This project explores the computer magazines of the '80s as key years for building the user and market imaginary around personal computers. What I am specifically proposing is what it would mean if we were to undertake the experiment and observe the magazine narrative as the graphical user interface of the ‘80s. For this inquiry, I am looking into the era of computing before networking came in to redefine the space within the magazines Byte and Racunari, stemming from two different socioeconomic contexts. What interests me is the connection between the imagery and the titles associated as a metatext captioning and multimodal connecting of conceptual threads as a GUI interface. In that way the magazine potentially moves from a secondary literature for media archaeology, to be even the primary, The magazine further exemplifies an imaginary media, as defined by Eric Kluitenberg in the way it conceived possibilities, especially in the future-orientedness of most of its segments.
“Good user interface design relates to users more, and to system architecture less.” Wikipedia GUI page
This reading onto a magazine from the perspective of a GUI observes the medium of the magazine as an interface to technology as a whole, especially in the pre-cyberspace era. This process is enacted in several planes. On one level, the magazine provides a medium for translating the language of computers into more human readable expressions. The translation itself requires the act to be done on multiple layers, because computers themselves assemble meaning from plural processes that become executed. Wendy Chun discusses this translation process in The Enduring Ephemeral, or The Future is a Memory, offering a reflection on source code being far from source and assembly language. When thinking about computers, it is particularly interesting to see how the function of the magazines of the ‘80s was highly instructional, as they consisted of literal manuals for assembling electronic parts into whole computers, as well as acquiring programming literacy.
The birth of the GUI slowly introduced a segmentation among computer users to those with more engineering, programming affinity, and those who were more interested in functionalities being as intuitive and effortless as possible. The GUI slowly came to define the general, everyday user, while the tinkerer started to become profiled as the geek, the hacker. The magazine served as an interface for interaction prior to networking as well, through sections with letters from readers and a space to visualize and imagine both technology and other users, when computers were only starting to become accessible. Computer magazines as cornerstones of lifestyle narratives were key in this process, as they wanted to communicate with both of these groups. They did this in providing an imagery of the users themselves, projecting back the usage of computers into a self fulfilling prophecy. Who was the computer for, and more importantly, who was it going to be for? In other words, the medium of the magazine helped bring into being what it imagined. Though, through predicting, it created the future by circumscribing other options that were not offered.
This is where Alan Kay’s thinking on the role of metaphor becomes highly relevant to understand the importance of interface design, one which includes images, shapes, words, movements and effects. “One of the most compelling snares is the use of the term metaphor to describe a correspondence between what the users see on the screen and how they should think about what they are manipulating...There are clear connotations to the stage, theatrics, magic – all of which give much stronger hints as to the direction to be followed. Should we transfer the paper metaphor so perfectly that the screen is as hard as paper to erase and change? Clearly not. If it is to be like magical paper, then it is the magical part that is important. “ (Alan Kay, in Bardini, 1997). This space of the imaginary necessarily carried a reductionism to it, in order to convey and translate clear, intentional messages. These predetermined cosmologies offered belong to the same landscape of predictive algorithms, that just exemplify the same system enacted in practice. The GUI is always the projected default needs, default user, default behavior.
At the same time, the reinforcing duality between the reality of computing and the imagined desired future, the magazine served as a space to prescribe narrative on what becomes the present and what can stay in the realm of desires, the realm of the forbidden futures. These flavors of imagery could be thought of as the interface skin. In interface design, the skin is the easily customizable part, offering users a choice between several predesigned options for an interface. What is desirable is equally vocal as what is to remain in fantasy and this is realized through strong imagery. Therefore, another connotation of the Graphical User Interface here also serves to underpin the conception of graphic depictions as being exaggerated, enlarged, vulgar (such as the oversexualized female models on the covers of Racunari, or the company director flowing in cash, thanks to the latest technology, in Byte magazine).
My interest in investigating the narratives present in the computer magazines of the ‘80s stemmed from a particular context of the Yugoslavian computing scene. Having had access to many copies of both Racunari and Byte magazine provided an understanding of some common ground. This ground was particularly evident from having been enmeshed in the practice of exploring the magazines physically, holding them in my hands and browsing pages from cover to cover. The repetition of specific motifs, colors, imagery and textual emphasis offered one layer of analysis. The layer of narrative multimodal semiology was reinforced by, at that time an economic motif to keep up with the latest information and knowledge around computing. At the moment of my encounter, the speed of access to the next page and next issue was proportionate to the speed of attention and feeds of information today. I started to explore the imagery by collecting and investigating forms of display and through the technical implementation of the vertical movement of images, in order to browse them automatically, the connection to the endless scroll became apparent. A myth is any process speeded up to the point of pattern recognition, Marshal McLuhan writes in Understanding Magascenes (1970), in writing about magazine narratives. In contemporary interfaces, the significance of myth within actual, executed, algorithmic pattern recognition has implications far beyond what he was referring to. Yet at the same time, there is a modus living on both of these interfaces to technology, which is a habitual consuming of pattern as inherently carrying a mythological presence.
Patterning is tightly connected to movement, to a dynamic space of repetition employed in an epistemology of improvement, a subject that Giddeon explored in Mechanization takes command. The interconnected study of physical movement, motion-mindedness, psychology, the everyday history of user manuals gathered into the magical space of constant movement (into progress).
The computer magazine of the ‘80s can be seen as the precursor of the endless scroll. Page after page, the reader of the time could only equip themselves to interface these devices by following the developments, from issue to issue. The magazine was “the” place where all the newest information happened. If one were to be the leader, the one in charge of these mysterious machines and even their own business, they had to keep up with the latest on the market. This is another experiment in playing media archaeology positioning - perceiving the magazine from the position of now, certain readings can only happen through time and projecting backwards, such as the declaring of fast and superior devices in terms of obsessive counting of megabytes, focus on storage and speed, a focus Wendy Chun sees equally tied to the writing on digital technologies among media scholars. Looking backwards, freed from the perspective of chasing the new and improved interface we are experiencing a remediated reading of what an image and text mean, through our metatext rendering. The endless scroll offers a remediated perspective of McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” in the bodily reinforcement that reading on the smartphone has brought into broader awareness. Katherine Hayles introduced us to the concept that become the codes we punch, which has ever since the end of the '90s gained increased legitimacy in contemporary daily activities of swiping and scrolling.
This positive reinforcement is an aspect of domestication of the computer, that started in the ‘80s and that had a liminal zone temporality of becoming kin to users. Where was the computer going to be placed inside the home? When was it going to be used? How was it affecting dynamics within a household? These are some of the questions I focus on more in my analysis on the magazine Racunari.
Finally, there is also a poetic connection in this analogy between the magazine and the endless scroll in its reference to material, continuous writing, providing its own historicity and materiality.
The interface of gui80s.com displays a self fulfilling endless scroll, predicting and autocompleting the scroll action instead of the user, with enough randomness to keep variability, as well as enough repetition to enclose narratives as clear-structured predetermined options of a mythological quality, encoding visual meta narratives. The automatic behavior serves to attend to the needs for a compensation machine, as Kluitenberg calls the relationship to new tools of the everyday. It also serves to embody the movement as meaning landscape Giddeon discusses, reevaluating the “endless” in the endless scroll. While it looks aggressive, the webpage’s resources are not activated until a user visits the page. In other words, it’s not using wasteful scripts and the heaviest part is done on the side of the user browser. It is also only using internal scripts, unlike the majority of web apps today, that are dependent on many external, as well as heavy resources in order to run. The interface at gui80s.com is imagined as one among more formats of thinking the GUIs of the ‘80s that would explore what other interface practice readings of the medium of the magazine would bring to understanding how the image of “the user” was constructed.