The interface and the machine

Morten Riis
This paper examines the relationship between the machine and the interface in a media archaeological perspective that hopefully will point towards the physicality of the machine, in contrast to the symbolic ordering that is prevailing in the current understanding of interface.

In the introduction to this conference it is being stated that “in the case of computers, interfaces mediate between humans and machines, between machines and between humans” (Andersen et al), so the interface should be understood as something that is in-between the user and the machine, but I propose a deeper understanding of the term interface, something that can be seen as tentative mini archaeology of the interface, which tries to avoid the political and social aspects of the phenomenon, to focus on a more rudimentary and philosophical understanding of the machine and interface. This media archaeological perspective draws heavily on the ideas outlined in Zielinski’s Deep Time of the Media, but initially, the reflections on the interface originate from my own artistic practice with music machines as a composer and sound artist, in which especially the piece Steam Machine Music questions the role of the musical interface.

I will argue that the interface is what lies at the core functionality of the machine, thus, something physical that to some extend is impossible to make perfect, because of its physicality. The interface can be regarded as something that utterly defines the essence of the machine: to modify and transmit motion and energy.

Introducing the machine and the interface

[Picture 1] – Pictures of the Steam Machine

The media archaeological music piece/performance Steam Machine Music consists of a home-made mechanical musical instrument, build mostly from vintage Meccano parts. The instrument is driven by a steam engine that provides the whole machine with energy. A way of interpreting this instrument would be to point towards the instability of the entire mechanism, which is extremely noticeable, and displays and reflects the physicality of the machine to an extreme degree. Everything is imminently about to go wrong, a cogwheel that jams, a screw that loosens itself, a chain falling of, water running out, the loss of steam pressure, gas running out. One could state that this is physical and mechanical glitch music, but in contrast to its digital counterparts, Steam Machine Music questions the whole practice and conceptualizing of machine music in a historical perspective that points to the fact that machines always have been malfunctioning, they have always broke down, there has always been a ‘real’ physical mechanism that challenged the predetermined functionality of the machine.

When working with this steam machine, that is free of the traditional interface metaphors of the graphical user-interface in modern computers (Fuller, 100-1), many questions arise, questions about where the interface starts and the machine begins. In the steam machine one could claim that all is machine, and that there is no interface because of its strong focus on functionality, but then again, I – as a performer – still interact with the mechanism, starting and stopping various elements of the machinery based on compositional and aesthetic choices. But this interaction happens at the ‘cogwheel level’, thus, there are no handles between core functionality and symbolic messages; so, how does that relate to the definition of the interface as being something that is in-between the user and the machine? Maybe we should try to define the interface in a broader sense and look into similarities and points of rupture in the relationship between the interface and machine. If we for instance turn to interface theory, engineers distinguish between user-machine interface and machine-machine interface (Zielinski, 54).

[Picture 2] – Machine- machine interface, taken from (Leupold Fab IX)

[Picture 3] – User-machine interface, taken from (Smith, 414)

Besides the interface definitions found in (Andersen and Pold, 9; Cramer and Fuller, 149) one in particular comes to mind: “An interface is a contact surface. It reflects the physical properties of the interactors, the functions to be performed, and the balance of power and control” (Laurel and Mountford, xii).

This contact surface correlates well with the experience of interacting on a ‘cogwheel level’, but by examining some rudimentary definitions of what a machine is, interesting similarities emerge regarding the essence of the machine as the modification of motion. From the simplest lever to the complex and un-transparent modern computer, the core functionality of the machine is the modification and distribution of motion and energy. As Kittler claims in relation to the constant focus on the symbolic meanings and relationship between the symbolic user-interface and the computers functionality: “All code operations, despite their metaphoric faculties such as ‘call’ or ‘return’, come down to absolutely local string manipulations and that is, I am afraid, to signifiers of voltage differences”. Furthermore, engineer Robert McKay states in 1915: “A machine modifies and transmits energy to do some special work” (3). And “A machine is an assemblage of parts that transmit forces, motion and energy in a predetermined manner. […] A machine has two functions: transmitting definite relative motion and transmitting force” (Onwubolu, 364). Transmission seems to be the key word, to move energy from one part of the mechanism to another, a kind of perceptual exchange between the most rudimentary elements of the machine.

Trying to implement this perceptual exchange into a philosophical content requires the introduction of pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles and his theory of perception.

Zielinski and Empedocles

Empedocles theory of perception is built upon the notion in which all objects is constantly emitting ‘effluences’ (streams of minute particles). These, flowing out from objects, are essential to the explanation of perception, and consequently these particles will emit from the perceiving organ and go to the pores of the object of perception. Perception is one such instance of interaction between bodies, and takes place if and only the effluences are of a shape and size appropriate to the receiving pores. Thus to perceive an object is to receive from it effluence a kind that fit the organ of perception (Long; Parry).

Zielinski interprets the theory of Empedocles through a media-technological perspective in which the effluences is interpreted in a media-heuristic understanding as a theory of the perfect interface (53-54). He states: “The porous skins are ubiquitous; they are a material element of all things and people and thus move with them. Every person and every thing has received this gift” (55). The constant quest for the perfect ubiquitous interface resembles in many ways the theory of Empedocles, but this quest is an utopian dream that will never happen, thus “[…] because it is perfect [the interface], building it will never be possible” (55) – an account that in many ways resembles the theory of Wittgenstein and his notion of the machine as symbol, in which he expose the idea that the possible movements of the machine are somehow already present, when the machine is treated as a symbol – a symbol that is an expression of an ideal condition, where the components of the machine only can move in a predetermined manner. And if we consider the components of the machine as figurative or symbolic representations, the movements of the machine will be no more relevant than the movement of the piece of paper it is drawn upon (Wittgenstein, 77-88). The stride for the perfect interface is thus impossible and something that will only exist in the drawing and diagrams of the symbolic machine.

Compatibility and exchange between elements is something that is immanently present in modern digital reality, and regarded in this way the interface is something that is integrated into every mechanism every machine and every human. It is not something that is external to the machines functionality, thus the interface becomes the glue that holds the machine together. In the electric current passing through the registers in the microchips in the central processing unit, and in the cogwheels distributing the energy of the steam engine, the interface is at its core something physical and therefore something that can break. Furthermore, it will inherit the possibility of error or glitch – a way of stating that the perfect interface doesn’t exist, but nevertheless it is this distribution or modification of energy that is the core element of the machine and society as we know it. The meeting between the two different states or objects will have the possibility of failing. Thus “in my understanding, Empedocles’ philosophy is definitely not a concept of failure, but a world-view oriented towards succeeding, precisely because it is aware of the possibility of failure” (Zielinski, 41).

Works cited:

Andersen, Christian Ulrik , and S. Pold. Interface Criticism: Aesthetics Beyond the Buttons. Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2010. Print.

Andersen, Christian Ulrik, Geoff Cox, and Jacob Lund. “Public Interfaces – Background”.  Aarhus:  University of Aarhus. 4 Jan 2011. <>.

Cramer, Florian, and Matthew  Fuller. “Interface.” Software Studies : A Lexicon. Ed. Fuller, Matthew. Leonardo Books. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2008: 149-52. Print.

Fuller, Matthew. Behind the Blip : Essays on the Culture of Software. New York: Autonomedia, 2003. Print.

Kittler, Friedrich A. “There Is No Software”.  1995. Eds. Kroker, Arthur and Marilouise. 2/11 2010. <>.

Laurel, Brenda, and S. Joy Mountford. The Art of Human-Computer Interface Design. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1990. Print.

Leupold, Jacob. Theatrum Arithmetico-Geometricum. Leipzig: B. C. Breitkopfs, 1774. Print.

Long, A. A. “Thinking and Sense-Perception in Empedocles: Mysticism or Materialism?” The Classical Quarterly 16 2 (1966): 256-76. Print.

McKay, Robert Ferrier. The Theory of Machines. London: E. Arnold, 1915. Print.

Onwubolu, Godfrey. Mechatronics – Principles and Applications. Oxford: Elsevier Butterworth-Heinemann, 2005. Print.

Parry, Richard. “Empedocles.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Ed. Zalta, Edward N. Fall 2008 Edition ed, 2008. Print.

Riis, Morten. “Steam Machine Music”. 5 Jan 2011. <>.

Smith, Robert H. Text-Book of Advanced Machine Work. Boston: Industrial Education Book Company, 1910. Print.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Ed. Anscombe, G. E. M. (Repr.). ed. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1976. Print.

Zielinski, Siegfried. Deep Time of the Media: Toward an Archaeology of Hearing and Seeing by Technical Means. Electronic Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2006. Print.

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