About | Project Members | Research Assistants | Contact | Posting FAQ | Credits

Thinking at the Interface: A Review of the 2007 HASTAC Electronic Techtonics Conference

“Thinking at the Interface: A Review of the 2007 HASTAC Electronic Techtonics Conference” by Nicole Starosielski.
(version 1.0; created 6/5/07)

About the Author: Nicole Starosielski is a PhD student in Film and Media Studies at UCSB. Her current research interests include media historiography, perception and affect of digital media, and 3-D animation environments. She is also a media artist working in the integration of theory and production at the intersection of the humanities, sciences and arts. She has participated in the UCSB IGERT program in Interactive Digital Multimedia and is currently the research assistant for UCSB’s Center for Film, Television and New Media. Her recent projects include TechConnect (a mockumentary about technology and community), Bleach (an experimental ethnography on race, gender and family) and Minotour (a location-aware mobile tour application that weaves a spatial tale from Wikipedia). Read more about the author.

Transliteracies Research Paper PDF Version PDF version of the research report.

Thinking at the Interface: A Review of the 2007 HASTAC Electronic Techtonics Conference


From April 19th-21st, 2007, HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory) held the “Electronic Techtonics: Thinking at the Interface” conference at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. It marked the culmination of the In|Formation Year, a year long mashup of public programming, technological innovation, and interdisciplinary discussion on the humanistic dimensions of technology. “Electronic Techtonics” brought together a variety of perspectives on the material interface and itself served as an interface, in the broader sense of the word, between a broad range of disciplinary approaches. The concepts in circulation ranged from newly proposed theories for the interface, to the exploration of new interfaces, to a critical cultural analysis of how interfaces are emerging, operating, and being deployed. The following report summarizes some of the key panels and events at the conference; and also reflects on their implications for the Transliteracies Project.

Theorizing Interface

HASTAC subtitle: “Metaphors help us comprehend how digitality weaves, binds, encloses, bridges, spans, and navigates across technologies, spaces, and disciplines (from genomics to urban planning)”

A range of new metaphors and modes of comprehending our encounter with the interface emerged explicitly in the “Theorizing Interface” panel, and implicitly wove through the conference. Sylvia Nagl and Sally Jane Norman mobilized the Polynesian expression, “Raranga Tangata” (the weaving together of people), to draw together and explicate the common patterns and intersections of Maori culture and complexity science. They performatively argued (weaving their voices with each other’s, with Maori voices and with the visual display) for an experimental model which could address a diversity of mappings and readings of embodiment, whether they be from artistic narratives or genomic science. In the following presentation, Nicole Starosielski expanded on the concept of digital embodiment through an analysis of “skin” as it has been used metaphorically to characterize the interface. She argued that while skin is most often understood as significant in its permeability, it might also serve the function of a border and a space of embodied resistance. Sarah Sweeney, in her presentation titled “Way-finding on the Web: Urban Planning and the Virtual Interface,” expressed frustration with current navigational modes and metaphors for the web interface. Returning to a 1960 urban planning book, The Image of the City, written by Kevin Lynch, she suggested we turn to the environmental image, which contextualizes information in terms of key environmental markers, in evaluating web navigation. She offered her own experimental interface, ColorColony, as an example. These papers will be published in full at the HASTAC website. In addition, a blog on these presentations can be found at http://www.hastac.org/node/737.

These projects wove together mythic, metaphoric and environmental approaches to networked and digital media. Collectively, they evidence the need for new ways of thinking to accompany the development of new types of media, and emphasized the way these theorizations often force us to negotiate the broader intersections of art and science, theorization and practice, and diverse cultural approaches. These new theories, however, often turn to older media forms, other cultures, and previous historical moments for inspiration. Threading through both past and present, they were able to nuance the frequent claims about the radical newness of the digital and to call attention to the materiality of both the user’s body and the interface.

The work of theorizing interface can be useful to Transliteracies. As the project establishes a corpus of new reading interfaces, new means of comprehending “reading” as a practice and the “interface” as a material surface must be developed. How does the investigation of “online reading” force us to rethink, or to re-theorize, what we mean by “reading” in the first place? Like these projects, Transliteracies has occasionally turned back to older media forms, other cultures, and previous historical moments in the investigation of online reading. What are the stakes of this turn, and where should we be looking? And, as these presentations articulate new relationships between users’ bodies and the interface, how will our re-theorizing of the reading interface reflect back to our understanding of the reading experience?

Connecting the (Virtual) Dots

HASTAC subtitle: “Simulations, emergence, augmented life, and visualization technologies animate cultural spaces, historical enterprises, games, and corpora as well as the military.”

The “Connecting the (Virtual) Dots” panel investigated the significance of the interface as the layer in which data is selectively connected, navigated, and comprehended. Timothy R. Tangherlini, Todd Presner and Zoe Borovsky from UCLA presented two integrated visualization environments, Danish Folklore and Hypermedia Berlin, which offer a navigable visual model of large complex corpora. They suggest that new modes of scholarship dealing with large corpora should draw upon the computer’s strengths in discovering and analyzing patterns in order to find new ways of interpreting the archive. Helen Papagiannis also presented her own augmented reality interfaces, utilizing lenticular lenses to reveal moving images on coded material objects. The viewer must activate digital memory through an analog model; this results in the significant layering of analog and digital modes of memory. In his presentation, “Artificial Life: New Media Object as a New Space of Exploration” John H. Johnston traced a range of issues and development of Artificial Life (ALife) science. Focusing primarily on Tierra, an early rainforest model, Johnston questioned whether Alife instantiates evolution or simply imitates it, and what the role of emergence and exploration in new media environments will take. In the fourth presentation, “Everything is Connected: Aerial Perspectives, the ‘Revolution in Military Affairs,’ and Digital Culture,” Caren Kaplan connected a variety of media representations: a Boeing ad, a scene from Syriana, and a YouTube clip entitled “oh, dude,” in which Iraqi insurgents are taken down from a plane. She argues that each of these discourses indexes a different “view from above,” and network together in the production of globalized subjects of US nationalism.

These projects reaffirmed the importance of the interface itself as a selective and creative space for accessing ever-increasing amounts of data, but called for an awareness of the problematics of interface construction. Distortion happens in this intermediate level, always complicating issues of both comprehension and access. Papagiannis asks how the properties of the interface will change the way we see, the way we remember, the way we¬ store and capture memories. Kaplan points out the implication of these interfaces in ideological struggles. The UCLA group poses the question of how, as academics, we can critically utilize and design these interfaces.
Earlier in the day, James Boyle, one of the founding board members of Creative Commons, pointed out a related problem: there are many smaller, localized interfaces to individual databases, but navigation and searching between them is incredibly difficult. What is needed at this point is a critical networking of interfaces as well as a critical understanding of their role in the actual relationships between different groups. Developed infrastructure, however, often makes this a problem. Overall, the tendency at this conference was to back away from the characteristic fervor and excitement about constructing new interfaces, and towards a critical and nuanced understanding of how these interfaces are actually functioning and linking up in society.

Transliteracies, in accumulating large amounts of complex corpora, must assess how to display and make navigable this vast array of information. In some senses, the project is networking a variety of interfaces, and calling attention to their interconnections, yet it adopts an almost traditional navigational structure. How can we further draw upon strengths of the medium to discover and analyze patterns in our data? Is this even necessary? If anything, these presentations show us that no change should be adopted without considering the variety of different ideological and infrastructural vectors at play.

The Body and the Interface

One major theme running through the conference was the relationship between bodies and interfaces. Rebecca Allen presented her work in a talk entitled, “Global Interfaces, Intimate Interfaces and the Interface between Art and Technology.” Over the past twenty years she has been involved in designing innovative interfaces that increasingly engage the body of the user. Her own work in body mnemonics, which uses the body space of the wearer as an interface for portable devices, as well as popular developments such as the Nintendo Wii point the way for more digital interfaces to take the body as input. Rene Garcia’s live VJ performance, “ReMix2,” drew upon the historical representation of bodies in cinema to offer a critique of race, terrorism, and the neo-surveillance state. His performance alongside DJ RasMusis invoked the actual bodies of the spectators to draw together, and resist, on the dance floor. Bodies were also invoked in a number of the panels, including “Theorizing Interface,” “Racing (through) Domains,” “Interface and Innerspace,” and, at least implicitly, in the “Connecting the (Virtual) Dots” panel. There has been an increased questioning of the place of the body in relationship to the interface, as represented on interfaces, and as subjects of databases.

Many of the interfaces cataloged on the Transliteracies site engage the body in a different experience than traditional reading. The discussions of the body at HASTAC offer two main directions of inquiry. First, how does the sensory interface affect our understanding of reading? Is embodiment another vector along which we should be tracing the transformations of online reading? For example, how does Cave reading differ from Wii reading? Second, where does a critique of the body and representation fit into a discussion of new forms of online reading? Just as the media of the book, and film, have led to a range of historically specific “readings” of bodies, new media interfaces will likely encourage a certain view, and “reading” of the “digital” body.

Digital Learning

A series of public events on “The Future of Digital Learning” were held in conjunction with the conference. Keynote speaker John Seely Brown kicked off the first evening on this theme, asking the conference participants to rethink how and where they learn. He suggested that we look to a culture of sharing and participation in developing new modes of learning and that we should conceptualize learning as supported through participatory architectures. He examined a variety of new kinds of spaces, ranging from Second Life, which can serve as a participatory architecture for learning, to open courseware sites. Rebecca Allen ended her presentation on her most recent endeavor: the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project, which aims to give every child access to a laptop for educational purposes. In the “The Future of Learning: Three Perspectives” panel, Cathy Davidson and David Theo Goldberg suggested that we stop thinking about the institution as a rigid structure, but rather as a mobilizing network. A number of other key issues surfaced in instituting these new kinds of learning: How do we address intergenerational learning and communication? How can we develop these new architectures in consideration of the inequalities in production, distribution, and use of interfaces?

Based within a learning institution, Transliteracies is already forging a path ahead in new modes of learning. Like the open courseware sites that John Seely Brown pointed out, the Transliteracies site is an open and collaborative body of knowledge. It is also, like Cathy Davidson and David Theo Goldberg suggested, moving towards a model of the institution as a mobilizing network. However, while the Transliteracies participants’ learning is supported through its participatory architecture, other students and visitors to the site may only read and cite the sources in the traditional mode. These discussions prompt the question of what kind of learning will be accomplished on the Transliteracies site? What forms of knowledge will be displayed?


The HASTAC “Electronic Techtonics: Thinking at the Interface” conference brought up a number of new media objects which would be of interest in a study of online reading. It also mapped a number of important issues in the future of online reading—as one example, the role of the body in relationship to the interface. However, perhaps most significantly, in bringing these objects and disciplinary perspectives together, it prompts a critical reflexivity at the interface: a questioning of the interface’s social and ideological context, and its place in the network of other interfaces. If anything, these collaborations might spur Transliteracies to reflect back on its own interface, not simply as a material website, but as the space in which a range of knowledges and frameworks are connected, navigated and re-synthesized.


  Kimberly Knight2, 06.05.07

Comments are closed.