picture of a laptop opening

In 1994, Cynthia and Richard Selfe explained the ways in which interface design reflects and reifies dominant cultural, linguistic, and epistemological paradigms. They concluded their article on interface rhetoric by encouraging people to push back against the tendency to "deal with technology not as critics but as users" (p. 496) and encouraging us to engage in conceptual redesigns of interfaces.

This webtext responds to that call and promotes a more critical awareness of interface design and its hidden ideologies.

In an attempt to look at rather than through the digital windows and screens that pervade our daily lives (Lanham, 1993), this gallery curates re-imaginings of the Graphical User Interface—the landscape of objects, icons, and windows illuminated by the click of a mouse, the stroke of a key, the tap of a screen. It presents re-imaginings of six interfaces which are familiar to its curator: a white, middle-class, English-speaking woman who was born and lives in the U. S. This webtext is a gallery that invites exploration into these interfaces, which have been de-familiarized in order to call attention to the material, infrastructural, tangible, and aesthetic components of web design. In this, it makes opaque what Christina Haas (1996) and many others have called the "transparency" of the interface, combatting the myth that "technology is a kind of distortionless window" (p. 22). Specifically, the gallery offers space to question and explore the metaphors, orientations, languages, and navigational patterns that shape our embodied experiences with interfaces.

The gallery is designed to help us foster what might be called "critical interface literacy." If we define "interface literacy" as the ability to make meaning with and through interfaces, then adding an element of criticality to this process means recognizing the cultural, social and historical ways in which interfaces invite or exclude certain people, practices, and positionalities into this meaning-making process. In other words, critical interface literacy means reading and writing not only with and through interfaces but also understanding the systems of power, exclusion, and oppression that are always reflected but rarely noticed in interface design.

"[A]n interface necessarily limits the full range of possible interactions in a specific and arbitrary way.... Interfaces slice, cleave, and individuate. Each is open for some and closed to other." - Benjamin Bratton (2016, p. 221)

The gallery is intended to disrupt familiar interactions with interfaces and to "create interfaces that frustrate us as readers, because they seek to defamiliarize the interfaces we no longer notice" (Emerson, 2014, p. 34). The gallery invites you to interact with a variety of interfaces, each redesigned to foreground a different aspect of an interface's designed materiality, aesthetics, tangibility, and information architecture. These re-imagined interfaces allow you to "defamiliarize and thus resee" (Emerson, 2014, p. 35) the designed components of everyday interfaces, making legible the ways in which they can constrain or allow certain practices, literacies, and experiences.

In this project, each re-imagined interface disrupts the familiarity of another, offering space to question different aspects of interface design.

These six interfaces call into question:

As a whole, this gallery is intended to prompt a more critical awareness of the material conditions mediating online interactions and the social and historical underpinnings of these mediations. Wandering through this gallery and toward a more critical interface literacy opens paths to a more critical awareness of the stakes of the internet and computation writ large.

By illuminating the ideological, cultural, and logical structures that are designed to disappear within interfaces, these de-familiarized, (re)imagined, speculative interfaces can participate in the ongoing work of those who believe, like Ben McCorkle (2012), that, "by making the familiar strange...we can potentially open up spaces for greater access, allowing those groups who have historically been technologically marginalized a means by which to spot, cross, and even shape that line themselves" (p. 185). In making these possibilities and limitations seeable and readable, a critical interface literacy allows for the re-seeing and rewriting of interfaces, opening frames and windows of possibility toward more imaginative, inclusive futures.

"We work within the models embodied by digital environment and instruments, and we ignore the implications of this at our peril." – Johanna Drucker (2009, p. 36)