The faces of Frontiers: Amber Case

The evaporating interface

Alexandra Korey
June 16, 2011

Amber Case calls herself a Cyborg Anthropologist, defined as "a framework for understanding the effects of objects and technology on humans and culture." Named one of Fast Company's Most Influential Women in Tech in 2010, she's spoken at TED and is now coming to Florence to speak at Frontiers of Interaction.


You've described your research work as doing ‘future history,' observing internet pioneers' relationship with the concept of ‘online identity.' What elements or concerns have you observed as constant over the past 20-30 years?


There's something I've been calling a "utopia phase" of every online network. It's the moment in time when the network first begins and the first few people are out there exploring the space, meeting each other, and finding what the network can do. If you go back to the discussions that were exchanged on the first bulletin board systems in 1978-1979 you can see the excitement that exists there. The early IRC discussions are similar. The Well was a fantastic place where people from all over the world were having these intense discussions. They would sometimes meet in real life and feel like they had all known each other for years. Twitter had a similar feeling in the beginning, when people realized that they could share things so quickly and easily. After a while, though, a place begins to fill up, and spam-bots and random people come in and try to sell things or troll or mess with people. It becomes a little less magical because the discovery stage has ended and it's kind of a normal space where everyone is. I see this happen again and again no matter what era of technoconnectivity people happen to exist in. There are always these spaces being created, opening up and being explored. It's all very exciting.

I think the magic of the web and one's online identity is that when you're online you're not rooted to a certain geography. For instance, you can get to know me from before you've even met me, because my online identity can interact with you before you even meet me in real life. Online, your mind can travel farther than your body, and this is very exciting. It's especially important for those who live in situations in which they don't really fit into the community of people around them. Online they are really able to find people that they get along with and that understand and share the same interests as them. This is something that has been constant over the past 20-30 years. The only difference now is that more and more people are discovering this fact because more people have access to the web. Before, only a comparatively small number of researchers and students had this opportunity.


We've interviewed Mark Coleran on fantasy user interfaces in films, while you speak of evaporating interfaces. How different is this imagined future of interaction from your own vision?


In the beginning, the most basic interfaces were composed of solid buttons. In order to get a machine to do something, a series of buttons had to be pressed. In order to get the buttons to do something else, you had to take apart the machine and hardwire the buttons to do something else. Then you had to put it back together and make sure it didn't break down. When software arrived on the scene, the entire idea of buttons changed. Suddenly, buttons didn't have to be solid anymore. They could appear anywhere on the screen. They were no longer solid, they were liquid. If you wanted to change what the buttons did, you could edit the code behind the buttons without taking apart the machine. This was revolutionary! Also, with software programs and a computer monitor, a single screen could hold any amount of buttons in any amount of configurations you desired! So computing for a very long time has been solid buttons, then liquid buttons. What is next? Well, as the saying goes, "From solid, to liquid, to air". But what does a button made of air look like? Well, first, it is invisible! It is action based. Xerox Parc researcher Mark Weiser coined a term for this type of interaction with computers. He called it "calm computing". The idea is that the power of computers will increase, but their physical form will decrease and recede into the background. So what is an example of an invisible button? Well, when I get home at night, the lights in my house automatically turn on because my house has detected that I am home. Simply the action of me walking up to my house has triggered the lights to go on. I didn't have to press a single button. The idea behind calm, invisible or ubiquitous computing is that the interface gets out of the way and lets you live your life. That's how I think of the future of computing and the future of the interface.


What advice do you have for social media users who wish to set boundaries to protect their privacy?


Don't put things up online that you might regret later. Unlike a spoken word or small action, there is a geological history of your thoughts and actions stored online. Everyone can be a paleontologist and dig up what they wish.

Learn more about where your information is going and think about how much of it you want to share. Spend some time tweaking the privacy controls on your Facebook page. Understand that if you are cognitive of how you present yourself online you can do very interesting and powerful things online instead of simply share that you are having a bad day. You can reach further and learn more than you have before. You don't have to share every detail of life - only the ones that will set up a feedback loop that will help you reach your goals. If you have to share delicate information, try to send it to trusted people on private channels such as text or Email. I would suggest reading sociologist Erving Goffman's Presentation of Self in Everyday Life from 1965. The book was as relevant in the year it was published as it is in today's digital world.


Have you been to Florence or Italy before?


No, but I have heard from the world that it is a beautiful place with amazing, intelligent people. What I am most excited about are the historical buildings. Where I am from the history only goes back a few hundred years. I know that Bruce Sterling likes Italy, and he has very good taste.

Check out all of Amber's blogs, websites, and socials at

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