Selfe & Selfe “The Politics of the Interface”

Selfe and Selfe. “Politics of the Interface: Power and Its Exercise in Electronic Contact Zones” CCC 45.4 (Dec. 1994): 480-504. (25 pages)

Using the metaphor of borders, Selfe&Selfe discuss the ways computer interfaces establish and maintain borders that restrict access or inclusion of non-White or multilingual users. Their article discusses the “political and ideological boundary lands associated with computer interfaces that we… now use in our classrooms” (481). Further noting that “the borders” that these interfaces maintain “can serve to prevent the circulation of indivuals for political purposes” (481-2). They challenge an overly optimistic rhetoric of technology—one that sees computer supported forums as engaging, democratic contact zones (483)—that does not account for the ways computer interfaces enact “the gestures and deeds of colonialism, continuously and with a great deal of success” (482).

As they note, computers interfaces, “those primary representations of computer systems or programs”, are “never ideologically innocent or inert…the maps of computer interfaces order the virtual world according to a certain set of historical and social values that make up our culture” (485). The power of such interfaces resides in “that they purport to represent fact—the world, a particular space—as it is in reality, while they naturalize the political and ideological interests of their authors” (485). They point to the example of the desktop metaphor in Macs: “the reality is constituted by and for white middle- and upper-class users to replicate a world that they know and feel comfortable with” (486). The interface also reinforces a corporate orientation that serves and reproduces the commodification of information (487). They also note how standard American English is often the default of many computer interfaces and designs; where word-processors offer alternative-language interfaces, they are often marketed separately and can only be accessed through additional costs. They also reference the international use of the American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII) which does not account for characters of language outside of standard American English. Such default settings, as the authors write, “means that students from other races and cultures who hope to use the computer as a tool for empowerment must—at some level—submit to the colonial power of language and adopt English as their primary means of communication, even if this submission is only partial or momentary” (489). They later refer to this as “the violence of literacy”: “each time we ask students from a marginalized cultural group use computers, we ask them—require them—to learn a system of literacy that ‘distances them from the ways of equality’” (Stuckey 94 cited in Selfe/Selfe 494).

Selfe&Selfe also critique the hierarchical representation of knowledge that are often designed within computer environments. Such positivist value on rationality and logic is presented as “foundational ways of knowing that function to exclude other ways of knowing” (e.g. association, intuition, brocolage)—the validation of these logics “authorize context of ‘knowing’ and representing knowledge [that] continues to inform—and limit—many aspects of computer programming and technological design” (491-2). Thus this validation makes the representation of knowledge in these contexts synonymous with knowledge writ-large. As an alternative, they offer the concept of bricolage, the “construction of meaning through the arrangement and rearrangement of concrete, well known materials, often in an intuitive rather than logical manner” (493). They advocate for interfaces that account and represent knowledge that encourages “epistemological pluralism” (493).

Moving forward, they call for teachers to prompt students to actively engage with the interfaces of the classroom. They also consider the possibilities involved in designing or redesigning the interfaces our students use.

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