The Independent on Sunday Magazine

(18/01/98 )

Fog in channel, continent isolated.

by Marek Kohn

"The Link is te first significant new form of punctuation to emerge in centuries, but it is only a hint of things to come."

"Every major technological age attracts a certain dominant artistic form: the mathematical and optical innovations of the Renaissance were best realised in the geometry of perspective painting; the industrial age worked through its social crisis in the triple-decker novel. This digital age belongs to the graphic interface."

Steve Johnson "Interface Culture"

As far as i'm concerned, Microsoft and Netscape can fight their Browser Wars in the courts, they can fight on the Web, but i wish they wouldn't do it inside my computer. When i try to open Internet Explorer files, Netscape Communicator fires itself up and elbows Explorer out of the way. Communicator 4.0 looks more elegant than Explorer 3.0.1, but it's a terrible fusspot which insists on making you take three steps when one would do.

I would trash it, but if you maintain Web pages, it's good practice to check how they look in the major Browsers. That's the official explaination. The real reason is that, like most people who use their computers for anything besides typing and games, I like collecting software, and I am gripped by the irrational conviction that computers abhor free disk space. But I also realise that, taking the broad view, Explorer and Netscape are about as different as Coke and Pepsi. Maybe we could do with some more flavours. Sometimes plain vanilla is what you actually want.

Enter I/O/D, a trio of London-based designers, with their bold proclaimation that "the browser is dead". In its place they offer a free downloadable program called I/O/D 4: "The Web Stalker", promising "high-protein" access to the Web. Wired magazine summed I/O/D 4 : "The Web Stalker" up as a "lynx browser crossed with a Venn diagram", referring to an old browser that displays only the text of web pages, and those nests of intersecting circles that represent mathematical sets. The Web Stalker's unique selling point is that it maps web files, and presents them in doagrammatic form. This will be of interest to other web designers, rather than to people who are interested in the contents of of a site. The interface, blank and austere, may also appeal to Lacanian psychoanlysts, or poker players.

The Web Stalker is principally an art statement, fiunded by Arts Council money. It illustrates the observation made by Steven Johnson, a founding editor of the Webzine Feed, that "an interface avant-garde will probably have to announce itself by deliberately concocting difficult interfaces". Johnson made his remark in a discussion, hosted by Atlantic Monthly's online edition, of his book Interface Culture . He predicts that interface design may come to be seen as " the art form of the next century". For this to happen, he suggests, avant-gardists will have to disrupt the conventions of computer use. Art must be user-hostile, or it will not be.

He has a point about disrupting conventions, though I'm not convinced that new digital art forms need to recapitulate the history of the modern movement in the early 20th-century art. Nor will avant-garde art necessarily break out of the margins. As Bill Moggridge head of IDEO Product Developement observes, metaphors tend to be conservative. Moggridge points out that a modern camera is now more a computer tha n anything else, yet we still think of it as an optical device. Other pieces of equipment will become "information appliances", but their users will continue to think of them in terms of their original functions, such as playing CDs. As these functions are translated into digital code, they become metaphors. "The metaphor you're going to use is what that appliance drives", says Moggridge, who numbers nthe first laptop (the Grid Compass, 1980) among his design credentials. We will be putting files in folders on our desktops for a long time yet.