1 & 1 = interface

I heard a talk by the founder of secondlife on the longnow site, and early into his talk he posed the question: “what might happen if we digitize everything.”

I wonder what that question means, and how could we possibly digitize everything? I assume he is referring to creating simulations of offline elements that would exist in secondlife. With this in mind I began to think about the experience of manipulating simulations on a desktop computer and this quote came to mind:

When people say “interface”, they usually mean VIRTUALITY.

By “virtuality”, I refer to the opposite of reality: the seeming of a thing, anything. Most things have both a reality (nuts and bolts) and a virtuality (conceptual structure and feel). A building and a car have a physical reality and a virtuality– a conceptual structure and feel. The only thing that doesn’t have a virtuality is something you’re not supposed to know about or feel– like a fishhook (till it’s too late).

We don’t usually design software interfaces, we design software virtuality. The only time you design a software “interface” is when a program already exists with very specific functions, and you are just deciding how that function is to be shown to the user. But if you are designing or deciding that function– which is more usually the case– then you are designing its conceptual structure and feel, or its virtuality.

–Ted Nelson.

When Nelson equates the use of the word interface with the word virtuality I think he’s saying, to expand on his examples, that buildings and cars have a physical and virtual aspect, but those aspects are intertwined at essentially every scale, so that one wouldn’t describe the doorway of the building as the interface mediating the system of bricks, steel, and mortar with the system of using the resulting space. The idea is that the physical elements within the form of the building have an experiential quality of what may be described as buildingness that can be described as its’ virtual aspect but that cannot be literally separated and transposed onto another form, or literally removed from the building itself for inspection. The physical and virtual are descriptions of a complex relationship between elements within an environment that include us.

The virtual aspect seems to be the intersection of the conscious mind with the form at every scale where the form is still in tact, and this virtual aspect is inseparable from and essential to the identification of the form as a building. The same is true for the car – although that is probably more difficult to fathom now as so much of the car is becoming embedded with computerized extras that have designed interfaces – these are going beyond interior sound and hvac systems to computer assisted parallel parking and exterior lighting control. I imagine Mr. Nelson would feel the incorporation of such extras creates overt virtual experiences by separating the user from the center of the driving experience (the meaning and experience of the car are created at the intersection of the driver with the vehicle, which is to say that the user is a part of the physical and virtual aspects of the form, just as the building needs humans for the building to actually be a building).

By creating elements of the driving experience where the user is put in a position of being allowed access to certain aspects of the function of the car an interface condition is established as the user feels like they have become a component part of a system of control and feedback, whose behaviors must fit within specific guidelines. When you can clearly identify the interface between the physical and virtual you are in a digitized environment.

When you argue that the gas pedal or elevator are the interfaces to the car or building you have acquired the mental model of the digitized world. I think that when we talk about digitizing everything we are talking about a mental model of interoperability and interchangeability of component parts, at the core of which is an idea that things can, and perhaps should, be able to be broken apart into discriminate bits and then manipulated and recombined with other things, under the influence, gaze and will of a detached but powerful participant. When we follow this model we become components, too.

Which is to say that we can learn a lot from interactive 3d graphics and we can and will take those lessons into the offscreen world.

So, really, what is happening as we digitize everything?