From the moment I first interacted with a computer I was obsessed with the idea of the look and feel of the computing space, both apparent and imagined. By apparent I mean the literal visual aspects of the interface, and by imagined I mean the virtual information space to which the computer is providing access...
My father brought home a Commodore Vic-20, and I was immediately transfixed by the duality between the computing space represented on the screen and the computing space I imagined during the seemingly interminable periods that the Vic-20 spent searching for data on the tape-drive. As a six-year-old my visual metaphor for this latter space was highly derivative: in my mind's eye I saw the Vic-20 as the little pixelated protagonist from IntelliVision's version of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Cloudy Mountain, who revealed the shape of the maze he was in by running around, calling the visual information into being by the proximity of his torch. While I waited, my Vic-20 was jogging around inside the dark, magnetic corridors of the tape-drive, casting its torch hither and yon in a tireless mission to discover and retrieve for me some BASIC program a dozen lines long.
While mucking around with programming my Commodore-64 a couple of years later I fell into a habit that would linger long: the need to customise the visual interface to suit my mood. Before I would write or debug a programme I always had to have the border and background elements of the screen set to colours that I felt somehow contributed to the "feel" of the code. For example, while writing the beginning of a programme I invariably chose to use light text on a black background because I was adding something to nothing, and nothing, like empty space, is inherently dark.
My penchant for visualising emptiness as darkness fit nicely with the monochrome CRT display that I acquired along with an IBM XT from my step-father when I was eleven. The monitor was capable of displaying three non-simultaneous colours -- green, amber or white -- which I switched between constantly. Green I reserved for working in DOS itself, because the green type on the black background reminded me of the "serious" computers I had seen in movies, like Mother from Alien (1979) and Joshua from Wargames (1983).
My step-father himself had upgraded to a newer DOS system from AST that supported colour, and when I used it for creative writing I could change the text and background colour in WordPerfect to suit the tone of my narrative. Passages that took place on sunny days were written with bright blue backgrounds before them, and passages that took place on dark and/or stormy nights were set in shades of foreboding grey. I can't truthfully say that this habit improved the quality of my writing, but it did enhance the experience I had interacting with the computer and stimulating my imagination.
I was cast back into a black and white world at thirteen years old when I became the recipient of my first Macintosh, a used Plus, in the heady days of System 6, when the MultiFinder was new and interactive multimedia was being defined by Macromind VideoWorks. My background colour of choice for the Finder (the Macintosh filesystem browser) was black, for the simple reason that it suggested to me that I was peering into a dark, potentially infinite space behind the glass on that cute little appliance, not unlike the inky window for reading the message on the die inside of a fortune-telling Magic Eight Ball. A black desktop seemed to me to be filled with more "possibilities" than the confining and claustrophobic default grey backdrop.
The consideration of the imagined look of computing space became vastly more common with the popularisation of the Internet. Inspired by cinematic visions like the visuals in the ground-breaking film Tron (1982), clip art directories and stock art catalogues exploded with images of glowing telephones spanning nations, glowing wireframe grids embracing arrays of glowing dots and speeding bullets of light, clusterfucks of lensflares squatting on extruded global maps made of glass...
Meanwhile, the more concrete side of the equation -- the visual aspects of the graphical user interface -- had changed very little. When the public was first introduced to the Internet many found the experience anticlimactic. The reality of clicking on text in little windows just like for anything else paled in comparison to the Gibsonian cyber-porno that had been exploited to sell everybody in:
"Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts...A graphical representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the non-space of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding..." (Neuromancer, p.51)
That's when imaginative morons of all stripes started whipping their developers into a frenzy in an effort to cough up a new and exciting way of accessing the Internet's resources that would finally deliver on the glitz, glamour and industrial-quality light and magic that people apparently wanted. From the semantic end of the spectrum came things like novel prototype browsers that abstracted the relationships between data on web pages in flashy ways with simulated 3D motion that result in little more than more advanced data-mapping techniques, and from the more social end of the spectrum came avatar-soiled bandwidth-behemoths like The Palace and AlphaWorld, determined to create a parallel virtual-space on the Net based on familiar ideas like rooms, roads and real-estate.
It could be argued that these two branches of experimentation -- the semantic and social -- represent two irreconcilable camps of hostile cybernauts: the former, largely composed of academics, scientists and journalists, wants to see the development of the Internet as a superlibrary and information commons; the latter, evidently largely composed of bored, horny people with extraordinary luxury appliances they don't know what to do with, wants to see the development of the Internet as an interactive television, where they can take up familiar activities like hanging out, shopping and consuming media without the discomfort of fighting traffic.
Instead, however, I believe that these are simply two different ways to struggle with the same basic failings of an aging desktop metaphor, too limited to contain the nascent citizen-to-computer relationship that is slowly crystallising in our civilisation. As computing becomes more important to more people on a more persistent basis, like a six-year-old me they find themselves yearning to make a connection to the invisible, busy data-space that they are told is lurking out there between the lines.
Will we ever agree on what the Internet should look like?