Professor Pipkin Publishes Essay on the Desktop Metaphor on continent.

Posted on January 13, 2020

Highly pixelated graphic image of a desk from Commodore, 1983

For the online magazine continent., Professor Everest Pipkin published an article examining the implementation and domination of the desktop metaphor for computer interfaces from 1980 to 1995.

Pipkin writes, “The desktop has so thoroughly integrated into the act computing that it is actually hard to see it as a metaphor. The icon of a file ceased long ago to be a visual representation of the data stored somewhere on the machine and instead is the file. A file doesn’t feel like it is “accessed” through a folder— we think of it as being physically in that folder. It is difficult to uncouple the act of using a computer with that of using the desktop interface. Even for someone like me who spends a fair amount of time programming in non-visual interface of the terminal, they are inextricably linked. The terminal shell feels held by the desktop, not the other way around.

“Still, thinking about the 1980s and the embedded symbols of wealth and power that were integrated into computational systems, it is perhaps a useful exercise to consider what other metaphors could have been popularized in place of the desktop. For instance, what would American computer interfaces look like if they had become “user friendly” in a different time? What about a time when power meant leisure rather than productivity, like in the Victorian Era? Or during the 1960s, when cool meant dropping out of society altogether?”

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