Steven Johnson’s ‘Interface Culture’ And What If US Blacks Made Computers

While reading Steven Johnson’s book discussing confluence of creativity and engineering, art and technology, I came across a passage that made me think. In his book, “Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms The Way We Create And Communicate.”, he writes:


What exactly is an interface anyway? In its simplest sense the word refers to software that shapes the interaction between user and computer. The interface serves as a kind of translator; mediating between the two parties, making one sensible to the other. In other words, the relationship governed by the interface is a semantic one, characterized by meaning and expression rather than physical force. Digital computers are “literary machines,” as hypertext guru Ted Nelson calls them. They work with signs and symbols, although this language, in its most elemental form, is almost impossible to understand. A computer thinks–if thinking is the right word for it–in tiny pulses of electricity, representing either an “on” or an “off” state, a zero or a one. Humans think in words, concepts, images, sounds, associations. A computer that does nothing but manipulate sequences of zeros and ones is nothing but an exceptionally inefficient adding machine. For the magic of the digital revolution to take place, a computer must also represent itself to the user, in a language that the user understands.

“Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms The Way We Create And Communicate.”, Steven Johnson,pg 14


Elsewhere I have discussed semiotics, culture, and race. I wrote an essay about Huey P. Newton attempting to influence his peers to use language better suited to illustrate violent nature of police officers. As I stated there, his attempts failed, but eventually, someone was able to organically establish a term, “pig”, that was readily accepted by not only is peers but generations after his murder.


In that same manner that Huey had to allow objective conditions to present a symbol that satisfied his criteria, I wonder what culture would look like if US Blacks manufactured computers. What are some differences in symbol representation that would be employed if same people that invented ragtime, blues, jazz, rock, and hip-hop also governed decision making over designs of software and computer hardware? If those design and technology leaders at XEROX PARC in 1960s and 1970s had all been influenced by either Dr. King, Jr, Malcolm X, Ella Baker, or Fannie Lou Hammer in an identitarian manner, what sorts of programs would have initially come with Apple and Microsoft’s versions of their work?


While I embrace a much more abstracted definition and understanding of interface that you can read here, I do understand exactly what Mr. Johnson is suggesting in this passage. I do not wish to say that Whytes and Asians should not be making computers and software, but I would be interested in seeing a world where people who share my unconscious symbol sets–or archetypes– also designed this era’s most popular device for disseminating symbol sets organically.