Competing Compatibilities – Is the ‘interface’ an alienating ideal for human/computer activity?

Christian Ulrik Andersen & Søren Pold
Compatibility in the interface can be constructed in different ways. This forces us to think critically about the mechanisms of control that are exercised when not only man meets the computer, but also when one level meets another within the computer, computers meet each other in a network, or when hardware meets software.

The German computer artist Frieder Nake urges us to begin by thinking on the division between signs and signals. Nake uses the example of Ivan E. Sutherland’s Sketchpad from 1962 to explain a basic incompatibility in the computer interface. Sutherland suggests that a successful drawing and design program depends on ‘the double existence’ of the drawing. It is at once an object in a complex data structure, and a visually perceptible object on a screen. Sutherland’s separation of data processing and visual representation is a division between machine-like signals and human signs. Interfaces exist to create compatibilities between sign and signal processes – they are ‘algorithmic signs’, perceivable (by humans) and computable (by computers) and thus connecting the aesthetic/perceptible with the algorithmic domain.

Division of labour

Nake also evokes Karl Marx’ description of an industrial and capitalist production process that generates a division between commodity and product, separating work from labour, and production from life; a duplication where the market outshines the labour (128). With technology, the worker is relieved from the duty of performing a task, and his/her work is reduced to controlling that nothing goes wrong in the process. Though less of an effort, and hence a liberation, this kind of monitoring is also alienating. The crafting skills vanish, and production is distanced from life.

Sketchpad suggests a new moment in the division of labour. The coupling of sign and signal enables the designer to draw parallel lines, duplicate drawings, etc. with virtually no effort. Like other technological tools, Sketchpad exceeds the bodily limitations of its user. However, apart from being an extension of the hand, the coupling of sign and signal is also an ‘augmentation of the human intellect’ (as described by another pioneer from the sixties, Douglas Engelbart). This makes the designer a craftsman (once again) – an ‘intellectual labourer’. Through the software, the designer is liberated from boring technicalities and allowed to focus entirely on his/her creative skills: Life and work becomes one in the non-alienated designer.

Consumer control

Have the aspirations of the avant-garde (everyone can be an artist) come through with software (=no more alienation)? To unveil this all-encompassing cover-up, one must focus on the work of the interface, and analyse the production of compatibility; the work of the interface.

Compatibility between signs and signals has for decades been conceptualised terms of ‘user friendliness’. Today, in contemporary interface culture, the interface has become a model for consumer control. Within the computer game industry for instance, gamers can produce their own interfaces to the game. In fact, this kind of participatory innovation is encouraged by the game producers – but only as long as the alternative interface does not threaten business. Game companies prosecute gamers who come up with their own interface business models. This is evident in the example of the WoWGlider, a programme that automates the repetitive work-like actions of game avatars to increase one’s level in the game World of Warcraft. Eventually, the gamer who invented the program was met (in his house) by lawyers from the game producer. Following, he was sentenced to pay a 6 million. US$ fine (Boyer): Players have to work.


In online game communities as well as platforms for file distribution (Appstore, Xbox Live, etc.), and in many other examples, the relations between signs and signals are constructed as if there are no alternatives – you just have to click ‘accept’. Participation is compulsory, but defined by nonnegotiable terms and conditions.

This expresses a possible alienation from the interface. The human-computer interface that addresses the juxtaposition and incompatibility between the work of the computer (processing signals) and the work of the operator (processing signs), is designed as if there legally and perceptually is only one way to make the two compatible. In this, the user potentially becomes alienated to the process of compatibility. This calls for new visions of alternative compatibilities, and an interface criticism that is able to analytically and conceptually deal with the construction of compatibility.


Works cited

Nake, Frieder. “Kalkulierte & kalkulierende Zeichen. Der Computer als instrumentales Medium.” Vom Sinn multipler Welt. Medien und Kunst. Eds. Demuth, Volker and Robin Wagner. Würzburg: Könighausen & Neumann, 2000. 121-140. Print.

Boyer, Brandon. “Blizzard, Vivendi File Suit Against WoW Bot Creator.”

Gamasutra. February 22, 2007. Web. 20 Dec. 2011. <>

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