Writing Technology:
Studies on the
Materiality of Literacy

By Christina Haas

Chapter 6
Social Dynamics, or
Scientific Truth, or
Sheer Human Cussedness:
Design Decisions in the
Evolution of a User Interface

Haas' narrative of changes to the Andrew system -- a campus-wide system supporting distributed files, multimedia e-mail, and a programming library -- is used to "argue that today's literacy technologies are neither inevitable nor self-determining" (p. 137). This part of the book is by far its strongest section, as it shows in detail the problems that humanists often encounter when stepping into the inner sanctum of any technological priesthood, in this case, that of computer programmers.

Haas begins her description of changes to the Andrew system by citing the maxim of Nathaniel Borenstein, in his work Programming as if People Mattered, that a well-designed computer system should be "so well suited to its intended use that the end user will never once stop to think about" its designers. While such an attitude is important in designing an effective interface, Haas believes it "can be dangerously seductive" for scholars and researchers interested in critically examining technology. "The naturalness of a well-designed computer interface," Haas writes, "may suggest an inevitability that masks the human decisions that have created the technological artifact. Careful studies of technology development can get behind the mask of inevitability" (p. 139).

In the remainder of this chapter, Haas goes behind "the mask" of the Andrew system by detailing disagreements that erupted when proposals were made to change the Andrew scroll bar and menu to make them more intuitive for first-time users. Her narrative is based on her own experience as a member of the university's User Interface Group, as well as on interviews she conducted with other participants and on analysis of bulletin board messages relevant to the project.

What is fascinating about her narrative is how Haas portrays disagreements about these interface changes as products of a complex array of factors, including "power and politics, matters of timing and cost, and rival theories about software design" (p. 163). One example of such "power and political" issues occurred when the director of the campus Informational Technology Center (ITC) focused public attention on concerns of Haas' User Interface Group. Up until this time, the UIG had suffered "ambiguous political status," with its members being viewed by most ITC designers as mere consultants and troubleshooters outside "the design loop." The ITC director's shift in attention, however, made it more difficult for system designers to dismiss the recommendations of the User Interface Group, which eventually succeeded in affecting changes to the interface.

This narrative aptly supports Haas' main contention that technologies are neither self-determining and all-powerful nor inherently transparent. Indeed, Haas came away from her experience with the Andrew system convinced that computer technology is instead "an evolving and fluid but nonetheless powerful cultural system, a system that contains many 'voices,' some of them contradictory but all of them interested" (p. 165).

Return to Front Node / Book Table of Contents