Why technological concepts are smarter than sociological ones; interfaces I

A key question in philosophy and civil sociology (as opposed to the ordinary State sociology) is to grasp how entities and objects communicate, interrelate and every now and then shape new emergent bodies.

Engineers already have one such brilliant concept: interface. But before elaborating on that, let us see what happens when an average sociologist "borrows" the terminology of technology:

/.../ interface analysis grapples with 'multiple realities' made up of potentially conflicting social and normative interests, and diverse and contested bodies of knowledge. It becomes imperative, then, to look closely at the question of whose interpretations or models (e.g., those of politicians, scientists, practitioners or citizens) prevail in given scenarios and how and why they do so (Long 2001: 88)

In two sentences much of the world disappears and we are left with the "multiple realities" of human access, where there is nothing but "social" and "normative" interests. And the only objects connecting are "politicians, scientists, practitioners or citizens". What a weak interface! No wonder sociologists never seem to find the missing masses.

To understand concrete things and events, such as workplaces, scientific laboratories, parties, infrastructure and telephones, we are far better off by turning to computer science or industrial design.

Interfaces can be made of hardware or software, of object-oriented code, or in the case of soft humans; by places, protocols and translations.

We take the average desktop computer. It has multiple hardware interfaces, some of them on the outside such as USB-ports, VGA screen connections and ethernet plugs. These in turn follow specific protocols to interface with other devices, such as keyboards, screens and the internet (TCP/IP is (one of) my religions <3).

Besides these pretty blackboxed protocols (to hackers and programmers they are gray or white) there is usually a GUI (graphical user interface) and/or CLI (command line interface). The average Macintosh user only uses the GUI to render advanced computing understandable to his or her performances. Different interfaces enables you to do different things, with different speeds and accuracy, and a computer off the shelf can thus be many different things. The same hardware interfaces can be configured to be either a web server, a crypto-device or just a word processor for someone writing a novel. This is one example of the fantastic power of interfaces and their ability to make things multiple!

But it's not only computers and state of the art technology that comes with interfaces. Take a library. It also has plenty of hardware and software interfaces. There is a catalogue of thousands of books, there are chairs and tables for interfacing with books that you pick off the shelves, and if the library is nextlevel, it is equipped with a café where humans can interact using the protocol "language".

Once you study one of the interfaces closely, you can find even more interfaces. The library catalogue is programmed with lines of code that interact with computer hardware, which in turn synchronizes data via the network interface. The books in the shelves are usually in the standard ink-on-paper GUI, with exception of tactile alphabets and audio books. And the café interface of interacting humans may be configured to promote people sitting together, excluding perhaps certain people by adjusting the price of coffee, etc.

Interfaces are always created with a certain degree of plasticity, so that they are able to go beyond a single-purpose link. The USB-port is able to talk to thousands of devices, linked in a serial fashion. The Tahrir square is able to host millions of people overthrowing a dictator, and my notebook allows me to scribble down text in all languages, and as a bonus feature I can draw pictures, diagrams and funny cats.

But the plasticity is always conditioned and configurable. My firewall prevents malicious code from entering my network interface, the electronic gates of the library tries to stop book-thieves, and by using academic jargon in the pub, I can in a very unsympathetic way exclude people from entering a conversation.

But on a philosophical level there is a more profound feature of interfaces. They seem to interdefine sensible objects. With a few keystrokes on my command line interface I can turn an old half-wrecked computer into a web server, that can be reached and interacted with over the internet. By hanging out in cafés talking about cool clothing, aesthetics and trendy cigarettes, I can turn myself into a hipster, and by reconfiguring a street with concrete barriers the local municipality can change the identity of a noisy traffic-saturated street to a posh walk for window-shoppers (gentrification).

These are only a few preliminary thoughts on the roles of interfaces and objects. Perhaps more will follow another day.