On Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound, by Lori Emerson

On Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound, by Lori Emerson

In Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound, Lori Emerson takes contemporary interface designers and their drive toward transparency to task. She questions the validity of seamless connection, an occasional side effect of ubiquitous computing — why would we want to be unaware of the many ways that computers, networks, and algorithms are shaping our lives, decisions, and interactions? Emerson frames her study through the concept of readingwriting: “the practice of writing through the network, which as it tracks, indexes, and algorithmizes every click and every bit of text we enter into the network, is itself constantly reading our writing and writing our reading” (xiv). Readingwriting, Emerson concludes, represents a unique feeback loop that has broad implications for literature in particular.

Readingwriting could be applied generically as an apt description of the traces we leave as web users, which are subsequently recorded and fed into algorithms that organize and present information in return (read: advertising, search results). Emerson, however, uses the concept in more specific ways throughout the book. Through a media archaeology technique, she studies the technological precursors of electronic literature that is specifically web-driven. Going back further, she ruminates on Emily Dickinson’s use of facicles as an example of a poet who was critically aware of the possibilities for and limitations of her own analogue interface. In this sense, Emerson’s work reminded me of Martin Heidegger’s notion of technology as an en-framer; not a tool, per se, but rather a context-shaper.

Overall, Emerson provides a thought-provoking account of the history of transparent interfaces for contemporary computers. Although she acknowledges the efficiency and approachability of such seamlessness, she also warns against complicit use without an acknowledgement of how one’s various interfaces might be directing their behaviour, interaction, and output.


Work cited

Emerson, Lori. 2014. Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound. Minneapolis: U Minnesota P.
Heidegger, Martin. 1977.  “The Question Concerning Technology.” The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, 3–35. New York and London: Garland Publishing.

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