Kaiak. A Philosophical Journey 8, 2021

 

There are common and even inflated words, whose hidden and yet literal meaning seems to overcome, for its philosophical implications, the metaphorical, extended or derived meanings. One of these words is interface. If we consider it through its Latin literality, the term lets us think of two or more facies, i.e., two or more semblants, specular images, but also of two or more faces, their visual relations, their confrontation or vice versa intimate reciprocity, as well as the spacetime existing between them (inter) in a literal, that is physical sense. In its only apparently singular manifestation, the interface refers to the eventual surface (facies), the face-to-face thanks to which two qualitatively different entities meet while remaining separate—not surprisingly, in chemistry it equates with the contact between two heterogeneous substances—or to the way in which one manifests itself to or hides from the other.

Only after this exercise in interpsychic pluralization and spatialization, practised in twentieth-century philosophy in a metaphysical fashion by Emmanuel Lévinas, and recently elaborated by Peter Sloterdijk in an original anthropological perspective, spherology, we may get back to the better-known, more common and reified meaning of the term interface. In today’s dominant scientific and technological language, more than a psychophysical space between two or more entities, interfaces actually represent entities or devices acting as connections or separations between two or more entities or systems, thanks to some special feature (e.g., a specific code). In other words, if each system exhibits one of its faces (facies) with its own communicative protocol, the device connects the faces: it relates them by interposing itself between them.

It is therefore noteworthy that in electronics and computer engineering the most astonishing and literally visible developments of this semiotic function do not concern the possibility, regarding hardware, to connect or adapt different systems, circuits or devices (e.g., analogue and digital, our laptop to its peripheral devices etc.), or regarding software, the set of stable properties of a component on which other components can rely (e.g., the hyper-compatibility of an operative system), but rather amounts to the tendency to humanize the design of the user interface, i.e., that part of the software or device with which human users interact, discuss or converse. This humanization is accompanied by the increasingly easy and friendly features that interfaces assume visually and more generally sensorily.

Even if we look at the most famous experiment relating to human-machine interactions, that is the Turing test, we cannot help but notice its originary conversational form—the English mathematician conceived an imitative game with three participants—exceeding the aseptic, cognitive dimension in which information theory has subsequently placed artificial intelligence. The deception of the intelligent machine, its ‘appearing human’, is based, on the one hand, paradoxically, on the absence of face-to-face, but on the other on its simulation through writing. Briefly, there is a complex dialogue involving two or more participants, one of which, as Sartre would say, is in bad faith. This dialogue becomes once again an intimate and eventual face-to-face in the equally famous literary and cinematographic transposition of the Turing test, that is the perfect, Promethean and seductive anthropomorphism of the replicants imagined by Philip K. Dick and represented by Ridley Scott in Blade Runner.

As a fantastic complement to the dawn of cybernetics, the replicant represents the three-dimensional and specular—even self-conscious—form of the interface, i.e., the culmination of the effort with which humans humanize their technological prostheses. Historically, the extraordinary and accelerated evolution of digital interfaces, as well as that of screens as facies, is perhaps not determined only by the need to translate the binary code into semantic systems accessible to lay users, but rather refers to the inter-facial and semi-spherical dimensions of human relationships, reproducing them in increasingly more finely anthropomorphized forms. The latter, in turn, render it possible for humans to interact with each other in increasingly complex medial environments, letting them converse in increasingly technologically-mediated forms (cyborgs). From this perspective, Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto represents an attempt to override, or rather dissolve this anthropomorphism in the fluidity of the posthuman, together with its rigid, dualistic oppositions (man-woman, nature-culture etc.). The increasing humanization of user interfaces would constitute only one of the possible medial and technological translations of the need, not only human, but typical of many lifeforms—including artificial ones—to live immersed in a common, sonospheric belonging—in the noise of a ‘vocal bell’, to say it with Sloterdijk—in a continuous linguistic exchange not so much of information and symbols, but of signs and, above all, mutual emotions.

 

On the basis of this provisional techno-medial and psycho-semantic review, we submit that the term interface can be singled out at least five, deeply interconnected levels, which allow its historicization and deconstruction, but also to enquire into its hidden ontological and metaphorical implications, within the range of the possible (in)distinctions between humans and nonhumans:

1) The exclusively inter-human, intersubjective level, which designates complex forms of linguistic interaction—particularly face-to-face conversation, with its proxemic corporeality, but also its scriptural transposition. All the ‘techniques of the body’, to quote Marcel Mauss, which allow the members of our species to humanize themselves but also remain human. As is well known, linguistic deprivation and isolation lead to mental underdevelopment and illness respectively, while asceticism, as ‘technique of solitude’, implies the ability to converse with oneself;

2) The first hybrid, morpho-biological, anthropogenetic and paleontological level, referring to human-animal, human-plant, human-inorganic interfaces, but also to animal-plant interfaces—think of Deleuze and Guattari’s wasp and orchid—animal-animal and animal-inorganic. This dimension enables us to investigate the space and the techniques presiding over the relations between different species, beyond the specifically human evolutionary trait of the protrusion of the face;

3) The second hybrid level, taking the steps from our tendency to let nonhumans ‘speak’, anthropomorphizing and actually reincluding them within humanity, therefore representing the interaction or conversation, the dialogue between human users and machines, be them computers, smartphones or robots, i.e., replicants. From Hal 9000 to Alexa, interfaces literally ‘respond’ to the human need to talk to, and therefore design the facies of an inanimate institution—as if it had a soul, i.e., as if it were human;

4) The techno-social level, in which humans interact and above all converse ‘face-to-face’ or, on the contrary, hide behind countless technological masks, confronting each other through nonhuman interfaces, mainly digitally. If virtual identity allows us to avoid identification, online videocalls represent the digitized overcoming of telephone calls, therefore the experience of a new inter-facial space that ostensibly uses, but actually ‘depends’ on hybrid, human-machine interactions;

5) The last level, exclusively and problematically machinic, therefore both meta-human and post-human, in which two or more artificial intelligences converse with each other, or dialogue through interfaces designed by humans to reproduce, or on the contrary overcome the autoplastic and self-referential character of human interactions. At this level, the conversation, or rather the sociability of the machinic, on the one hand, seems to humanize these interacting machines, on the other, lets them evolve in new interfacial spaces.

 

Issue 8 of Kaiak. A Philosophical Journey aims to focus on these levels or meanings of the concept of interface, enquiring into their philosophical as well as techno-social implications: from cybernetic ontology to conversational analysis, from the algorithmic developments of electronic engineering to online psychotherapy, up to the new forms of virtual sociality triggered by the ongoing pandemic.

 

Possible topics:

1) ‘Face-to-face’ theories;

2) Evolution of technological interfaces;

3) The human-machine conversation;

4) Forms of medial sociality;

5) Interface and psychological function;

6) Ontology of the interface.