I’m very excited to come here and speak here. I’ve been trying to follow the work that is coming out of here, and am very excited about seeing very fresh ideas that are relevant to the work that we’re doing. I’m teaching at Shenkar College in Ramat-Gan, which is just outside Tel Aviv, and volunteering with an NGO called The Public Knowledge Workshop that is doing work on civic engagement and government transparency in Israel. I’m slightly depressed, but hopefully it won’t show too much. (Politically only.) Anyway.
What I’m going to talk about today is a theme I’ve been working with for the last decade or so, and developed through my years in New York. I spent five years in New York between 2005 and 2010, and this is kind of a theme that as a designer I’ve been working with for many years now.
I’m going to discuss the theme of interface and maybe the politics of interface through the communication cycle, the idea of protocols, and then I’ll try to suggest interfaces for resistance, and ways for that to be addressed as well.
When we talk about life online we have all of the euphemism, it’s distributed, it’s open, it’s interactive, participatory, democratic, social, emancipatory. At the same time, when we’re talking about online life, we’re talking about destructing, controlling, intrusive, abusive, repressive, shallow. All of these terms, all of these hopes, all of these concerns when it comes to online life, we meet them through the interface. So the interface is this point of interface between us and all of this technology. It’s at the heart of the debate. So what is interface?
There are many definitions. The one that I find interesting is “a common boundary or interconnection between systems, equipments, concepts, and human beings.” This is one of many definitions, but I think one part of it that I think makes sense and communicates specifically is this idea of common boundary and interconnection. This idea of the interface being something common, something that we share, something that we connect through implies some kind of relationship between these systems, equipments, concepts, human beings. And it doesn’t imply necessarily a level of control, it doesn’t imply that one side should be stronger than the other or so on. This idea of commonality is something that has been discussed through media studies, and before for many years, this idea of mutuality and interconnectedness.
In the communication cycle, we have—it’s like in Sesame Street. I have an idea, I talk to you, you have the idea. You have an idea, you talk to me, we both have [the] idea. Now the two of us have two ideas, how great. In 1980 Stuart Hall wrote a paper called “Encoding, Decoding” and at the heart of his paper was this critique of this communication cycle. He was saying that this is actually not the way it works. He said this is basically too simplistic. What is happening there is a bit more complex. He called this “textual determinism,” this idea that one side can plant ideas, kind of dragged and dropped into the mind of another person, that’s not how communication actually works. He tried to focus on the process of how communication happens, and he said first of all there’s encoding. I have an idea, I encode it into a different form (in the case of this illustration into speech) so the idea is turned into sounds. So this body of knowledge is encoded into sound, and the sound is definitely not the body of knowledge. And as long as we have meaningful discourse, as long as you can hear me and understand my funny accent and so on, if you’re in the back and you can’t hear me well, then we don’t have meaningful discourse and there’s room in the front. But the point is that this is assuming you can actually hear me, and understand me to an acceptable level.
Then there’s the process of decoding, decoding sound through listening in this case, into a new body of knowledge. So if in Sesame Street it was like I have a triangle and now you have a triangle, so I have a triangle and what you have is not a triangle anymore. It’s different. I don’t know what it is, you don’t really know what I had in my brain. This process, both the encoding process and the decoding process are creative processes, processes where the information changes.
I was really interested in that Stuart Hall was writing about television, specifically, in 1980. That was the medium that was being researched, and there were a lot of concerns about what does television do. He referred to three types of code. He was saying one way of decoding is through a dominant or hegemonic code. The recipient decodes the message using the same code it was encoded in, as is basically. Think a weather or sports broadcast, or a certain type of radio host, that whatever they say is being accepted as is. So when I’m listening to the sports forecast, for example, I don’t ask myself, “Well they said it was a touchdown, but is it really a touchdown?” It’s not really relevant. In some cases it is relevant to question the message, but the hegemonic code would be kind of accepting everything that is there.
The negotiated code is more critical yet not completely dismissive of the reading. Think NPR. NPR claims it doesn’t have a liberal bias, you know it has a liberal bias, but you see yourself as intelligent enough to spot it. But it’s still useful, it’s still useful to listen to it. You take what you can get.
Then there’s the oppositional code. In the oppositional code, the message becomes an opportunity to deconstruct the code. Think a feminist reading of “Little Red Riding Hood” or The Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” or the “Hitler Gets Angry” meme. We know that what the original message was supposed to be, but we refer to original encoding in a completely different way. Most memes actually are somewhat oppositional.
For me, I’m really interested in what happens when it’s not conversation or television. What happens when communication is structured through interface, and specifically web interfaces. When the message is encoded, when we see a message on the web, it’s encoded through interface. We all celebrate and enjoy how expressive the Internet is, and how expressive the tools of the Internet are, but this expression is at the level of creating these web pages. When it comes to the decoding of these messages, it’s basically the same idea. You get the message, you decode it, you understand what you understand from it. So far, pretty much the same model.
The thing is what happens when we’re trying to encode our message to the “Internet” or to a web page. When we respond to the system or the web site, it is always through the system’s dominant interface. If interface is an important part of how we communicate online, we don’t actually get to choose what interface to use. We basically work withing the construct of the interface that we were given. I’ll give you an example to make it a bit simpler to understand.
This is from a friend of mine Leila Haddad, she’s a Palestinian blogger and journalist. She tried to order flight tickets on British Airways, and you’ve all probably come across this dropdown, “What is your nationality?” She’s looking down the list to find her nationality, and under “P” there’s no Palestinian nationality. So the interface demands this level of obedience. This is who you can be. But the interface also teaches obedience. If you come into a problem like that, that’s where you call the company support, right? So she called the support of British Airways, and the person on the other side was saying, “Okay I’m looking in my system.” and in that person’s system there was another dropdown menu with no Palestinian identity or nationality or passports or documents or whatever. So even when you talk to a human, that conversation is mitigated through the interface. The same dominant interface was there as well.
Lisa Nakamura, who’s researching race online, she calls it “menu-driven identities,” Interfaces that limit and define what we are allowed to be. Think how many years it took for Facebook to accept different types of gender definitions. It’s the same thing. Why is that a dropdown menu? Why can I only be one of these things?
Let’s talk about protocol. To understand the role of user interface we need to dive deeper into the communication protocol. This work is inspired by the work of Alex Galloway and other thinkers on this topic. Specifically I’m trying to think what is different about the web in that sense. When we’re talking about traditional media, we’re talking about centralized protocol, broadcast, one-to-many. That’s a consistent protocol. Television is always one-to-many. Same with newspapers and broadcast radio. The fact that it’s consistent means that the question of the interface in the television case is not that big of an issue. When you understand the interface of the television, when you understand it’s consistent, you can move on. Same with an interactive protocol like telephone. This is one-to-one, it’s interactive, but it’s still a consistent protocol. It’s a protocol that doesn’t change every time I pick up the phone.
When we go into digital media, we have different kinds of protocols. We have email, we have chat, we have networked games, we have voice over IP, and all of them actually have a consistent protocol. When I’m sending an email, I always need an address, it should be @-something and so on. I’m not getting every email trying to ask myself what am I supposed to do now? When talking about protocols, there’s the idea of the seven layers of the OSI model. The OSI model is kind of technical, but the things we should care about—this is the protocol of the Internet, the different layers of the protocol of the Internet. We have the Internet Protocol layer, that’s where TCP/IP lives, that’s basically how packet switching happens. Basically everything that we know about the Internet being networked and so on happens there.
But the top layer of the OSI model is the application layer. That’s where we have our different applications like email clients, voice over IP, network games, and so on, and also a browser. When we open the browser, I think something slightly different happens, because the browser’s protocol is flexible. On the web, the protocol is basically a question of interface. Every web page basically adds another layer of protocol, another layer of possible control, and I would suggest that the OSI model needs to be updated with another layer when we’re talking about the web, a layer of interface. Specifically user interface. If in the application layer we are using a browser, then we can get different kinds of applications that really change the way we should think about control and communication online. We have to take into account the interface question is a governance question. It’s a question of who sets the rules, who’s supposed to be abiding by these rules, what is the process of making rules?
You’ve probably noticed that this is kind of a media studies-inspired thing, and I tried but I couldn’t resist including Marshall McLuhan.
We are in the middle of a tremendous clash between the old and the new. The medium does things to people and they’re always completely unaware of this. They don’t really notice the new medium that is wrapping them up. They think of the old medium because the old medium is always the content of the new medium, as movies tend to be the content of TV, and as books used to be the content, novels used to be the content of movies. And so every time a new medium arrives, the new medium is the content and it is highly observable, highly noticeable. But the real roughing up and massaging is done by the new medium, and it is ignored.
Marshal McLuhan, television interview
That’s his classic spiel, the old medium is the content of the new medium, so the books have become the content of film, film has become the content of TV, and then TV has become the content of the web, right? Well, not only. There’s a lot of things going on on the web, not just the old medium. In a sense we can say this is what McLuhan meant by “the medium is the message.” But that’s only true as long as the medium has a consistent protocol, because I would say the medium is the message when we’re talking about the kind of media that we have today. We can think about it as interface determinism. It kind of determines that by pointing at a medium, we are also pointing at the interface. Maybe the interface is the message. Maybe that’s what McLuhan actually meant, he just never thought of media having different interfaces, which is what we have right now. Maybe the message and the rules that govern it become ambiguous when the interface changes every time. Adopting from McLuhan can only go so far because I don’t really share his techno-determinism, but this is kind of a response to him.
I’d like to bring up another important and influential thinker, Donald Rumsfeld. Trying to make the case for the war in Iraq and referring to the question of WMDs, Rumsfeld went on an interesting philosophical statement that you probably remember, “there are known knowns, there are things we know that we known, there are known unknowns, there are things that we know that we don’t know, but there are also unknown unknowns.” There are things that we don’t know that we don’t know, there are things that are so far from what we can even imagine, and that’s a good reason to go to war without proof of WMDs.
When Slavoj Žižek came across this, it was too tasty for him to ignore and he enjoyed the rhetoric, but he said basically this is great, but Rumsfeld forgot the fourth option: there are unknown knowns. What about the things that we don’t know that we know. This is the real reason for the war. The subconscious, that’s where the ideology happens. And Žižek actually writes about the fact that that’s where design happens, that’s how design works. Design uses the unknown known, the things that we don’t know that we know, things that work on us without us knowing.
I would add that’s how interface works. When it comes to user interface design and usability, I think Steve Krug would agree, but the discourse in interaction design is trying to keep the known, unknown. So the fact that we don’t know that we know is kind of good for interaction design, at least in the professional debate. Steve Krug wrote one of the bibles of user interface, and this its title Don’t Make Me Think. I’m sure some of you have come across it. It was published in 2000 and widely quoted and vastly translated. It has framed a lot of the discourse about the role of interaction design as lowering the cognitive load to a minimum. And let’s put things in perspective: that is true, to a certain degree. One of the terms that we speak about in interaction design is affordance. Affordance is how interfaces or how tools communicate what you are expected to do with them.
But then the question that should be asked is what attention do we afford or, in the case of the web, how is our attention being afforded? Because when attention becomes the most rare resource in the Internet, the attention is becoming something that we both use, but our attention is being used. It’s being afforded, it’s becoming a currency on the web. So we’ve established that there are quite a few political issues involved, and when we’re coming to a site, we’re not too much in a position of affecting them. So how can we try to think of interfaces for resistance, or resisting the paradigm of the interface? I would suggest a division of tactical resistance, strategic resistance, and logistic resistance.
Around the so-called “Web 2.0” around ten years ago, there was a lot of excitement about user-generated content. They’re asking us what we think, how amazing is that? It’s like authorship, all of a sudden, can happen because all of a sudden the content of the web is not just content, it’s also interfaces that would allow us to create content. That’s when the interface is kind enough to allow us to express ourselves. I would call that the first depth of authorship.
The second depth would be user-generated context. Think about mashups, embeds. This is built into the web protocol. Think of taking a Craigslist postings and putting them on a Google Map. That was a big deal when it happened for the first time. Now creating the context of taking this and that and putting them together is a new type of authorship. This kind of authorship is built into the web’s protocol, the idea that I can take one resource and another resource and put them together, that’s how the web works. It’s the same flexibility that also gives us trackers and ad networks. So it’s not necessarily used on our behalf.
The third option I would suggest would be user-generated interfaces. This is also built into the protocol of the Internet. Having users change what the site allows them to do, usually by modifying the browser, mainly with browser extensions. The idea that you can take your browser and you can change it and redefine what the browser can do is something that can extend what we might want to call interface literacy, this idea that it’s not only about how do I read the interface in front of me, or how do I lower cognitive load, but how do I mitigate this political question of governance that happens on the web.
One way of addressing that is through tactical resistance. The tactical resistance would happen on the interface layer. This is a subversion of the interface’s use. I think that a textbook example for that would be Google bombing. This was around the time of the attack at the beginning of the war in Iraq. This was a parody of not finding weapons of mass destruction. When you searched the web for weapons of mass destruction, you would get that as the first result on Google. That happened by a concerted effort from different bloggers that opposed the war. They all wrote the words “weapons of mass destruction” and linked them to this page, which raised the Google rank for this page and made it the first result for “weapons of mass destruction,” so turning PageRank into an interface. PageRank is not supposed to be an interface, or a user interface. What this kind of tactical resistance represents is a hit and run. It’s limited in scope, for better or worse. It’s a limited investment, for better or worse. A lot of hacking and culture-jamming happens on this level of resistance. It’s about learning how the system works and finding its vulnerabilities, taking advantage of the interface’s openness. So the interface is open to a certain degree; this is an opportunity. Kind of teaching the system something it didn’t know about itself. Most of these cases are symbolic gestures of resistance, so protest action and political art is mainly tactical in that sense.
The second type of resistance would be strategic resistance, and I would suggest that that’s the kind of resistance that happens in the application layer. That is basically saying yes we’re supposed to be browsing the web through these softwares, let’s try to see how can we change that, how do we change the browser itself? I deliberately chose an example that is not political but commercial. This is Book Burro. It’s not active anymore but there are quite a few similar ones. What Book Burro does is something that Amazon would never do: tell you on each book page where you can find the book a better price online, and where you can find it in public libraries based on how far they are from where you are right now. We look at that and say, “Oh. Yeah, I need that.” None of us would even think in the direction of creating an interface like that, because we’re completely submerged within the politics of interface that we are not a part of— that we are not supposed to have agency there.
Does anybody know what the most popular extension both on Firefox and Chrome? Adblock Plus. As soon as extensions became a thing on Firefox, this happened. Because we don’t necessarily want to see ads, and in some cases we don’t necessarily want to be tracked by ads. This is arguably one of the reasons for the Google Chrome project. Adblock Plus was one of the biggest hurdles for Google AdWords from extending and Google had to be in a position of leverage in front of Adblock Plus. It was obvious that with all of the euphemism around Google being a great supporter of open source, Chrome could not have started with no extensions, and could not ignore Adblock Plus and say, “This is a browser with no Adblock Plus.” But what they did, because they’re smart, they created leverage of Adblock Plus’ destruction. Google pays Adblock Plus. How many of you know that? Most of you don’t know that. Google pays Adblock Plus to change one thing about its interface. Adblock Plus added a checkbox that says “Allow inobtrusive ads.” [whispered:] Google ads.
So, redefining the question of why do we not want ads. Do we not want ads because we don’t want banners, or do we not want to be tracked? It’s completely redefined through Adblock Plus now, and this is one of the reasons there are a lot of forks to the Adblock Plus project that don’t have this checkbox. This is also one of the things that makes the claim that Adblock Plus is blackmailing ad networks true.
Audience: How much money? Do we know?
I can talk about it later, but one of the examples I can bring up is my project together with Helen Nissenbaum and Daniel Howe, AdNauseam. We basically created an extension that works with your ad blocker. Every ad blocked by your blocker is clicked by AdNauseam. We click all of the ads on the web, basically flooding the profiles that the ad networks are constructing and planting a lot of mistrust between advertisers and ad networks.
This approach is more of a “hit and stay” approach. It has larger scope, for better or worse, larger investment, for better or worse. It’s about developing alternative services. It’s a deeper and less traditional reading of the protocol. The political value here goes beyond the symbolic, it’s more than a gesture of resistance. It’s a solid resistance to the interface’s demanded obedience, a concrete political power to be reckoned with. (And it’s harder to make an art career out of that. Just FYI.)
And the third layer is logistic resistance. Now we’re talking about resisting the Internet Protocol, changing the deep technical protocol like TCP/IP either through slow bureaucratic processes or through revolution, that’s how big protocols change. If you get rid of a hegemonic protocol like TCP/IP, you basically need to create a new hegemony to replace it. It’s a big political and powerful and often conservative process through standards committees, and when one standard is replaced with a new one, it breaks everything above it. So this is something that is kind of tough, and the example for attempts to challenge the TCP/IP protocol is this: I haven’t seen any. We basically haven’t seen serious attempts to say we can go beyond TCP/IP. You are the crowd who can tell me, “No, you’re wrong. There’s this and this and that.” and I’m waiting to hear that after the talk. I’ve seen a lot of attempts for mesh networks and other things that are actually built on top of TCP/IP, and none of the approaches that basically say whatever was invented half a century ago is not the way to go.
Evgeny Morozov, who can be seen as both an important and provocative thinker, and an arrogant and violent troll (a bit of both, I guess), defines it as technological defeatism, this belief that since a given technology is here to stay there’s nothing we can do about it other than get on with it and simply adjust our norms. I think this critique is actually very valuable. There are things that we don’t like about the way protocols are working, but we don’t see enough serious attempts to challenge them. It’s like this concept that has been with us for fifty years, and it’s as if this is the way we’re supposed to work from now on.
All of this critique of things that have to do with the Internet, it’s only online, it’s not real. Why do we need to worry about that so much? But just try to think how many hours we spend in front of these screens. Most of our work days are in front of these screens, and then we spend more and more time in front of governing interfaces, so most of our daily experience in contemplating authority and new rule systems is in front of web interfaces. Because when we talk about the web demanding obedience, it’s 24⁄7. Every web page that I open has the subliminal question of “What am I allowed to do here?” And I don’t even ask myself—this is the unknown known. The fact that I’m constantly thinking about it, constantly made not to think about it, that is the most profound experience of obedience that we have on a daily basis, on a page by page basis. And not only online. Away from keyboard, these dominant interfaces of control are not new. To put it in context, we can see some examples for resistance to interfaces of control that are not technological or not digital.
For tactical resistance, we can look at This is a response to the hegemonic code of the Iranian government as part of the Iranian uprising in 2009. The bills were used as a form of protest, with writings like “death to the dictator” and “for freedom.” It has become a real problem. More and more bills are changing hands with political statements that are against so-called “counter-revolutionary” or counter-counter-counter-revolutionary. It gets complicated with Iran. Money’s not supposed to be an interface for protest, but they made it into an interface of protest and nobody’s going to throw that in the garbage, even though Ahmadinejad tried to say that every bill that had a sign like that would not be accepted, but the phenomenon was so wide that they couldn’t do that.
We can think of strategic resistance. My example here is Rolling Jubilee, which is a very strong hit and stay approach. What they do is they’re basically bailing out the poor. The way debt works, is if there are high-risk debts they are traded between different banks and companies, and they’re traded for much less than the deb itself. What Rolling Jubilee does is they fundraise to buy debts and strike them. When this screenshot was take, just a bit more than half a million dollars abolished almost twelve million dollars in debts. So this is reading the interface for the financial system and saying, “We are going to play that game, but not in the way that is expected.” And this is changing things on the ground. These are people who are getting their lives back.
And the third layer, the logistic resistance is best represented by what’s been happening in the Middle East. Sometimes it looks like a very hopeful attempt to say we’ll plant something new in Tahrir Square and things will be different. We’ll get rid of that protocol and we have ideas for a new protocol. Sometimes it looks a bit more gruesome, and we’ve all seen much much more gruesome pictures. My neighbors around the Middle East have had enough of the protocols that govern them. Tunis, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and others got rid of their previous protocol, and what we’re seeing now can be seen as a protocol war, redefining the rules of play.
To conclude, even though the conflict is unavoidable, I find it very interesting and quite important to confront. I address it in my academic and creative work through different tactics and strategies. Specifically I find the question of interconnectedness to be critical, especially from my geopolitical perspective.
Audience 1: You’ve painted this almost tiered or layered approach to thinking about the tactical, strategic and logistic forms of resistance to the obedience that you’ve laid out is demanded. I’m wondering whether, and you’ve sort of made a prompt at least in the online sense or with the digital technologies, to say that the logistic you don’t have good examples of, or are looking for the good examples of it. I want to push you to think about why that is. Is one of them easier to do? Is one of them easier to understand? Is it a technology affordance, or a sort of philosophical affordance?
Mushon: I think it’s both and beyond that. It’s the way the technological world is constructed. The fact that we are led into these new political settings by companies who have their own interests and are the biggest players is a big problem. It basically puts us in a point of disadvantage. I also think you’re lucky enough to be in the US, because the US controls the Internet, and from my perspective not being an American citizen, I’m not in a position of influence as you guys are. We’re seeing that with the whole debate about Snowden is they’re following American citizens. Is it okay to follow me? The answer is yes because I’m closer to terrorism, potentially.
Audience: The Constitution only protects the citizens.
Definitely not online. Definitely not the technological governance that we’ve built that is built from a certain ideology, to serve certain ideology. There’s so much power involved. But the reason that I referred back to on the ground physical activism or the financial system is because my concern is that if we don’t resist the interfaces online, then we don’t expect to resist anything, because that is where we learn how to interact, that’s where we learn what it expected from us on a civic level. And that is concerning.
I can say that in the case of the way technological governance works, we’ve come across it with AdNauseam.
Audience 2: This is more just a resource question if you have any thoughts. I’m interested to know how the enforcement or the setting in of the demand for obedience tracks with things like decline in health, advancement of problems with the environment, advancement of things like diabetes and certain other kinds of illnesses that are more… I’m looking at the epidemiology. I’m interested to know if there’s any [resources?] that you know of to track on a very granular, incremental level, how the advancement of this kind of demanding, obedience tracks with other things. Do you have any sense of [crosstalk]
Mushon: It’s not my field, so I wouldn’t know how to research that, exactly. The statement I’m making is about political imagination, to a certain degree that is limited by our daily experience of obedience. So I’m concerned about our ability to imagine different relationships but I don’t know how to quantify that.
Audience 2: Any sense of resources where I might be able to…
Mushon: Maybe someone else in the room. I don’t know.
Audience 2: Okay. Thank you.
Audience 3: Maybe I missed this but you had this tantalizing lead at the ending about interconnection, and I kind of missed the connection of that concept with—
Mushon: With interface.
Audience 3: Yeah.
Mushon: Basically the definition of interface has to do with this connection between systems, people. We’ve experienced interface for so long now and so intensely through user interface that we forgot that. We forgot that there is no implied hierarchy in the concept of interface. There could’ve been a web where the power settings of site owners versus site users would’ve not been set as hierarchical. So in its core, interface is about relationships, about interconnectedness.
[Next question repeatedly drowned out by photocopier; may contain some errors.]
Audience 4: I’d like to pull on this thread of what you say is a lack of subversion of the IP protocol. First, that’s setting a very high bar. Even the engineering task force that wants to replace IPv4 and IPv6 has been struggling for a decade. Even the people who control the mechanisms of technological determinism can’t change it when they want to. But I would argue that there’ve actually have been a large number of attempts successful to subvert it. I would argue that any content firewall that does content filtering is subverting TCP/IP because it’s not letting packets that contain a certain message go through. I would argue that distributed denial of service attacks that use characteristics of the IP protocol, or Anonymous’ Low Orbit Ion Cannon. [China and distributed denial of service attacks] That’s subverting the IP protocols. Things like DNS cache poisoning that will take a web site our of domain name resolution, and people would talk about things like SOPA and PIPA, which are legal efforts to get sites taken out of the domain name system [are] a legal effort to subvert the way the IP protocol is supposed to work.
Mushon: I understand your point. I just think, at least the way I’m seeing it, this is using the TCP/IP protocol. This is what the TCP/IP protocol allows. That is maybe not the way we would’ve wanted or certain bodies would’ve wanted to use it, but this is a use of that protocol. This is a part of the problem with a protocol. I would say the fact that privacy is not embedded into the protocol is another problem with that protocol, beyond the problem of distributed denial of service attacks or packet sniffing. This is the protocol, this is what it allows. If this is done within that context, this is not challenging that protocol by saying here’s another protocol. It’s maybe exposing the vulnerabilities of that protocol, but not necessarily directing another way for going beyond what the protocol allows or does not allow.
Audience 4: [Mostly inaudible] oppositional the same way […] feminist reading
Mushon: I would just put it in one of the layers above the TCP/IP layer. But I think we understand each other.
Audience 5: The question I have has to do with your speak of interfaces and affordance. I do a lot of US and I do a lot of disability professionally for patients and people in healthcare. These are, in my experience, and this is the question for you, is you said these interfaces ask us to obey, they push you in a certain direction. Well, just like in the DDoS case, I almost wanted some kind of protocol to save me from these problems, but I didn’t have any because I have “freedom.” But now I find the interfaces that are bad or that don’t allow you to really do what you meant to do or accomplish the task you meant to accomplish, which is what creates that relationship. I feel like a lot of that disconnect is sloppiness and not an agenda. So the question for you, I deal with the US government right now, who is forcing me to make it very universally usable. Great, right? It sounds fantastic, but it comes from the government as a mandate, a set of rule “I have to meet” or somehow prove to have met. But it’s kind of opposite to my natural inclination, being a cyber-child, to say no, “No, I don’t need you to tell me what to do. I will surpass your requirements, I will do something very different.” So I just…a question of sloppy versus making it better for everybody. Individual choice versus a mandate.
Mushon: A version of this question was made to me yesterday. I gave a talk at MassArt about disinformation visualization, or how to lie with dataviz. My argument there was that we should not look at visualization like Edward Tufte claims we should look at it as beautiful evidence, we should look at it as beautiful arguments.
I think it’s about the argument. It’s not about “interfaces are there to grab us all.” And I think the Don’t Make Me Think book is actually good in the sense that there is a problem with cognitive load. It’s a challenge. Cognitive load is a challenge for design, but when we are so obsessed about directing attention and making our users not thing, we also forget that we are representing different interests. There are the interests of the site owners and there are the interests of the users and I think the example of Book Burro, that’s why I like it so much, because the difference of interests there is so obvious. When we are in the position of “designing” these user interfaces, we are doing political work. We are doing work that should be politicized. So I’m not going to politicize bad interfaces. It’s not about making you think about things that are not political. I don’t think people should make crappy user experiences just so you think about the face there’s a crappy UX designer behind it. But I do think that if what’s embedded within a certain interface is something that should be politicized, we should change the way we think about what we are allowed to do online. That’s more of the critique that I’m making.
Audience 7: This is a follow-up to that. This seems particularly important now versus say, in 2002 or something because of the consolidation of attention on the Internet. So it seems like this is particularly relevant when you’re talking about a site like amazon.com. Politicizing amazon.com is very different than politicizing my personal blog or something like that because so much of the attention, so much of the personal data that is captured and extracted on the Internet flows to Amazon and Google and Facebook and Twitter and so on. So do you feel that that is part of this politics, this current geography of attention and data on the Internet?
Mushon: It makes a lot of difference but the playing with context on the Internet has changed dramatically as well. Out of the 100 most popular web sites on the Internet, 97 of them report back to Google on everything that you’re doing, and it’s not like 97 out of the 100 most popular sites are Google sites. So even your blog is exposed to these questions. And they don’t even expose a user interface, it’s just an implicit interface that by browsing the web you’re reporting back to Google, because people are using Google Analytics or YouTube or Google Maps or whatever. So I think we can’t actually say these are only problems in the big sites.
Audience 7: I was just thinking your argument about interfaces sort of demanding obedience would be in a sense less problematic if they were— It seemed like you were saying they would be less problematic if there were more of us producing those interfaces. If the task of who’s owning the sites and who’s using the sites is more equally distributed amongst people. Is that not—
Mushon: I don’t think that if all of us build our WordPress blogs, everything would be fine. Which is happening less and less, by the way.
Audience 7: And also mobile mobile. There’s nothing user [search—?] [crosstalk]
Man: And then there’s Internet of Things, which brings interface to a whole new—
Mushon: Yeah, and if we continue along the previous medium being the content of the new, think about mobile apps and how the web is becoming the content of them. I think it has to do with literacy. And I actually think it has to do with political imagination. Can we imagine a different relationship? I don’t think we can do that because we haven’t thought of challenging the TCP/IP protocol. I think there’s a lot to do even before we challenge TCP/IP. And I’m not trying to challenge TCP/IP, I’m far from being in these levels of action or technological level. I think there’s a lot to do with both tactics and strategies that are inspiring politically as well, and technologically, and UX-ly and so on.
Audience 5: An example that really drives me insane in terms of modern development of design is, we’ve all known BBC Online. We’ve used it maybe, for news, resources, etc. Now anybody here has a mobile app. It is like back to TV land. I feel even less engaged, less powerful, less able to learn. For example, you can read the article but there’s never related content or links to the embassy of Nicaragua and the embassy of the US who are having an issue. There’s no comments or even a name of the person or people who wrote it. And I feel like here we are after the 90s and the first ten years of 2000 after we’ve seen this culture explode, seen this content being created by all us, see some people percolate up and being new types of journalists, and now I feel like easily reversed—
Mushon: I have an answer for you that might actually address what you—the answer that I haven’t given you. [Audience 7]
I’m working on a client project. This is public radio in Israel. When I was talking with the company that built the previous site that we’re now redesigning, I said we will need an API as part of the new redesign. The same company was supposed to build the new site as well and said, “We don’t want to build an API for them. If we build them an API, they’ll be able to get rid of us.”
I was like, “What? I can’t believe you even allow yourselves to say that.” (The good news is that this company is not going to build it.) But there is a future that we can get to, that is not very far, where we all instead of providing web sites, we would provide APIs. So your blog would be exposing an API. It actually was like that, that was RSS. I think when RSS happened, and since it kind of died, we didn’t understand it yet because technology wasn’t there yet. Ajax was—the “X” was for XML; it came after. I think this is still valid, and I think it’s becoming valid again ten years or so after. Now there is this need for us to expose APIs, and to allow other people to do other things with different interfaces over different data. I can see a trend towards that, and that would be a very interesting place both for data literacy and interface literacy.
Audience 9: To follow on that. When you talk a lot about the literacy, one approach to the— There are assumptions or decisions or just sloppiness in these interfaces that restrict what I can do with it. Obviously the sort of personal response is build toolkits to allow people to build their own interfaces, which you’ve done. Is that primarily an argument or response about literacy, or an argument or response to say hey, I was able to make my own interfaces so now I’m liberated from at least the top layer of restrictions that were imposed on me. Is this sort of an argument about utility or a meta-argument about “Oh, now I know how to build these things, so I’ve become empowered in general to think about the assumptions in what I’m allowed or not allowed to do…”
Mushon: I think the answer is bo— You know the answer is both, but I think the only way to get to the first assumption, the one about literacy, is through utility. Because this might be an interesting debate to have, but until it becomes an actual— That’s what I like about Book Burro. I need that. I use that. The fact that Book Burro not only recommended other places to buy but actually sent me to my public library is super powerful. I was in a consumerist mode and it sent me to a civic mode. And there was value, financial value and civic value for me there. Same with Adblock Plus, in a different way, obviously. Civic value in Adblock plus, you wouldn’t find, but it’s solving a problem. And while doing that it exposes the differences of interest between me and the site itself
So I think there should be more initiatives that do think about services in that sense and are not only about literacy or political statements about information, but also about what do people want.
Audience 9: And this is a difference between your AdNauseam example and Adblock Plus
Audience 9: Adblock Plus is providing utility for me, and has none of these sort of activist endpoints whereas your AdNauseam is providing utility if it does the blocking or piggybacks on the blocking, but then it’s making this aggressive stance to say, “Hey, I’m also going to try to disrupt the system that I’m checking out of rather than just checking out of it” I think a number of the tools that you mention or that I can think of off of my head are more of the “I’m checking out of this” rather than the “I’m checking out and I’m trying to mess it up for everyone else.”
Mushon: That’s a problem that I have with the privacy debate. It’s super depressing. We didn’t go online to hide. We go online to communicate. We go online express ourselves. We enjoy that. It’s fun, it’s social. The whole privacy debate, it gets people to either hope for the best or know that you’re being fucked but that’s just how it is. Or you’re tech-savvy enough to encrypt every little thing that you do and to use exactly the right set of tools to circumvent any attempt of data being collected on you by someone who you don’t know. There’s something so materialistic about this, and it’s super depressing. It’s no fun.
I’ve never enjoyed protecting my data. Until we’ve started to go the complete other way with AdNauseam. The whole idea is that we want to be expressive, let’s be super expressive. Let’s celebrate it, let’s perform it. If you want me to tell you that it’s a solid way of avoiding data collection? No, it’s not. It’s not going to compete with the latest encryption algorithm in the next data security conference. But it is trying to compete with this idea that security is something for extreme activists or terrorists or uber-geeks or whatever. We need to change the language around that, and come from that point where the web people want to be, that expressive point that is playful. It’s not only protecting myself, it’s actually inflicting pain and getting back to the point of leverage, which is what we’re lacking there. Because the background of AdNauseam is the failure of the Do Not Track standards committee. This is exactly the political process that did not give us a valuable or valid solution, while the solution is there.
You can basically already on Firefox you can already check a checkbox, even in Internet Explorer. You can check a checkbox that says you do not want web sites to build a profile on you. The only problem is that they don’t respect that. That’s what the committee was built do set. To set the rules of how this checkbox is going to be respected. But apparently, three years after it started, the companies sitting on that committee are there to make sure it never leaves the ground.
Some attendees of this presentation published collaborative notes at the MIT Center for Civic Media blog.