DH Lab 5: The Implications of Interface

From my understanding, an interface is a medium of meaning-making. The UCLA Center for Digital Humanities defines any interface as, “an in-between space, a space of communication and exchange, a place where two worlds, entities, systems meet”. They go on to explain how terminology like ‘windows’ and ‘desktop’ imply real-world, tangible places to be looked through or worked on, parallel to their uses in technology. But as this article points out, an interface might not be as straightforward as looking through a window:

“As with all conventions, these [interfaces] hide assumptions within their format and structure and make it hard to defamiliarize the ways our thinking is constrained by the interfaces we use”

Drucker 2013, UCLA Center for Digital Humanities
Googling ‘desktop’ shows a mix of technology and traditional desks. This search makes it seem that the tech definition of ‘desktop’ has gained more use than the original use of the word. . . but as pointed out in Data Feminism, even Google relies on socially inaccurate assumptions.

Any interface helps users make sense of the technology they are using (a letter as a symbol for e-mail) but interfaces have social influence in their ability to mask familiarity as fact. Being familiar with the concept of ‘desktop’ as a space to work does not mean that a desk is the only place for productivity. I am being quite productive writing this from a comfy chair in my living room (in other words, not at a desk). More importantly, wrapped up in the symbol of a desktop is privileged meaning-making. Having a desk might be a norm for many of us now, but I didn’t have a desk proper until graduate school — most of my undergraduate work was done on a kitchen counter. Having a desk then becomes a sort of privilege. Russell McCutcheon more broadly explains this sort of meaning-making and classification in his religious studies introductory book:

“As we look deeper into the issue of definition, it gets increasingly difficult to see classification as merely a natural, neutral or innocent activity. Instead, classification seems fraught with interests, agendas, and implications”.

Russell McCutcheon 2019, Studying Religion; an introduction.
E-mail symbol from Flickr user Jurgen Appelo

Though a desk and desktop may seem a simple example, imagine this often overlooked classification scaled up to consider race, gender, or religious identity (to name a few). This is exactly what Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren F. Klein do in chapter 6 of Data Feminism. Their analysis of various data curations and presentations shows exactly how classifications are fraught with interests, agendas, and implications. So an interface matters and as D’Ignazio and Klein put it, “all knowledge is situated. A less academic way to put this is that context matters“.

Contextualizing interfaces and the classifications we rely on more generally matter for data researchers and data interpreters. It means we need to think about thinking. Just as data does not speak for itself, neither does an interface. If either seems common sense, then maybe it is time to take a step back and contextualize your perspective in relation to the majority. Symbols (whether that be data or an interface) only appear self-evident when an individual’s perspective coincides with the majority. That does not make them more or less accurate representations, and it also does not mean it’s the most widely accepted but that there are branches and branches of power politics at play reinforcing this particular ideal.

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