Photo credit: TarynMarie / CC BY-NC-ND

The Fifth Interface

In the beginning was the command line. It was spare and beautiful and made us feel powerful, because we told the computer what to do: Mano a máquina. It was the perfect interface for hackers, at a time when “computer user” and “hacker” were pretty much synonymous. It was therefore doomed. The command line never went away, any more than radio, horse-drawn carriages, or MySpace. It took a back seat to the next interface, which promised to let the rest of us in on the party.

The second interface was the desktop GUI. A college dropout wandered into a calligraphy course, then wandered into Xerox PARC, and changed the world. The desktop was also beautiful, but a gaudier kind of beauty, full of colors and folders and trash cans. It opened up the senses, allowing us to click and drag and scroll, where before we only typed characters. The computer learned that it could fool into thinking it wasn’t a computer at all. And a poorly debugged set of device drivers became one of the great wealth creators of all time. There was just one problem. (A few, really, but only one that mattered.) The computer was lonely.

The third interface was the web. Suddenly, the network was the computer. The windows we opened were no longer views into our own documents; they passed us through wormholes into distant libraries and storefronts. At first the web was static. Gradually it came alive, fed by a growing realization that there was money to be made on clicks and IPOs. The network went social. The web we lost was the perfection of the desktop computer. In its protean power, it kindled the hopes of dreamers, who saw in it the stirrings on the universal fellowship of humanity. It was also doomed.

The fourth interface was the app. It took a quarter-century to populate the world with desktops. And people said that was fast! In the blink of an eye, PCs became rounding errors to the more deeply personal computers we held in our hands. Like the GUI, the interface of the app was designed to fool us. It offered us back the safety of the walled garden over the messiness the electronic frontier. The wormholes seemed to collapse into singularities in our palms. The world around us—people, places, and [InternetOf]Things— was, somehow, inside the computer. As we struggle to regain our bearings, the metaphor pivots again.

The fifth interface is conversation. We return along the surface of the Möbius strip to where we began. We’re typing messages to our computers again, only sometimes now we’re doing it by voice or video, and sometimes there are people on the other side. Daemons have been renamed bots, while Talkomatic became IRC which became ICQ which became AIM which became Slack and Kik and Line and WhatsApp and WeChat. But don’t worry, something important has changed: The computer is all grown up. We no longer tell it what to do; we ask it questions.

What comes next? Too early to tell. Bad things happen when when try to get ahead of the story. Because we’re not just learning about computers in this process. We’re learning about ourselves.