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Reading in the Field of the GUI

Terry Harpold

Department of English, University of Florida
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"A visible interface is a complete environment in which users can work comfortably, always aware of where they are, where they are going, and what objects are available to them along the way. To be labeled a graphical interface, an interface need only make use of objects that have a distinct graphical representation. Many aspects of the graphical interface may remain invisible." (Bruce Tognazzini, Tog on Interface)

Whatever non-pictorial or non-iconic signifiers they may include, digital media in the age of the graphical user interface (GUI) are consumed largely by being seen. In that relation they draw on a late-modern metaphysics of visibility, space, and agency, the significance of which is largely unacknowledged by designers of those media. The idealized form of the GUI -- what Bruce Tognazzini calls the "visible," as opposed to the merely "graphical," interface -- is bound to a scheme of transparent, emptied spatiality I describe in this paper as "thin" space. In thin space, the objects of knowledge are present, unobscured, open to manipulation and domestication: nothing gets in the way of the user's "movements" in or her mastery of the space. The much-touted usability and "intutiveness" of the GUI depends on these traits of spatial thinness; were they to be impaired (occluded, interrupted -- thickened) in any way, the user would be left confused, disappointed, and dissatisfied; the interface would fail Tognazzini's crucial benchmark of "visibility." In this paper, I argue that the key to making sense of the function of an inevitable thicknessin the field of the GUI lies in thinking critically about the forms of space the GUI presupposes -- grasping them not as transparent, emptied domains, fully permeable to our purposive "interactions" with discrete objects positioned within them, but rather as persistantly impermeable, unresponsive domains, in which objects are imperfectly manipulated, incompletely detachable from their surroundings, and always susceptible to crises of blockage and friction.  I describe a precedent for this critical approach to the spatial relations of symbolic forms: the analysis of eccentric printed texts, where a rich tradition of typographic design and critical theory has had to account for the resistances of ostensibly "empty" fields of the page and codex. In that tradition, material traits of the printed text which are widely considered irrelevant or unfortunate (one is tempted to say, "unintuitive") are understood instead to be essential to the aesthetic and cognitive relations of reading.

Copyright (c)2001 Terry Harpold. All rights reserved.


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