Creating Technology for Social Change

How Interfaces Demand Obedience

This is a liveblog of a talk by Mushon Zer-Aviv on April 23, 2015 at the MIT Center for Civic Media. This is not a perfect transcript but are notes collaboratively taken by Yu Wang, Dalia Othman, Erhardt Graeff, and Catherine D’Ignazio.

Mushon presenting at Civic

Mushon Zer-Aviv introduces himself as interested in disinformation and ambiguity. He is teaching at Shenkar College and is working with Public Knowledge Workshop on civic engagement and government transparency. As a designer he’s been working on these issues for many years and will discuss political design interface through:

  1. Communication cycle
  2. Protocol
  3. Interface for resistance

When we talk about life online, it is distributed, open, social, emancipatory. Online life is repressive, destructive, shallow. All these hopes and concerns when it comes to online life, we meet them through interface. It is at the heart of the debate.

What is interface? Mushon defines interface as “a common boundary or interconnection between systems, equipment, concepts, or human beings.” Specifically, the concept of common boundary and interconnection. The idea that the interface is common implies some kind of relationship between all the components without implying a level of control or that one is more important than the other.

Communication Cycle
In media studies theory, there is a focus on commonality and mutuality. This leads Mushon to talk about the “communication model.” The classic model of the communication cycle is typified when person A talks to person B and they share an idea.

Stuart Hall, author of Encoding, Decoding, thinks that textual determinism is not the way it works; communication may not be “drag and drop” like this.

Encoding is when you have an idea that you encode into a different form like speech—the idea is turned into speech—and while it is sound the idea is not embodied by the sound. There is the process of Meaningful Discourse which ensures that the other person can understand what you are saying. The process of decoding takes the received medium like sound and turns it into meaning.

In this different model, I may have a triangle in mind, but you may have something else in mind; it is hard for us to know across the encoding/decoding process as we communicate our ideas.

Both processes, encoding and decoding, are creative processes, since they involve meaning changes. Stuart Hall wrote this with television in mind.

There are three types of code:

  1. Dominant/ Hegemonic is based on decoding the message through the same process it was encoded with. For example, in sports broadcasting, I don’t doubt whether a “touchdown” is a really a touchdown.
  2. Negotiated code is when you understand there is a particular worldview packed into an idea, but you understand that is happening and receive the message anyway while being aware of this caveat. An example is NPR news, we know there is a bias. But…
  3. Oppositional code is that we know what the original code is supposed to be, but we use it as a different way. Mushon refers to the Hitler gets angry meme as an example where the original message is known but is completely changed. This is often at the heart of meme humor.

When we see a message on the web, it’s encoded through an interface. Website design is the medium of encoding. The key thing about interface encoding is that we don’t get to choose which interface we use. We work within the constraints of the interface we are given.

Mushon offers the example of the Palestinian journalist and blogger Leila Haddad who tried to book tickets through British Airways’ website and found Palestine wasn’t listed under country of citizenship and residence. The interface demands a level of obedience about “who you can be” in this case. But it also teaches obedience. You may call technical support, but they experience the same situation, and the conversation is mitigated or moderated by the interface.

Lisa Nakamura’s exploration of “menu-driven identities” asks why there has to be a dropdown menu: why do I need to be one of these things? Think for example how long it took Facebook to recognize other genders than male or female.

In television the question of interface is not that big a deal, it is consistent once you understand it you can move on. It is the same with the telephone. It is consistent, it doesn’t change every time you pick up the phone.

But digital media is different. There are many protocols, like email, chat, VOIP, etc. These have consistent protocols within each type of communication.

When talking about protocols, Mushon uses the OSI layered models, which are complex. There is the application layer and the internet IP layer. When we open the browser, something happens because the browser protocol is flexible. Each website adds another layer of possible control. Mushon proposes an additional layer atop the OSI model: interface.

OSI Model

The interface question is a governance question. Mushon played a TV lecture of Marshall McLuhan. Old medium versus new medium (medium is the message). The Medium is the message is true only if the protocol is consistent. When we talk about it today, it becomes “Interface Determinism.” Although Mushon is not sure about Techno-determinism, this is one response.

Mushon then brings up Donald Rumsfeld talking about WMD’s, saying “there are known knowns, there are known unknowns, there are unknown unknowns.” Slavoj Zizek responded to the quote by suggesting Rumsfeld forgot the fourth option, that there are unknown knowns. This is where ideology, concept, and interface lives, i.e. this is where design happens. And Mushon argues this is how interface works.

Steve Krug would agree that design is to preserve unknown knowns. He wrote the “Bible of interface design” Don’t make me think.

The role of interaction design is to lower the cognitive load to the minimum. Affordance is key issue when we talk about technologies communicating with each other and how our attention is being afforded. We both use our attention and it is being used; it is a currency on the web. There are many political issues involved in this. How do we resist the paradigm of the interface?

Interface for Resistance
Mushon suggests tactical resistance, strategic resistance, and logistic resistance.

Web 2.0 inspired a lot of discourse about user-generated content. The web is no longer simply content, but now interfaces that allows us to create content. Mushon quips, “The interface is kind enough to allow us to be authors.”

A second option is user generated context. Mushon gives the example of taking craigslist postings and putting them onto a Google Map, which was a huge deal when it first happened. So there is a power in taking one thing and placing it on another.

A third option is user generated interface. How the users change the site that allow them to do things? One way is through browser extension. It may be called “interface literacy.” It is a way to mitigate political governance. And this gets us to interface as resistance.

Weapons of Mass Destruction 404


An example of Tactical Resistance is “google bombing,” such as when bloggers linked the words “weapons of mass destruction” this page. This is hacking/culture jamming as a form of tactical resistance.

Another example is to use the application layer in tactical resistance. A commercial example is Book Burro, offering something Amazon doesn’t do when you search for books.Book Burro gives you details about the distance the book you need is from you, suggesting you go to a library rather than buy it online. This is something that many of us have not thought of doing.

Mushon mentioned the most popular browser extension: Adblock Plus. Google cannot stop Adblock Plus from entering their browser, but they leverage the situation by paying AdBlock Plus to add a checkbox: “allow non-obtrusive ads”—”Google ads,” Mushon whispers.

Mushon’s own project in collaboration with Helen Nissenbaum and Daniel Howe Ad Nauseum works with ad blockers to click every ad that is blocked, which floods your user profile and reduces the value of your user profile to advertisers. It is not only a symbolic resistance, it has real impact on interfaces.

Logistic Resistance is changing the protocol through slow bureaucratic processes or revolutions. Removing a hegemonic protocol like TCP/IP requires that you replace with something new. It is slow and hard and when you break it, it breaks everything above it.

We haven’t seen serious attempts to go beyond TCP/IP; Mushon doesn’t count examples like mesh network protocols or other such projects built on top of TCP/IP.

Evgeny Morozov proposed a kind of technological defeatism: the only thing we get to do is get on with it and adjust our norms. Mushon thinks this is an important perspective.

Somebody may think that “but that’s just online, it isn’t ‘real,'” but Mushon urges us to think of how many hours we spend online. We spend more and more time in front of governing interfaces. When we talk about the web demanding obedience then it’s 24/7, I am constantly made not to think about it and that is the most profound experience that we face all the time.

Away from keyboard, these dominate interfaces of control are not new. But neither is resistance.

For tactical resistance, Mushon gives the example of Iranian monetary bills that were used as a form of protest, with writings like “death to the dictator” and “freedom” on them. These are increasingly in circulation. Money is not supposed to be an interface for protest, and the government was unable to throw these bills in the garbage, in part because the phenomenon was so widespread.

An example of Strategic Resistance for Mushon is Strike Debt’s Rolling Jubilee which is helping people who need bailout money. They fundraise to buy debts and then strike them. This is changing things on the ground and the changing the way the interface of the financial system works.

Mushon suggests that what is happening in the Middle East is a key example of Logistic Resistance. Sometimes this may looks like repurposing public areas, other times it may look like killing leaders. This is becoming a protocol war, about who defines the rules.

As a designer and academic, Mushon finds the interconnectedness to be critical, especially from a geopolitical perspective.

Question & Answer

Rahul: You structure the layers in the tactical, strategic and logistic resistance. In the logistic you said you don’t have many examples and I’m going to push you on that and ask why that is?

Mushon: I think they are both and beyond that. We are reaching new political settings where companies have their own interest settings. US citizens are also lucky. It is built around a certain ideology and serves a certain ideology. My concern is if we don’t resist the interface online, we cannot resist anything. This is what we are expected on the civic level.

Question: I’m interested in knowing how the enforcement or the setting in of demanding obedience in cases like epidemiology.

Mushon: This isn’t directly my field, I’m interested in the creative elements of obedience.

Question: You mentioned interconnection in your introduction, how does this relate to interface?

Mushon: The definition of interface is concerned with connections with people.

Question: The subversion of IP protocol set a high bar. I will argue content filtering subverts TCP/IP, DDOS attacks exploits TCP/IP. So is DNS cache poisoning. SOPA/PIPA are at the same time using legal means to subvert IP protocol.

Mushon: These techniques are using TCP/IP protocol in ways certain bodies didn’t want us to use it. Another problem is the way privacy is embedded into this protocol. But these are not challenging the protocol, not offering a different protocol. It is exposing the vulnerabilities of that protocol but not showing a way to go beyond what the protocol allows or disallows.

Question: As a comment, DDOS are an attack on freedom of speech, and is sometimes detrimental to changing hierarchy. My question is that these interfaces ask us to obey, but I am looking for interfaces that allow me to do what I want. But this is mostly sloppiness, not maliciousness. How do we balance individual choice versus a mandate to do things a certain way.

Mushon: There is a problem with cognitive load, and that is a challenge in design. When designing these interfaces, there are the different interests. The interests of the site owners and the users. I’m not going to politicize bad interfaces. We should change the way we think about what we’re allowed to do online.

Question: I have a follow up on this question, politicizing is different than politicizing my blog due to data flows. Is it different with the geography of the data?

Mushon: So Google collects data from 97% sites on the web, they are not all Google sites, but Google has that data (Google Analytics) you blog is part of that because it can refer data to Google.

Q: Is it your argument that people building interface and people using interface is equally distributed?

Mushon: Thinking about mobile web and web content, it has to do with literacy. It has to do with political imagination. I don’t think we can equalizing interface authorship because we don’t have the capability to challenge TCP/IP. There are tactics and strategies that inspire us.

Q: I think it is back to the TV stage: it is no comments.

Mushon: I am redesigning the website for public radio in Israel, and noted that we will need an API. But the design company didn’t want to do this, because they felt it would mean public radio could get rid of the design company. It is similar to RSS, perhaps all blogs need an exposed API to allow people to do different things with interface.

Rahul: One response to your critiques is to build toolkits to allow people to build interfaces. Is this an argument for utility (it needs to be done), or is an argument about empowerment and interface literacy?

M: It is about both. Book Burro is a good example that is very powerful. I was in a consumer mode and it sent me into a civic mode. It solves a problem and exposes a difference of viewpoint between me and the website. So it is about literacy and about what people want.