Steven Johnson: No Bitmaps for These Territories

December 09th, 2004 | Category: Interviews

When a friend of mine loaned me Steven Johnson’s first book, I had no idea what he was getting me into. On the surface, Interface Culture (Harper San Francisco, 1997) looks like most other books on the subject of computer interfaces, but how many times must I be warned not to judged books by their looks before I start to believe.

Johnson’s books each tackle a different topic than the one before, but they all wander wide enough for you to see the color outside of the lines. Where Interface Culture seemed to be about interfaces, it was about, well, interfaces — but interfaces like I’d never thought of them before, in places I’d never seen them before. Emergence (Scribner, 2001) was about emergent phenomena and network culture, but again, in ways that I hadn’t seen discussed before. Johnson writes about the signs of the times, but no one else sees what they signify quite like he does.

His latest book, Mind Wide Open (Scribner, 2004), is an autoethnographic romp through the neurobiology of his brain. It’s not quite like reading a Charlie Kaufman script, but it’s close. He also co-founded FEED online magazine, and writes for Wired, Discover, Slate, Salon, and many others.

I’ve returned to Interface Culture many times since that first read, and in turn, I asked Johnson to return with me [Special thanks to Jonathan Field for additional input].

Roy Christopher: I want to go back in time a bit to your first book, Interface Culture. Its title betrays the broad scope of the book, but in the meantime, the interface has expanded in our culture: Everything from media, to branding, to communication is, in effect, an interface. Did you see this expansion when writing this book?

Steven Johnson: In a (slightly self-congratulatory) word: yes. There were a few things I think I ended up being wrong about, and more than a few that I failed to anticipate, but the general argument has held up very well over the eight years that have passed since I wrote it. The argument, simply put, was this: in a society where information is proliferating at an exponential rate, and where information is valued above all else, the tools we have to manage and filter that information — our interfaces — become the most important symbolic or “sense-making” form in the culture. It’s not exaggerating things to say that Google is the defining mode of self-representation for our society, and Google is, in the end, just an interface to the web.

RC: What are your thoughts on our political system as an interface? Everything in this country has evolved so much over the past century, except government. How well do you think it works in today’s world so far as serving the public interest and public good?

SJ: I tend to be an optimist about a lot of things, but the state of the government is not something that puts me in a half-full kind of mood. We’re clearly in a transition phase right now, one that might well last another ten years, if not longer: a small and vocal (and well-publicized) part of the electorate has realized the power of information revolution, and they’re demanding that politics be revolutionized accordingly. (Just today, one of the heads of announced that they had “bought” the Democratic Party in 2004 and it was time for the old guard to hand over the keys.) But a lot of us still think about politics the old-fashioned way: as a remote force over our lives that we can’t control in any real way. I said after Dean imploded that his campaign was a classic study in the clash of two overlapping paradigms: the internet had transformed the way people raise money and mobilize supporters and that had led to Dean’s spectacular rise in late 2003, but the decision that people made about who to vote for was still governed by the tradition of seeing someone on TV (or, if you were really lucky, seeing them in a town hall meeting in person.) And that created an imbalance — because all the early indicators revolved around money and activist passion, which created an artificial sense of Dean’s inevitability. But the “actual voters” didn’t really dig him.

RC: As long as we’re talking about interfaces, what about branding? What about the homogenization of the landscape where big-box retailers are concerned? This is a personal pet peeve, but I like to see different things in different places when I travel. I hate to see the same four stores, or the same coffee shop in every town. Is there any company you think is respecting regional culture even as they move in and set up shop?

SJ: I’m sympathetic to what you’re saying, but I think there’s a risk of sentimentality here as well. I mean, Starbucks is everywhere, which means by a certain standard the world has gotten more homogeneous. On the other hand, the world is now filled with far more places where I can order a triple-shot iced latté with good espresso. Ten years ago the number of places serving a wide range of coffees was pretty small, outside the ten biggest cities and maybe a dozen college towns. But thanks to Starbucks, even airports and shopping malls now have a huge palette of coffee options to choose from. Same goes for Barnes & Noble. Their outlets regularly carry Interface Culture in stores, despite the fact that it never came close to being a bestseller. But you would have been very hard pressed to find a book like that in a nonmetropolitan/academic bookstore ten years ago. (And then there’s the whole Amazon phenomenon, where everyone with a web connection now has access to the most obscure titles in print.)

So for the people outside the urban centers, I think the chains have largely been a force for more diversity, not less. The question is whether the chains are killing off the diversity in the cities themselves. I don’t think anyone has done a convincing study of this yet. My hunch would be it’s pretty much a draw: Soho is filled with J. Crew and The Gap now, but five blocks over in NoLiTa there are more small designers in one-room shops than there ever were in Soho. There are fewer indie bookstores now, but frankly, I don’t need indie bookstores with Amazon. And there are like a thousand Starbucks in NYC, but all the classic small coffee shops I know of are still thriving.

RC: In Emergence, you uproot the free-content-with-advertising model of mass media and propose an opt-in, information-exchange model. You envision a world of media with less ads, but rather a more open exchange of information between companies and consumers. As someone who cringes at ads filling every available space, I like the idea. Do you think there’s a way to get past the privacy issues, or protect privacy, and still implement such a model?

SJ: Amazon sends me email announcements when there’s a new release that it thinks I might be interested in, given my past purchasing history. I’d estimate off the top of my head that they’re on target about thirty percent of the time (often it’s notifying me of something I’ve already purchased, though not from them.) That means that two-thirds of the time they’re completely off base in anticipating my interests, but still I welcome those emails. I mean, what’s the batting average of all the other advertising in my life — all the billboards and radio plugs and subway banners and random TV spots, not to mention the spam? It’s a fraction of a fraction of a percent, if you add it all up. So when someone shows up and says, “thirty percent of the time, I’m going to point out something you really might want to buy,” I say: “Great, keep it coming.”

As for the privacy issues, I don’t know. I worry about health and financial records — and personal information about my family — getting into the wrong hands. But I don’t care about someone tracking the DVDs that I buy, as long they give me a one-click method of shutting down their recommendations if they’re not working for me.

RC: What’s the new book-in-progress all about?

SJ: It’s a pure work of persuasion, arguing that popular culture, on average, has been growing more cognitively challenging over the past thirty years, not less. Despite everything you hear about declining standards and dumbing-down, you have to do more intellectual work to make sense of today’s television or games — much less the internet — than you did a few decades ago. It will definitely be the most controversial of my books, but I think it’s also going to be a fun read. It’s called Everything Bad Is Good For You, and it’ll be out in the U.S. in early May.

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