Under the Interface

One trope of the 21st century, almost too mundane for discussion by now, is that nobody knows phone numbers anymore, aside from the few they permanently memorized through thousands of dials on bygone landlines. Birthdays are similarly difficult to remember for lack of necessity: We remember the ones we learned before a certain point (probably the point when Facebook assumed that responsibility) but have added few dates to the memorized list since that moment. Even street addresses used to demand temporary memorization until the iPhone-map-ridesharing stack began eroding the need for that small effort, a development that now often frees us from seeing those numbered addresses at all when navigating to a new place.

In contrast to the decline of many technologies, there is no sorrow or nostalgia about the waning presence of phone numbers, addresses, and comparable scrap information in contemporary conscious life (and not even much sadness about knowing fewer birthdays). The clutter of ugly, messy numbers is disappearing from life and we’re better for it, even if it doesn’t truly free up mental “space” for us to invest in higher pursuits.

All that information we’re forgetting—and this will be increasingly true in the coming years—didn’t actually disappear. It just got a better interface. A better UI/UX, if you will. The information is under the hood, working invisibly. Phone numbers and street addresses have long served as protocols that enable humans to interact with and navigate complex landscapes by constituting a legible layer atop something illegible. Like an API, those numbering schemes enable two systems to talk to one another. One of those two systems can even be people.

Thanks to computers that fit in our pockets and go everywhere with us, as well as equally ubiquitous software and connectivity, it’s possible to add another layer on top of the ugly prosaic numbers, translating them back into human terms that are still indexed the same way and seamlessly mapped to the underlying systems. Machines are the ones that should be dialing 867-5309 or finding directions to 767 5th Avenue; people should be thinking of and searching for “Jenny” or “Apple Store.” Embedded within Facebook is a birthday API: By using Facebook you tell the platform who your friends are, and it tells you when it’s their birthday. The date is the invisible key; the value of memorizing that date perhaps just a relic of analog calendar technology that’s receding into the past. Life is getting easy, isn’t it?

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  Steve Jobs at home (source)

The API and the user interface are powerful metaphors for what Marc Andressen’s statement about “software eating the world” actually means. Software is not eliminating things, but eating them in the sense of absorbing or swallowing them. The iconic photo of young Steve Jobs at home among his few beautiful possessions (see above) foreshadows Jobs’ own role in putting so much of daily life under the hood. His life’s work was enabling me and you to own a few sleek, perfect devices that replaced entire file cabinets, stacks of paper, CD shelves, printers, power strips, and tangled wires in our homes. Most of that personal infrastructure for managing one’s information now hides within a few cubic inches wrapped in glass, aluminum, and plastic (or a data center hidden in the Oregon woods), to the extent that we’ve embraced its potential. Software is the obvious reason. Steve Jobs and countless contemporaries shepherded mankind into the “smooth” environments we now inhabit, which offer few clues about the hidden work being done by the invisible code.

I’ve written previously about the smooth environment that digital technology creates and its implications for physical space in cities (specifically online retail, in that post). The sparse quality of Jobsian space attests to a fattening layer of software that will keep absorbing more elements of meatspace. To occupy that space as a human is to exist above the API. The texture of economically advanced urban areas exhibits this condition, increasingly comprising coffee shops, public space, and showroom-style retail outlets—everything that software can’t eat, either because it’s too tactile (food and drink) or because machines haven’t learned how to do it yet.

As the software layer absorbs more of everything, it becomes important for humans to decide what they want their relationship to that layer to be: above it (as a user), interacting with it (as a builder), competing with it, displaced by it, or oblivious to its presence. When you hear the advice that everyone should “learn to code,” it’s shorthand for a more nuanced assessment of the software-consumed landscape and the embedded judgment that it’s better to be one of the builders than either a mere user or a refugee from a domain the software ate.

John Robb describes the phenomenon of “turking”—humans doing work that software will ultimately do but isn’t able to yet. The rise of machine learning massively expands the range of tasks that fall into this category. Take Microsoft Excel, which can be understood even today as a tool for turking. Excel users typically employ the program toward repetitive tasks that basic software could perform. It’s a training ground that bots could observe, learn from, and quickly replicate. Excel spreadsheets, like memorized phone numbers, won’t be missed by many people when they go under the API, but the jobs that Excel supports will certainly be missed if the transition isn’t properly anticipated.

Interfaces and platforms free us from responsibility and turn us into users and operators, unless we actively redefine our relationship to those smooth surfaces we end up on top of. But there’s also no time to learn how everything works, so everyone accepts some degree of automation in daily life. The rough ocean of technological change forces a constant reorientation to this landscape, a perfect balance of trading down and trading up. Let your iPhone memorize all the numbers but hold onto and strengthen the faculties that make you human, and know that the big solid middle range will always be melting into air.


One Comment on “Under the Interface”

  1. […] in the background, another invisible algorithm that frames reality. Navigational maps are going “under the interface,” as I’ve written before. Nicholas Carr observes, “It would seem to be the golden age of maps […]


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