Technical Affordances, Tragedy of Interactivity, and The Whatever Theory – Interview with Alexander Galloway

In my pursuit of addressing the politics underneath the interfaces, I discovered Alexander Galloway’s book The Interface Effect. Alexander Galloway is a writer and programmer working on issues in philosophy, technology, and theories of mediation. An interface, for Galloway, is an autonomous zone of aesthetic activity breeding its own effect — a matter that attracts the political interpretation as the only coherent answer. This book is about the return of the interfaces that never left. Guided by the ecstasy of reading the book, I reached out to Galloway to ask the burning questions, mainly revolving around the role of web design in times when softwares are primarily built to hide the quantities they extract from the users. In this interview, Galloway and I discuss the importance of understanding the technical affordances, unravel the tragedy of interactivity, and demystify the Whatever Theory from the book’s last chapter.

Maisa:…I mapped out all of these web genres and now I’m isolating the one called “dead websites”. But I think that the general division is that you have institutional websites and then the non-institutional ones which are poetic websites, expected from the artists. Those also have…they’re a bit more abstract, they don’t have any navigation points. But then there’s all these other ones in between…

Alexander: Right, because you’re saying that the website for artists is really just a way to kind of point to their Instagram or going to some other platform?

M: Exactly. They’re mentioned on Instagram to work as a signature — if you have an institutional website, it makes you more legit in what you’re doing. That’s the general sense.

A: Right, right, right, right. That’s interesting. I mean, I think there’s also a history for that. You’re exactly right. I think the shift over to platforms in the late 2000s, mid-late 2000s — that’s a big change: The adoption of people putting their stuff on platforms rather than using the web in other ways, and I guess we’re sort of still in that era..that’s sort of platform based and social media based.

M: I was wondering, because you also talk a lot about software design…I’m struggling to talk purely about web design without addressing the software design that it comes from — because the interface is kind of like the visual representation of it, something that Wendy Chun also talks about. So I’m wondering if you think that it’s possible to talk about web design without talking about the software.

A: I think you can. But can you say more about what you mean by software? Because these days web design is very technical. And I think it would typically include software, you know, HTML and CSS, but also JavaScript…and many other things perhaps — but at the very minimum, I think most web pages are going to have those three things. So you could treat that as a basic stack. I like this idea of like, what did you call it? The perfect design approach where things are sort of like static or unified or something. And maybe there’s a way that you can, not like quantify that, but define that more clearly. The use of meaning like full bleed images or something, because images tend to burn in material more thoroughly than text-based, HTML-based, graphic elements do. So that would be a way to actually argue or show at a more technical level, when and why some sites are more static or frozen. When or why other sites are more dynamic or constructed dynamically from textual elements.

M: I also think about, since you also talk a lot about the ideology and how it’s reflected through software, how can the visual representation of software do the same? And then it becomes tricky because with software you can hide things and you can expose things through web design. So does it actually reflect the ideology that the software contains from the beginning? But I guess what I also mean by perfect is the perfection of ideology…And with static websites, it’s usually the case that they are static technically, but also absolute in terms of their definition. For example, an artist’s bio can reflect if it’s not changing, if it’s dynamic, if it’s perfectly written…It can also reflect very clear roles of labor. Like what kind of artist writes what kind of bio and what kind of tools are they working with? And these are all web-design-related details that I’m looking into.

A: I think platforms like Insta also contribute to that because so much is, what can we say, like locked. There’s very little you can actually modify. I mean it’s ironic because it’s like high throughput, you know, it’s very fluid. But within fluidity and the continuous postings, the channel is extremely rigid and narrow.

M: Exactly.

A: The graphical format is very predicted. And you can contrast this to, you know, earlier social media like Tumblr, MySpace, and stuff like that that were much more wild, weird, and customizable. I don’t place a lot of stock in those things. I don’t think people are necessarily more able to express their personality on Tumblr and less able on Instagram. But I do think at a technical level, it’s interesting, or even an aesthetic level, it is interesting to know that those are really different. Like the amount of access you can get to what’s happening behind the scenes. So maybe that’s also what you could put under the heading of software. Like there’s the front stuff, which is the stuff that is happening in your browser and that would include JavaScript, but then there’s also all the stuff in the back. And that stuff you don’t have any access to really.

M: So would you say that software is neutral?

A: I would most likely be on the not neutral side. Hahaha. I mean, I’m pretty interested in showing, which is in the Interface Effect as well, what we would call technical affordances. What does the technology allow you to do, or promote for you to be able to do? What are the things that it hides or doesn’t promote? I would focus on that stuff at the very least, but I would even go further. You know, I’m really interested in political and ideological questions, and I think if you can identify either of those things, then you’ve definitely moved beyond the question of neutrality.

M: For sure. We talk about the things that can be hidden and exposed through software. I think what I’m trying to do through web design is kind of like — I see web design as a place where I can show, or at least try and make an attempt to give readers the possibility to learn how to read software through what it doesn’t represent. It’s a really big challenge for me because it requires a lot of technical inspection of the code. It requires going back to the code. At the same time, I’m not trying to make code more accessible. That would be a completely different mission. So I’m wondering, is it possible to read software from its power to hide things or through the non-representation of certain things on the interface? How can we politically read software through that as well?

A: I mean you don’t have to go to the code. Often the code isn’t that helpful. Code is super technical and obscure. It’s often hard to know what it’s doing. And so I think that’s okay. A lot of people do what we would call semiotic analysis of the interface. So just from having used the tools you can ask how did they work and what do they allow you to do? What do they not allow you to do? How do they work aesthetically, formally? And then in the tradition of studio art, you could do a crit of the interface, or a piece of software. I think that’s totally valid. But I do also appreciate some kind of technical insight. But that’s not required, I don’t think, necessarily.

M: I was curious to hear more about the trap of unrepresentability that I think you mentioned. I have a quote somewhere…

A: Remind me because that book is not fresh in my mind.

M: I read it this semester and I think I underlined everything from it. And what I usually do in my process of writing is that I type in the quotes from the book in a separate file. And then I reflect on them. And with your book, it was very hard because most of my reflections were like “Yeahhh!!!”, “yessss”, “WOW”, “fuqq”..I’m trying to construct an argument, but it’s very hard, you know?

I really like how you base your argument in the film industry and you specifically talk about the editing process of a film and how you can, from the editing, cut and assemble different stories from the same material and that’s how it works. And I see that happening a lot in web development — you have softwares as modular pieces, turning all work into patchwork, the patchwork work. And then on top is the interface, on which it’s hard to read how this editing process works, because software is made more accessible, especially open source software, of course. And it’s just a matter of making this decision, which kind of again reflects on the ideology. Apart from reflecting on web design, also reflecting on the user experience is some sort of a gateway to the deeper, dark stuff of what’s happening in the software. But anyway, I’m going to quote you here…Oh, sorry. Did you want to say something?

A: No, no.


“An increase in information aesthetics produces a decline in aesthetic information. Yet regardless if the law is read forward or backward, one is still locked in the trap of unrepresentability.” — Alexander Galloway, The Interface Effect

A: Is that in chapter three or?

M: I think so, I have only the page number, it’s 97.

A: That chapter is all about the contradiction around how there seems to be so much availability of information these days yet, data, numbers, and information doesn’t inherently have a visual form. And so there are these weird contradictions about how something is supposed to reveal. But can’t really reveal. And so that’s really what I think I was getting at in that quote. It’s a contradiction, or it’s dialectical in the sense that at the very moment where it is trying to reveal it’s also showing its inability to.

M: Do you have any thoughts on what the users care about these days? There’s this whole…agency, of course, which always mattered, but more and more I have a feeling that it doesn’t matter as much anymore. And there’s this general submission to what the…I feel like there’s not so much curiosity about how software does things and now what we have is just submission to what it can do. And that is also because of the software design — interactivity has always been part of it. So does interactivity = freedom? is not the question that we’re asking anymore because now it’s just like, okay, that’s the freedom that was defined for us and we’re fine with it.

A: I think that’s right. There’s almost a kind of tragedy of interactivity where, you know, I don’t know if I was thinking about this in The Interface Effect, maybe. But if you go back to the 60s or 70s, there was this notion that interactivity would be liberatory. That you start from uni-directional, disciplinary, structures — top-down, you know, that kind of stuff. And you have to make these things emergent and rhizomatic and elicit expression and participation from people. That makes a lot of sense to me in the context of the 60s. But I think the tragedy of interactivity is that we sort of got all of that stuff. But we got it within the context of a new industrial system. And so now, interaction and expression, that’s all normal, that’s all expected. And it’s all completely captured and measured and monetized. And so I agree. I mean, it’s very frustrating because it’s hard to know. We don’t have really good models to understand what it means to live an authentic life, or be a political agent. So, you know, that’s led me off into some really weird directions.

M: Right.

A: Some people say that there has to be a strong abolition or rejection of the dominant representational apparatus. That’s one pathway — it’s controversial, I guess. I go back often, to the idea of control society from Gilles Deleuze, which is really all about how power thrives not on repression, but on eliciting expression from people. So that’s a really tough situation to be in.

M: I have that quote too:

“The problem is that adequate visualizations of control society have not happened. Representation has not happened. At least not yet.”

And are you thinking about the changes with, of course, artificial intelligence now and the higher usability? And again, this question of agency…I think now we also have a different idea of what is freedom. And I think on the interfaces, or in web design, the freedom was defined as: the more interactive, the freer, but also, the more alienating the users are. And with AI, the definition of freedom is like: the more imaginative you are with the prompts that you’re using, the freer. That sort of idea of liberation is pretty much the translation from Web 2.0 and almost the same. It just uses different tools.

A: AI is really complicated in a sense, and it radically distributes and diffuses the site of interaction. I can go to ChatGPT, post a prompt and get an answer. So that’s a form of interaction. The last 20 years of people interacting with email and websites and posting and, you know, posting on Reddit and the million other places — that’s a form of massively large and distributed social interactions that almost created…I think it’s not a stretch to say…a kind of natural resource. Like a new communal common resource that’s intellectual, cultural, indivisible, and social in that way. But it’s sort of similar to fossil fuels as a resource, or ground water as a resource, in the sense that it can be something, it’s something that takes a lot of time to build. And then when it’s built, it can be expropriated. And so I actually think of that as a form of interactivity. OpenAI, Google, and all the rest, are basically interacting with us over very long timescales and also at massive, massive spatial and informatic scales. So that’s also a part of the tragedy of interactivity. OpenAI only works because we gave it 20 years of free labor.

M: For sure.

A: Sometimes I go back to Marx and I think of that in terms of this notion of general intellect that Marx talked about. And general intellect as a kind of commons that can be spidered herd, cataloged and turned into value.

M: For sure. Can we go back to the Whatever Theory or the concept of Whatever…I was really entertained by that part, it was like a perfect note to end on.

A: That’s sort of what I was getting at a second ago: What do you do when you wake up and you realize that a control society is complete? The notion of the whatever, which is a complicated concept, appears in a bunch of different people and not everyone really likes it. I do because the whatever is a suspension of the ability to pin something down. Or give it a name and isolate it as a quantity or a particular form of expression. And so the whatever for me is about becoming ambiguous, or becoming indecipherable, mostly through suspension, right? So if representation is about like: we know who you are, we know where you live, blah, blah, blah. If you can kind of suspend those markers, there might be something interesting there. And so that’s how I was hoping to get out with this notion of whatever, that it might be a way to pull back a little bit. Maybe it’s about camouflage, maybe it’s about obfuscation. I like this idea of abolition, like abolishing systems of representation.

M: It’s definitely tricky and I like it for its ambiguity. Yet, it always creates one, or two sides. And that’s what happened in cyberfeminism history: that women were constantly pushed to be someone, not whatever. To define what cyberfeminism is, which led to not defining it and defining that they’re not defining it, which was also not enough of a definition, you know? And then what happens recently? Mindy Seu publishes the Cyberfeminism Index and gets asked why she is the name, the big name on the cover, as someone who defines this whole history which was built through a collective process. So it does take some sort of identity or the main person to be responsible or be blamed for making the signature. In software practices, a lot of artists that I work with have this fear of representation and becoming absolute artists. I get the challenge of working out a software for them that is a bit more ambiguous or a bit more whatever-like, which is almost impossible because the process is ambiguous in nature somehow.

A: There is that problem of putting a name or an individual asserting their own identity in a landscape that’s inherently complex, horizontal, and multiple. I mean, I don’t fault her for doing that. I think it’s an amazing project. It’s an index from the very beginning as an open database, so she’s working, obviously very consciously, with the fact that it needs to be non-hierarchical and multiple.

This conversation took place over Zoom in June 2023. It has been edited for clarity.


Maisa Imamovic