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“The Interface Experience: Forty Years of Digital Computing,” (review)
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“The Interface Experience: Forty Years of Digital Computing,”Exhibition, Bard Graduate Center Galley, New York, 3April 2015 through 19 July 2015.

“The Interface Experience” exhibition offered a 40-year retrospective on personal computing. Beginning with Xerox Alto and ending with Microsoft Kinect, the exhibit provided a look at the material culture of interaction as personal computing entered and eventually saturated everyday life. There were no emulators, pictures of machines, or films. “The Interface Experience” gave visitors the opportunity to interact with these machines first-hand. Visitors could draft prose in Bravo (1973–1982), the first word processing application; make spreadsheets in VisiCalc (1979–1985), the first killer app; reminisce about the perils of navigating a file system via MS-DOS (1981–2001); re-experience Aldus Pagemaker (1985–2004); rehearse the pleasures of point and click on the Apple Macintosh (1984–1990); load programs on the Commodore 64 (1982–1994); try their hand at PalmPilot graffiti (1996–2001); and experience what it was like to search the Web via Netscape Navigator (1994–2008), before sheer ubiquity turned Google into a verb. This emphasis on the interactive nature of the medium was the exhibit’s chief virtue and no small feat.

The exhibit fell flat, however, in the logic of its selections. Trading on nostalgia more than historiography distorted the very subject at hand. The Atari 2600 (1977–1992), Radio-Shack TRS-80 (1983–1986), Apple Newton (1994–1998), and Nintendo Wii (2006–2014), gave an impression that most items in the room could be found in the garage of any Silicon Valley Generation X gadget enthusiast. The designers argued that these systems were chosen for their pioneering status and cultural impact, but these valuations are anachronistic. Why, for example, would the Apple iPad (2010 to present) but not the iPod (2001 to present) deserve a place in the annals of [End Page 103]interaction design history? Xerox PARC tabs, pads, and boards were clearly precursors to the iPad. And the iPod, which predates iPad by a decade, changed Apple’s profile in the marketplace by popularly reimagining the form of personal computing. The click wheel helped break the dominance of the point-and-click interface and opened a market for touch-based interactions.

In part, the selections seemed eclectic because the exhibition lacked context. Workstations and laptops were arranged on timelines next to lists of technological specifications and features. There was no information about the events, ideas, cultural forces, fantasies, or anxieties that made each system a compelling form of being close to the machine. For example, why did windows, icons, mouse, pointer devices (WIMP) become the paradigmatic form of the GUI? What social and economic pressures legitimated the transition from character mapped to graphical displays? In keeping with the preference for displaying material culture, the curators might have helped visitors “grok” desktop computing by including peripherals like the Apple LaserWriter. Printers are unsung heroes in personal computing history. They played a central role in the commensuration of paperwork and information processing by binding documents to electronic screens. Their presence might have served as an important reminder that personal computing relied on a whole host of complementary technologies as it migrated into everyday social life.

Ultimately, “The Interface Experience” is a cautionary tale about the dangers of treating the retro market as an archive. The strategy tends to mistake fandom and corporate boosterism as history. So too, it risks missing systems that may have paved the way for intimate relations with computing but never congealed into a recognizable device. Voice-based user interfaces, for example, entered our lives through transactions with bureaucratic institutions like airlines, insurance companies, and government agencies sometime in the late 1990s. No doubt these technologies prepared the way for Siri. More importantly, they expressed an abiding desire to interface through speech.

The exhibit concluded with an obligatory nod toward obsolescence. A dazzling display of cast-off cellular phones, shiny-hard and beetle-bright, but rendered useless by the rise of smartphones, was pinned to the wall like a butterfly collection. By the exit sat a receptacle for device recycling alongside the now-familiar admonishment to “think different” about e-waste...