Interview with Daniel Black on interfaces, bodies and materiality

daniel_black-photoInterfaces, bodies and materiality: An interview with Daniel Black

 by Daniel Black and David Beer

The following is an interview based around the themes covered in Daniel Black’s article ‘Where Bodies End and Artefacts Begin: Tools, Machines and Interfaces’ which was recently published in Body & Society.

Dave Beer: You begin your article by talking about the relationship between the body, artefacts and the environment. Or rather you explore how we might approach and reconsider such boundaries. To do this the focus you choose is upon objects in the forms of tools, machines and interfaces. Perhaps you could explain the background to this approach and how you have come to these concepts in thinking through notions of embodiment.

Daniel Black: My thinking started with interfaces. It occurred to me that interfaces are a central part of contemporary life, and yet there didn’t seem to be any satisfactory framework for analysing or understanding them. I set about trying to build a framework of my own, and moving through tools to industrial machines and then into recent digital interfaces allowed me to integrate existing work on technology and embodied experience, and follow a kind of trajectory that could highlight both the continuity and the novelty in our relationship with the many gadgets we prize today.

Dave Beer: In the article you talk a little about how our actions, sensations and perceptions are defined by these different types of artefacts. As I understand it you suggest that we become trapped into practices based on the history of development of the artefacts we use. At the end of the article you talk about escape from these conventions and opening up the possibilities for producing ‘new ways of acting’ and ‘new kinds of sensory experience’. Can you add any thoughts on how this might be done? How can we open up these new possibilities? Is it just about design or do new collaborative dialogues need to begin?

Daniel Black:  I wouldn’t say that the article argues that we become ‘trapped’ in these practices, but I also don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that we do. It is my discussion of the idea of a ‘natural user interface’ that has given you that impression, but in the article I aimed to suggest both that a natural user interface would create a trap or cul-de-sac in the history of our relationships with artefacts, but also that it would be a mistake to believe that such an approach could ever succeed. My intention in the article was to highlight the endless dynamism and flexibility of our relationships with artefacts, rather than their capacity to trap us, but what I did not include was a discussion of the role of habit in those relationships. The fundamental conceptual problem with the idea of a natural user interface arises from the fact that it can’t be natural; in the absence of any truly natural mode of engaging with artefacts it can only be based on habit – ‘habitual user interface’ would be a much more accurate name for it. So of course we do become trapped in habitual ways of engaging with artefacts and an irony of this is that these ways of engaging can originate with the inescapable material properties of a given artefact, but continue after those inescapable properties are no longer there, new artefacts even being designed specifically to match these habits when there is no longer any particular reason to do this and there might be another alternative. Certainly in the article I suggest that the development of new technological artefacts should be seen as an opportunity to explore the possibilities and test the limits of our innate capacity to act and perceive in new ways, rather than being expected to maintain existing experiences and habits; the breadth of these possibilities has been obscured by a tendency to isolate body and artefact from one another, treating the body as having a fixed set of capacities and the interface as something that is produced by the artefact alone.

Dave Beer: Your article develops an object oriented account of experience and the senses. Am I right in saying that you are placing the object at the centre of your analysis of embodiment? Do you see your article as being part of any broader turns towards objects and materiality?

Daniel Black: I do see it as part of a broader turn towards objects and materiality, and if I wasn’t already informed by this turn towards materiality I’m sure I’d approach the topic differently. At the same time, I wouldn’t say that I place the object at the centre of my analysis of embodiment. A central concern of the article is to highlight the degree to which any clear distinction between body and object or prioritisation of one or the other becomes untenable in examples like tool use – in other words, there is no central term. When using a tool, in certain important ways the tool becomes a part of my experiential body, and so a body–tool distinction becomes unhelpful when trying to understand what’s happening. At the same time, I’m not arguing that bodies are defined by objects in some absolute and lasting way, and in the article I question the legitimacy of the very term ‘tool’ itself when it’s used, for example, to define a ‘tool-using’ animal.  I would absolutely maintain that embodiment is defined by, and meaningless without, the context of our material environment as a whole, and so I think materiality is key to understanding embodiment in this sense, rather than in the narrower sense of objects as one part of our material environment.

Dave Beer: You also mention the extension of sensory reach in your piece. Here machines and tools are described as a kind of prosthetic. This would suggest that understanding the senses as operating across human-object boundaries is crucial. Given the centrality of the senses in body studies, are you suggesting that we need to think across such boundaries in order to understand sensory experience?

Daniel Black: Absolutely. When questioning the viability of tools as a category, I ask if air can be considered a tool, and air is of course a material feature of the world external to our bodies that makes sensing possible. Going back to the 1970s, Don Ihde has highlighted the importance of understanding how artefacts change perception, often by extending our sensory reach while at the same time less obviously transforming the parameters of the sense being addressed. Returning to my concern with interfaces, it is clear that as we utilise digital interfaces with a wider variety of attributes more and more often, a nuanced understanding of how our sensory relationship with the world is transformed when we sense the world using artefacts becomes more and more important. And a very important initial insight that can be arrived at through a better understanding of interfaces is that this need have nothing to do with interfaces as a form of representation. Increasingly, rather than being presented with a representation of our environment by these interfaces, we are sensing our environment ‘through’ them in a way that incorporates them into our experience of sensation itself.

Dave Beer: The concept of the interface is a central part of the conceptual framework of your article. This is a really important concept, but you suggest that its use needs some clarification and care. What precautions should we take with using this concept? What are its limits?

Daniel Black:   As I’ve already mentioned, I think the concept of the interface is incredibly important. However, I think our understanding of this concept has been hampered by the fact that it’s been introduced into the popular lexicon primarily through the marketing of consumer products: the Apple Mac is a superior product because it has a Graphical User Interface, or the Apple iPhone is a superior product because it has a touchscreen interface. This usage might make sense for a company creating a new digital device; it can divide responsibilities between different departments responsible for creating software as opposed to creating hardware, or designing how the device is used as opposed to designing how it works. But I don’t think it makes sense for describing our experience of using these devices. We’ve been habituated to think of interfaces as features of digital devices – as things that we buy from technology companies – and doing this obscures the fact that an interface is created collaboratively between the device and its user each time it is used. It also obscures the fact that it’s perfectly possible to talk about the interface of a phonograph or rotary dial telephone – every piece of technology enables a particular style of engagement between machine and user, regardless of whether it is digital or has a software operating system. I think the lack of a wider understanding of what this term can mean is largely responsible for the fact that there isn’t already a well-elaborated framework for understanding interfaces, and in this article I tried to open out that narrow usage of the term to show how it connects with much broader questions regarding our relationship with artefacts.

Regarding the limits of the concept or precautions that should be taken with it, I think my first concern is that it be clearly defined. Our definition of what an interface is or can do shouldn’t be based on a smartphone advertisement; we need to give real thought to the role human–machine interfaces play in our lives, and how this might change in the future. Understanding an interface as something that is given to us through a consumer device creates a belief that it is a fixed system that our bodies must integrate themselves with in a set way. This is the problem with the logic of the natural user interface: it works on the assumption that our bodies are static, inflexible fixed systems, and interfaces can be improved by designing them to cater to the unchanging attributes of this static, inflexible system. Once you understand the interface as something generated by artefacts and bodies together, you’re presented with a quite different set of possibilities for how an interface might be improved.

Dave Beer: Where is your work on the body heading following your article? I understand you have a book forthcoming. Does that pick up on the material from your article?

Daniel Black:   My questions about interfaces arose while writing the forthcoming book, which is more broadly concerned with our embodied relationship with machines. But these specific ideas matured while I was completing that book, so that I finished it keen to initiate a new research project about interfaces, of which this article is the first published result. I feel that I have a lot more work to do exploring the nature of interfaces and our embodied relationships with them, so look out for a book dedicated to the subject in a couple of years’ time.

Daniel Black lectures in the School of English, Communications and Performance Studies at Monash University, Australia. He is the author of the forthcoming book Embodiment and Mechanisation.


David Beer is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of York, UK. He is also one of the co-editors of the Theory, Culture & Society open site.

Daniel Black has recently published these articles in TCS and B&S:

‘Where Bodies End and Artefacts Begin: Tools, Machines and Interfaces’

‘What Is a Face?’

‘An Aesthetics of the Invisible: Nanotechnology and Informatic Matter’

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