In an issue of Theory, Culture & Society, Anthropologist Tim Ingold draws interest in surfaces—in particular, the social relationships through them. The concept of interfaciality could therefore be understood as a critical deepening of superficiality, considered in and for itself.
… the metaphysical assumption [is] that the true essence of things and persons is to be found deep inside them, in an inner core that can be reached only by breaking open the external appearance behind which it hides. It is this assumption that so often leads us to equate the surface with what is ‘superficial’. It is why we distrust surfaces and the meanings they convey: why we think we have to break through them or peel them aside, if we are ever to arrive at real significance. But what if there is nothing underneath? What if surfaces are the real sites for the generation of meaning?
Rather than skipping surfaces under the pretext of a noumenal investigation (according to the Kantian distinction between noumen and phenomen, between the “essential” thing and its accidental manifestation) or by despising “appearances” (which chimera, deception and illusion are frequently associated to), Ingold suggests investing them in all their depth:
It is not a disguise but a revelation. … Far from hiding the depths behind the surface, it allows us to feel the depths in the surface.
Surfaces—allowing discourse, exchange, dialog—become particularly meaningful not only because they participate directly in constructing relationships with people, objects, the world (through visualization, programming, communication interfaces…) but because they constitute in themselves the critical locus where meaning emerges. It is precisely at the level of interfaces that thought is enunciated (we think with cognitive interfaces), that social life becomes animated and interlaced, that a world takes form.
Text interfaces in Marc Augé’s non-places
Of plain banality, non-places may however induce significant behaviour. Worse even, they generate, sometimes massively, the absence of meaning. Anthropologist Marc Augé takes note of the case of textual interfaces, like the screen of banking and transaction devices which make implacable “calls to order,” or all those signs that fabricate the “average man”:
Another example of the invasion of space by text is the big supermarket. The customer wanders round in silence, reads labels, weighs fruit and vegetables on a machine that gives the price along with the weight; then hands his credit card to a young woman as silent as himself – anyway, not very chatty – who runs each article past the sensor of a decoding machine before checking the validity of the customer’s credit card. There is a more direct but even more silent dialogue between the cardholder and the cash dispenser: he inserts the card, then reads the instructions on its screen, generally encouraging in tone but sometimes including phrases (‘Card faulty’, ‘Please withdraw your card’, ‘Read instructions carefully’) that call him rather sternly to order. All the remarks that emanate from our roads and commercial centres, from the street-corner sites of the vanguard of the banking system (‘Thank you for your custom’, ‘Bon voyage’, ‘We apologize for any inconvenience’) are addressed simultaneously and indiscriminately to each and any of us: they fabricate the ‘average man’, defined as the user of the road, retail or banking system.
Interface design, among others, participates critically not only in making what objects or systems wear, but more concretely in building the relationships that they allow, and therefore partake of a particular epistemology (objects, code, are never free of bias).