25 June 2015

Continuous Interfaces

Apple's Continuity technology across devices
Under the contemporary condition of computation the question of the interface requires us to attend to that which in everyday practice we attend to continuously.[1] In this short article I want to think about the way in which the interface as a thin membrane over computational devices is increasingly being stretched across computational devices, objects, practices and processes to create what I am calling continuous interfaces. This has political economic, material and phenomenological dimensions. Here, I focus on the relationship between a computational imaginary related to ubiquitous computing and its important links between design, interface patterns and material technologies rather than its political economic drivers, for example in terms of lock-in, ecological ideas of digital media, and platform hegemony (see Maeda 2015 for discussion of the importance of design as a driver of industry growth and competitiveness), however the materiality of technical devices remains crucial to understanding current technology imaginaries.[2]

The notion of continuous interfaces I am drawing from the concept of continuous computing which has been deployed to talk about the increasing way in which ubiquitous computing is being embedded in devices which are in tension with their environment – for example in Apple's new continuity technology (Apple 2015). It is also relevant to the notion of continuous partial attention and the work of Linda Stone who explains that continuous partial attention,
describes how many of us use our attention today. It is different from simple multi-tasking. The two are differentiated by the impulse that motivates them. When we multi-task, we are motivated by a desire to be more productive and more efficient. One or both of the activities we’re doing is automatic or routine, and requires very little cognitive processing... To pay continuous partial attention is to pay partial attention — continuously. It is motivated by a desire to be a live node on the network. Another way of saying this is that we want to connect and be connected (Stone 2010, emphasis removed). 
In the notion of continuous interfaces, the term continuity refers to the unbroken and consistent existence or operation of something over time but also gestures towards a media notion of continuity of broadcast, in the maintenance of continuous action and self-consistent detail in the various scenes of a film or broadcast. Thomson, for example argues that to enable a new area of continuous computing depends on three factors (adapted from Thomson 2015),
  • Physical design
  • Interaction models
  • The ability of the technical device to interact with its environment  
The experience of the surface of computation has intensified in recent years, both in terms of its growth as a mediating technology for social and cultural life, but also in terms of conceptual means for transcending institutional and technical boundaries between different spheres. Current manifestations of continuous interfaces have tended towards individual computing, the passing of a theoretical user interface intentionality across different computational surfaces, for example. But one could imagine a public continuity as a social imaginary which contributes to public culture and an imagined community although there appears to be little work in this area (see Anderson 2006 for a discussion of imagined community).

So continuity as a concept has links between hyper-individualised experiences of computation and closing the gap between different personal devices, and individualised goal-oriented behaviours, that is, instrumental rationality (Berry 2014). This also includes the micro-level of the individualised technologies across which various personal technologies that stretch computation across lives, life histories and sociality. This is a problematic I have argued elsewhere (Berry 2011, 2014) and concerns questions of interoperability, of inter or intra-computation and object-oriented paradigms of intercommunication between technical devices which now appears to have begun to be augmented through design, as a horizon of understanding provided by flat interfaces (Berry 2015).[3]

The requirement for a shared constellation of representations, axiomatic concepts and grammars of interaction requires a complex assemblage of technologies, articulated through code and design, that has characteristics of responsive design combined with a tight coupling between the materiality of the technical device and the articulation of the principles of the design language. The recent turn towards flat design has been manifested in the use of a double articulation of the geometric fundamentals of the primitives of the interface combined with a neo-materialist abstraction of fictional materials from which the interface is imagined to be constructed. The obduracy of the interface is guaranteed through technical restrictions built into the interface toolbox, both in terms of API functionality but also the sophisticated deployment of integrated development environments (IDEs). But there is also a mythic reinforcement through the allegory of a material form that guarantees the conceptual and practical instantiation of interface design, so in the case of Google it is paper, and for Apple it is glass. 

In Berry (2014) I talked about an analytical method of both separating the interface from the underlying code in a depth model of analysis that used the concepts of commodity and mechanism to point to the structural form of computational systems. These were defined as,
  • Commodity: accessible via the interface/surface and providing or procuring a commodity/service/function. Provides a relative stability for the consumption of ends. The commodity is usually articulated at the level of the interactional layer, usually visually, although this may be through other sensory interfaces level.
  • Mechanism: accessible via textual source code, which contains the mechanisms and functions ‘hidden’ in the software (means). This can be thought of as the substructure for the overlay of commodities and consumption. The mechanisms are usually delegated within the codal layer, and thus hidden from the interactional.
This is nonetheless a simplification of the architectural structure of the computer allowing the fundamental dimensions of the the relationship between the interface (commodity) and the code (mechanism) to be brought forward. In relation to an approach to thinking about the interface qua interface, particularly in relation to a method or approach that contributes to interface criticism it might be helpful to zoom in on the interface not only as a thin layer or surface upon computational machinery, but also as a discrete computational form in and of itself. Here I am thinking about the possibility of thinking of the interface as a machine in its own right, in terms of what we might call thin computation that tends to be optimised towards breadth rather than depth in terms of its relationship to the functional properties of the computer, but also in a spatial and temporal dimension.[4]  There is also an important question around the scaler function of continuous interfaces for transcending and scaling down planetary-scale computation to a local and individual scale (see Bratton 2014)

Investigating these developments requires the triangulation of critical approaches to technologies, systems, interfaces, media and culture, but also supplemented with new methods for reading (and perhaps writing) continuity. Some tactics which might be deployed in a continuous interface criticism might include,
  • Disrupting the bluetooth and WiFi antennas that enable the continuity experience. 
  • Connecting and disconnecting new devices into the fabric of continuity technologies. 
  • Connecting devices across platforms, e.g. across material and flat design paradigms. 
  • Overloading the data or computational power to cause glitches to be surfaced in terms of the continuous interface. 
  • Hijacking the public continuity functionality of users' personal technology either to invert the public/private continuity relationship, or to open the black box of such an "invisible" technology.[5] 
  • Hacking the real-time experience of continuous interfaces by slowing down (increasing the latency) of computational translation between material objects.[6]
Continuous interfaces offers not only a conceptual means of thinking about a possible new phase in interface design, but also invites us to think about the way in which one can deploy interface criticism under continuous computing. This helps to disrupt not just the traditional surfaces of computation, but also a growing tapestry of computational moments, objects, glances, notifications and complications that are weaved across the life-world and which we attend to continuously.


[1] This article was prompted by attending the Interfaces: Method and Critique for Designed Cultures conference at the University of Warwick, 24-25 June 2015. See http://cim-interfaces.net
[2] Maeda (2015) argues "I predict large tech companies will place greater attention on design. This is not dissimilar to the automobile industry as it began to mature — the famous point when Henry Ford refused to sell variations in the only color that mattered, compared with GM, which diversified its designs to appeal to larger populations across multiple brands like Chevrolet, Buick and Cadillac with differing emotional appeal. We see it already with Google’s efforts around Android’s enhanced “Material” visual language led by Matias Duarte, eBay’s design leadership efforts led by John Donahoe and IBM’s resurgence in the design space with its new Austin center led by Phil Gilbert"
[3] Design as a theoretical limit for the reconciliation of a highly fragmented computation experience, but also life in postmodern capitalism is interestingly reflected on by Latour (2008), where he argues "today everyone with an iPhone knows that it would be absurd to distinguish what has been designed from what has been planned, calculated, arrayed, arranged, packed, packaged, defined, projected, tinkered, written down in code, disposed of and so on. From now on, 'to design' could mean equally any or all of those verbs. Secondly, it has grown in extension – design is applicable to ever larger assemblages of production. The range of things that can be designed is far wider now than a limited list of ordinary or even luxury goods".
[4] The production of a series of subjectivities constantly overloaded and reinforced through the interface as a temporal object which mediates experience can be captured in the idea of a subjectivity specific to a condition on contextual computing, continuous interfaces and flat design, what we might term flat dasein. That is a minimal subjectivity augmented through environmental and non-conscious cognition from machinic faculties produced via the programming industries and particularly the cognitive-software-design complex of Silicon Valley. 
[5] For an example of a hack of Apple's instantiation of continuous computing is the Continuity Activation Tool, see https://github.com/dokterdok/Continuity-Activation-Tool/
[6] Treating continuity transfers as a logistics network, and selectively slowing down and speeding up the continuity computational objects would be an interesting example of playfully demonstrating the continuity system. 


Anderson, B. (2006) Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London: Verso Books.

Apple (2015) Connect your iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, and Mac using Continuity, accessed 25/06/15,  https://support.apple.com/en-gb/HT204681

Berry, D. M. (2011) The Philosophy Of Software: Code and Mediation in the Digital Age, Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Berry, D. M. (2014) Critical Theory and the Digital, New York: Bloomsbury

Berry, D. M. (2015) Flat Theory, Boundary 2, accessed 25/06/2015, http://boundary2.org/2015/01/27/flat-theory/

Bratton, B. (2014) The Black Stack, e-flux, accessed 25/06/2015, http://www.e-flux.com/journal/the-black-stack/

Latour, B. (2008) A Cautious Prometheus? A Few Steps Toward a Philosophy of Design (with Special Attention to Peter Sloterdijk), accessed 25/06/2015, http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/112-DESIGN-CORNWALL-GB.pdf

Maeda, J. (2015) Weekend Read: Why Design Matters More than Moore, The Wall Street Journal, accessed 25/06/2015, http://blogs.wsj.com/accelerators/2015/05/22/weekend-read-why-design-matters-more-than-moore/

Stone, L. (2010) Continuous Partial Attention, accessed 25/06/2015, http://lindastone.net/qa/

Thomson, B. (2015) Apple Watch and Continuous Computing, Stratechery, accessed 25/06/2015, https://stratechery.com/2015/apple-watch-and-continuous-computing/

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