morrison also recognize the role of the user in discussing how the interface works to represent content, noting that although content is “realised through the underlying information system” built into the interface, there are also “dynamic properties in the interface, some activated by the user and some potentially generated by the system” (414). This suggests that the interface is actually a co-construction between the underlying systems and the users’ actions that, even if limited, are shaping the overall experience.
Some scholars further argue that in recognizing the role of the user in constructing the interface, we must also recognize the difficulty in drawing universal generalization about how they interact with a given interface. While it is generally accepted that the interface can influence users, these scholars suggest that it should not be too simplistically understood as a unidirectional influence whereby the all-powerful interface is shaping an otherwise formless user. Users do not move through the interface as though they are uniform blocks of clay on a conveyor belt, each identically molded by the mechanism of the interface that repeatedly stamps them into shape as they pass underneath. Selfe and Selfe take this position by criticizing those who “think erroneously that the use of computers and networks provides discursive landscapes that are, in Mary Louise Pratt’s words, ‘the same for all players’” (484). Indeed the experience users have with the interface is not the same for everyone as we bring our prior knowledge and situated perspectives into the interaction. Brooke also advocates for user diversity by expanding the common dichotomy of interface scholarship that explains how we can look both “at” the interface and “through” it. He argues, “With interfaces, it is no longer sufficient to speak simply of an at/through distinction that leaves the position of the viewer, user, or reader unexamined. Just as we look at and through interfaces, we also look from a particular position” so that “our sensual experiences of interfaces are often as customizable as our hermeneutic approaches to them” (140). Our positionality means that we experience the interface as “an individualized interaction with ‘galaxy of signifiers’” (Brooke 75). Because we interpret these signals differently from one another, and even differently from our own experiences over time, it means that the interface design is not influential in any universal way; it means that “we as users participate in the construction of our interfaces” (Brooke 134). The role of the user cannot be neglected by scholars working to understand the interface, nor can it be subverted by designers. However, by studying users’ actions, experiences, and knowledge production, it may be possible to better understand the dynamics of the interaction between design and use, which would aid designers to more effectively create interfaces that accomplish their purpose while minimizing unwanted or negative outcomes.
That kind of user-focused study is undertaken frequently by digital rhetoricians engaged in user-centered design. For these scholars, they are not only taking up the call made by Selfe and Selfe and others for rhetoricians to engage actively in design, but they are doing so from a particular stance toward users that privileges their needs over the creators’ preferences and the technology’s precedents. This is a way of approaching interface design that, according to Liza Potts, advocates for designers to develop “systems, interfaces, and policies…that are focused on human experience” (256). Robert Johnson explains user-centered design as systems that users find ”familiar and sensitive to their own perspective of the technology and its ends” rather than “systems that reflect a designer’s perspective” (30). Brenda Laurel argues that connecting design philosophy to the human user is a position that interface designers need to take into account what we now understand about the dynamic of the user-interface exchange. She argues that we can no longer focus exclusively on the technical aspects of how the interface works, recognizing instead that “as it has evolved, the concept of the interface has come to include the cognitive and emotional aspects of the user’s experience” (xi). This argument leads to designs with greater attention to how that user experience is constructed to support cognition and affective engagement with the interface. Potts argues that rhetoricians are uniquely positioned to work in this way given their experience in considering “audience, purpose, and scope” as part of traditional composition processes, and she advocates for applying these sensitives to “participating in and researching the design of interfaces”(255). She argues that a rhetorical approach to design would lead designers to “engage users as participants, both in design and in social engagement” (257). What this means is that rather than seeing users as only relevant in terms of receiving the finished product, designers would instead bring users into the design process itself. The idea is that through early and continual collaboration, rhetorically-focused designers could provide the needed counterbalance to a form too often “focused on serving up material—images, texts, and videos—rather than engaging with participants” (Potts 258). Robert Johnson also acknowledges the flaw of neglecting users’ needs in typical design approaches. He acknowledges that designers are likely to bring in users once the product is nearly completed, but he argues that this limited consideration of user input is unlikely to improve the design. He writes, “The interface is crucial to the user of technology, but more often than not this intimate connecting point between the technology and the user is relegated to the end of the development cycle—at a point where there is often little that can be done to solve any problems the user may have while operating the technology” (28). The result then is that users remain so “far removed from the central concerns of the system of interface design” that they only receive “technology that is ultimately created in a system or system designer’s image” (Johnson, R. 28). User-centered design offers interface designers a different perspective from which to work. It eschews the privileging of function and efficacy that Wysocki and Jasken identified as the primary focus from interface design handbooks, and it also offers a way to more readily subvert designers’ own positionalities and imposition of values by working toward the needs of others rather than their own. It is rhetorical approach that recognizes the user as an essential part of the meaning-making process and their purposes as the controlling function in the interface production. For archivists, this approach is well-aligned with the philosophy of the post-custodial turn that considers questions of how archives are used to be an important part of the development and maintenance of archives and an essential concern of their role as knowledge managers.
Interface in Rhetoric: Authorship and Digital Rhetoric
The final contribution from rhetoric to interface design builds theoretically off the calls for rhetoricians to engage in the production of interfaces by asserting that these activities constitute a form of authorship. These arguments are found in the work of digital rhetoric scholars who, like new media scholars, also study digital forms of communication, but are more specifically concerned with rhetorical issues such as argument, audience, purpose, discourse composition, and meaning-making. These scholars argue that computer software programs, of which interface design is an example, are written in the same way that traditional print discourse is composed. Brown articulates this view, writing that “computational procedures can be used for more than just tool making—they can be deployed as an expressive rhetorical medium” (27). This view is rooted in understanding “authorship as articulation of the power of form as it emerges in texts of all sorts” relative to “the cultural context, material and symbolic, in which discourse circulates” (Campbell qtd. in Kennedy and Long 141). In thinking of this definition that includes “texts of all sorts” that articulate power and draw critically from cultural contexts, we can see clearly from previous discussions of scholarship, that the development of interfaces qualifies as authorship. We can also see this claim implied by new media scholar Stephen Johnson who, in discussing the development of the interface, argues, “There are few creative acts in modern life more significant than this one, and few with such broad social consequences” (17). What is significant about this claim is that it identifies interface development as primarily driven by creativity as opposed to rote fabrication. For the interface to rely on creativity means that it is not a standardized process that will emerge the same regardless of who put sit together; it is subject to the imagination and innovations of the designer. Johnson is also asserting here that the interface carries with it a significant social influence, which can be understood, in conjunction with its created nature, as a form of rhetorical discourse with a persuasive function. James Brown Jr. arrives at the succinct conclusion that we must understand that “computer programs are more than tools, that they are compositions and sometimes even arguments” (29). He argues that we can use software as more than just a delivery mechanism for discourse or as a mode of composition, but that software itself can serve as more than “the background of rhetorical situations,” and instead that “software is one of the available means of persuasion” which “is authored in response to particular situations and problems” (23). This invokes the rhetorical situation which introduces an exigency to the rhetor and to which the discourse is intended to mediate, except in this case that discourse takes the form of the interface. Thinking of themselves as authors allows interface creators to think more productively about their intentions for outcomes, for what arguments are being made, and about their own agency over the process of design as a function of their own composing practice.
In further theorizing the authorship of software development, digital rhetoricians discuss software construction as a kind of discursive product through two main ways: procedural rules and assemblage. Both of these ideas can be applied productively to questions of interface design. Ian Bogost defines procedural rhetoric as the study of how “rules (computational or otherwise) make arguments,” which then “shape an interactive experience” (Brown 27). Building on Bogost’s theory, Ballentine advocates for “a robust understanding of how computers execute processes and how coded procedures make arguments” (277). Wardrip-Fruin also recognizes that “computational processes are an increasingly significant means of expression for authors,” while asserting and that “rather than defining the sequence of words for a book or images for a film, today’s authors are increasingly defining the rules for system behavior” (qtd. in Ballentine 279). Setting rules, like structuring paragraphs and thesis statements for text-based discourse, becomes the means by which the author produces the software. This emphasis on computational rules as a form of argument is especially useful for understanding the inherent rhetoricity of the interface. As discussed, the interface sets “rules” for users, allowing possible actions while restricting others and imposing certain organizational structures on content. These rules shape users experience, and they reflect the designer’s “argument” for how best to represent and move through the content.
The second approach to theorizing the authorship of software comes from understanding digital composition as a process of assemblage. These processes of assemblage are about the creative arrangement of already fabricated materials as opposed to the development of new content. Gane and Beer argue, “New media are designed less to enable us to create cultural objects from scratch than to assemble them from ready-made parts…it is how authorship—and with this creativity and originality—has changed with the emergence of new media” (58). Like the earlier discussion of their term remediation, this form of authorship taking place in digital forms is about taking one medium and representing it through another. Brown also encourages scholars to take an expanded notion of authorship that includes digital production from assemblage. In his chapter “Crossing State Lines: Rhetoric and Software Studies,” Brown explains that writing software is a form of authorship with two dimensions. It is certainly comprised of the expressive content from which user “make meaning,” including the text, images, and videos that users read and experience, but it is also significantly comprised by the codes and processes onto and through which the designers places that content. Both of these dimensions, content and code, can be completely original creations of the developer, but more than likely the digital composition is pulling together content and code already crafted by others. He argues that we must recognize both original content and assemblage are valid forms of authorship and that “understanding both these types of authorship is imperative when making sense of computational artifacts” given that they are often significantly employing both forms (25). Brooke also suggests a notion of assemblage in new media objects, and he calls this authorship drawn from “an ecology of code” (48). This ecosystem from which the software is developed “is comprised not only of grammar, but also of all of those resources for the production of interfaces more broadly construed, including visual, aural, spatial, and textual elements, as well as programming codes,” which means that we must “acknowledge a broader range of resources on which we draw in the production of interfaces” (Brooke 48). Similarly, Johndan Johnson-Eilola theorizes that constructing digital objects, or what he calls “symbolic-analytic work,” is a process by which “people manipulate information, sorting, filtering, synthesizing, and rearranging chunks of data in response to particular assignments or problems” (201). Here, the emphasis is not on generating new content so much as it is about seeing new connections between data and working to organize them in such a way as to articulate those other meaningful arrangements.
It is important to note that although these scholars apply the concept of assemblage as authorship to digital media, it is a concept that has a deeper tradition in rhetoric. It is built upon the idea expressed by Barthes in the 1967 essay “The Death of the Author” that a text is “a multidimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of culture” (876). This notion that the author blends previous works, not original creations, is even more recognizable in digital compositions where new objects can be created by selecting and mixing previously written codes, programs, templates, and scripts. It is a way of thinking about authorship that is similar to other forms of art. The composer, for example, does not invent the notes, just the arrangement of them in a new composition with a selected combination of tempos, chords, and keys. The painter does not invent colors, just determines how they are placed by employing a variety of perspectives, textures, and brush strokes. Just as we understand these activities as forms of true making, true compositions, so too should we understand digital authorship in assemblage. In addition to recognizing assemblage as authorship, it is also notable that assemblage affords greater participation in the production of new media objects. Gane and Beer argue that as “ready-made, partially assembled or composited forms take precedence over creation from scratch” it becomes possible for writers to “achieve effects that were previously restricted to the realm of the expert,” which begins to “close the gap between work and leisure, authors and readers, producers and users, and, to an extent, professionals and amateurs” (58). This is of particular importance for rhetoricians and archivists who wish to develop new interfaces. With assemblage, scholars without extensive training in computer programming are able to participate in interface design as another mode of expression. However, because developing a digital interface requires the creative synthesis of various source codes and digital elements, it does constitute an inherently rhetorical act of production. Applying this more specifically to archives, we can see that there is a doubled authorship in assemblage. We can understand that the archive itself is an assemblage of artifacts, often created by others but selected and arranged by the archivist to create a new way of understanding them in context of their relation to the other archival materials. However, in the creation of the digital archival interface, we can see a second authorship through writing the set of procedures how the user moves through the exhibit and in assembling the digital records and the variety of available programs and technologies used to facilitate the online site’s useability.