Lori Emerson, Reading Writing Interfaces

Review by Teresa Daniell
University of Maryland, Baltimore County

Emerson, Lori. Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound.  University of Minnesota Press, 2014. Print.

[1] What does the term "user-friendly" mean to you? If it suggests technology that is easy, even liberating, for users, Reading Writing Interfaces may cause you to rethink what these characteristics of technology really mean today.

[2] Emerson sets the scene in chapter one, describing "ubiquitous computing as the definitive technological innovation of the 21st century" (pg.1)—with 85% of the century still to unfold this is a crucial assertion to consider.  Computing devices are embedded in our everyday lives, and their interfaces continue evolving toward an operability that masks the user's inability to interact in the process used by the machine. Marketing claims, and our belief in the invisibility of interfaces as more direct and natural ways for humans to interact with technology, obfuscate the movement toward effacement of the interface and, thus, our ability to read or write the interface. The belief that clicking a hyperlink is an empowering act of choice is false; clicking merely takes us to a pre-determined choice and is monitored by a search engine that collects our clicks to sell our information back to us without us being aware. Ultimately, we become total consumers of content. Invisibility deprives the user of decision making and stymies creativity.

[3] Several interesting and insightful reviews (Berens, Baetons, Carpenter, Szilak) discuss Emerson's use of media archaeology to demonstrate how interfaces, as mediators between human and machine writing and reading, are becoming more seamless, invisible, and imperceptibly to us, closed.   The more our iPADs and iPhones do for us, the less we know how they do it and what they glean from our clicks, slides, pinches and zooms. Interfaces obscure the inner workings of the technology from the user in the name of invisibility and user friendliness, "the bargain we make when we barter ease for openness".  In examining interface "from a cultural rather than a technological point of view" Emerson reveals "user-friendliness" as an ideology that deprives users of the freedom to create.  These reviews also note Emerson's discussion of digital literature, a genre of literature that is created on and for digital devices.  Digital writing is a practice not only of experimenting with the limits and possibilities of technology but also of reading and writing.  I want to delve a little further into the notion of the user-friendly ideology and the importance of digital literature as an antidote to its ominous underpinnings.

[4] Slicing into the technological past, Emerson examines the shift in the decade from the mid-70s to the mid-80s from user-friendly computers that used graphical user interface (GUI) for creativity and tinkering to user-friendly computers that use GUI for task management.  Apple's marketing influenced this shift as it created an aura of superiority around their products.  Apple II had eight expansion slots; the IPAD is self-contained.  The ease of manipulating Apple interfaces gives a false notion of the sovereignty of the individual, of action, when in reality the user is a consumer of ready-made software and information. We don't own the apps we use; we are granted access to them. This shift from command line interfaces to the closed system of today's ubiquitous computing was a turning point in the formation of the user-friendly ideology.

[5] Another cut into the media past takes us to the 1960s and '70s where McLuhan's concept that the medium is the message influences media studies.   The typewriter was both a tool of the writer and an extension of the writer.  Emerson notes that for McLuhan the typewriter is a medium that ushers in an electronic age and a new orality.   Playing his philosophy forward, contemporary interface means that as a medium the interface's message is constraint.  She reminds us of McLuhan's belief that "media are also inherently ideological" (pg. 141).  Technology moved quickly from facilitating content creation to allowing choices from predetermined content.   The computer moved from open, flexible and extensible to closed, transparent, and task-oriented.  This reversal resulted in a transparency that didn't mean the option to "look under the hood," but a glossy surface that shielded the depths of the computer.  This reversal set the stage for the ideology of user-friendliness.

[6] Her final archaeological dig examines Emily Dickinson as a poet working with and against the limits and possibilities of pencil and paper as interface.  Emerson sees Dickinson's fascicles as media that depend on an interface just as mid-twentieth century typewriters did and twenty-first century computers do.  Consider for example that Dickinson's pinning's of alternate endings on scraps of paper to her poems are a type of hyperlink.  Emerson also emphasizes that interface is more than an intermediary layer between device and human, but is a "transition point between the human reader/writer and what is/how it is written" (pg.132).   The point is that all writing comes to us through an interface and each interface defines the nature of reading and writing.  Looking at these older interfaces is a way to bring the digital back into view and to underscore the consumer orientation of today's user-friendly ideology.

[7] Ultimately demystifying technological devices by uncovering how interfaces limit as well as create certain creative possibilities, Emerson also argues for the importance of digital literature.  Because digital literature courts "difficulty, defamiliarization, and glitch in order to draw attention to the limits these technologies place on our thoughts and our expressions", it serves as antidote to the increasing presence of invisibility by disrupting the drive toward invisibility and, thus, saving us from turning into only consumers rather than producers of content.

[8] Digital literature unties the workings of the computer not just to make code visible, but to make the code the work of literature.  Digital writers are insurgents, working from within the technology rather than in opposition to it to make the invisible visible. For example, Emerson cites writers of iPoem apps that take advantage of multitouch options to let the user play with the text of the poem;  creators of open-source poetry generators; and writers who create Jane's spaces, hyperlinks that can't be found with typical search engines but with URLs known to the users' internet, and which would not be possible under Apple's tight restrictions and their closed box.  Ironically, Apple advertises its products are for thinkers.

[9] Some 1980s computers facilitated user participation; writers of the time played with and tested the parameters of the new technology. For example, in the early '80s Canadian experimental writer bpNichol produced a set of kinetic poems published in Apple IIe BASIC and remarked on the possibilities the new technology opened up that didn't exist with the typewriter interface.

[10] Emerson cites examples of concrete poetry, or poems that make a shape with the text, and dirty concrete poetry, messy typed over concrete poems, as ways to experiment with the limitations and possibilities of the typewriter from the 1950s to the 1970s.  These are activist poems, created at a time when the interface between human and devices allowed an open creativity missing in today's computing habits. Composers of these poems, like today's digital writers, use the devices of their age to rebel against the prescriptive nature of the device, the underlying ideology of user-friendliness.

[11] Emerson concludes her book with a nod to Siva Vaidhyanathan's theory of "The Googlization of Everything."   Our constant connection to networks is changing the role of the writer and the nature of writing.  The network tracks, indexes, reads and writes our writings and clicks; the search engine culture, a significant feature of the user-friendly ideology, is also becoming limited by Google.  In examining a literary critique of Google that works to "wrest Google from itself" (pg. xxi), one example Emerson cites is Constant Dullart, who  created a work of art in 2012 called Terms of Service, in which the Google search bar becomes an animated mouth reciting Google's latest rules for using their products.  More recently, digital writers are thwarting the tracking, monitoring, and indexing of their work by publishing their digitally created writings in book bound form.

[12] In Reading Writing Interfaces, part of the Electronic Mediations series, Emerson makes several contributions to the field of media/digital culture studies.  She provides a cogent explanation of the ideology of user friendliness and opens a discussion of its growth and impact on our culture.  The "magic" of Apple products helped create this ideology; Emerson seeks to expose the man behind the curtain.  She expands discussion on the role of writers of digital literature as agents of insurgency in a culture that is quickly naturalizing a consumer-oriented focus on technology.  Her excavation reveals the long-standing conflict between those who deny us access to tools of creativity and the digital writers-readers who work to undermine the power of the user-friendly ideology.  Her book is also a guidebook for practitioners of media archaeology; as Kathi Berens observes, Emerson does rather than theorizes media archaeology.  Such a methodology explores the evolution of technology without getting trapped in a linear progression.

[13] Ultimately, Emerson asserts that we cannot understand how our machines shape us and our experiences without examining the production process of the device.  She notes that the antiquated book is fast becoming a safe haven for writers who create their works digitally but publish by print on-demand.  Her final thought, "Perhaps, the future of digital literature is reading-writing that is born of the network but lives offline" (pg.184), is an open invitation for writer-reader feedback.  As writers in the 21st century, we produce original content while wrestling with devices that limit our creativity; as readers we must recognize the impact of the medium's ideology on the content.  Perhaps this writer-reader problematic has been the case in any age; then, Reading Writing Interfaces is today's clarion call to address it.


  1. «http://hyperrhiz.io/hyperrhiz11/reviews/berens.html»
  2. «http://www.imageandnarrative.be/index.php/imagenarrative/article/view/556/409»
  3. «http://theliteraryplatform.com/2014/08/from-the-digital-to-the-bookbound/»
  4. For example, see Jason Lewis' «http://www.poemm.net/projects/speak.html»
  5. «http://www.vispo.com/bp/javascriptversion.htm»
  6. «http://hyperrhiz.io/hyperrhiz11/reviews/berens.html»