For a long time, the interface medium has concentrated most of its energies on the individual, for understandable reasons. The personal computer was just that, a personal computer, designed from the ground up to be used by a single individual, which is why most modern graphic interfaces draw so heavily on the imagery of desktops and closed-door offices. That symbolic sleight of hand is rightly celebrated, but who knows what imaginative avenues it closed down to us. The desktop metaphor is by definition a monadic system; it belongs to the individual psyche the way Freud’s case studies do, and that inwardness can make it harder to think in more social, more communal terms. Longtime Netheads never tire of talking about the way the Internet explosion blindsided many so-called silicon soothsayers. (The first issue of Wired barely mentioned the Net). Perhaps the success of the virtual desktop contributed to this myopia, a zero-sum game of sorts, where the rise in one model’s fortune presupposes an equivalent, and opposite, reaction in the other. Surely thinking in the language of solitary rooms must, on some basic level, make it more difficult to think in the language of public spaces.
Interestingly, it turns out to be harder to represent communities using the tools of the modern graphic interface. There have been a number of attempts at extended metaphors: Magic Cap’s 3-D office space opened onto a virtual “downtown” that represented all the user’s online activities; Apple’s eWorld service dabbled tantalizingly with a “town square” metaphor. Both designs were hyped heavily at their launch and then quickly fizzled. The irony is that to this day, some of the most engaged and elaborate virtual communities on the planet rely on text-driven interfaces that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the seventies. (Most members of ECHO and the Well still rely on command-line interfaces for their digital socializing). This can be taken as yet another sign that the power of text is underestimated by today’s reigning design orthodoxy, but it should also be seen as a call to arms for the next generation of interface designers, a genuine problem in search of a solution.
(Steven Johnson, Interface Culture, p. 222-223)
Published in 1997, his analysis is still spot on.