James Ash, The Interface Envelope: Gaming, Technology, Power, Bloomsbury Press, 2015, 184pp., $34, ISBN 9781623565572
We live in societies saturated with screens: our faces continually bathed in the soft glow of technics. Staring at televisions, thumbing at phones, and clicking on computer screens, daily life is suspended in a dense ecology of artificial surfaces. James Ash’s The Interface Envelope: Gaming, Technology, Power, explores our immersion in these digital interfaces, with video games serving as his main object of analysis. Across eight relatively short chapters, Ash engineers an ontology for understanding the process by which humans make connections with interfaces. Yet rather than see this as a binary interaction, between an active subject and a passive object, Ash insists that the interface is a site of more-than-human envelopment, a hyper-mediated space of being-in-the-world. Interfaces are thus more than surfaces: they are “environments of inorganically organized objects, which communicate through processes of transduction” (16).
The Interface Envelope is packed with careful theoretical expositions in and around the concept of interface. What emerges is a text that structures its empirical engagement on video games with a theoretical discussion of interfaces, envelopes, and envelope power. Although there are lots of nuances to the book’s central terms, an interface is a digital environment that humans interact with, and the resulting time-space is an envelope that organizes perception. A central task of the book is therefore to understand how our sensory experience is conditioned, modulated, and manipulated, by what Ash calls envelope power. As he writes, “Rather than just inert tools or lumps of matter, interfaces of all kinds are central to the shaping of perception itself and, with it, how we anticipate, recollect and prepare for events in a world that is moulded by and emerges from the very logics of the interfaces we use to engage with this world” (14).
The book raises important questions about the commodification of perception. How is our attention and memory enveloped in the time-spaces of video games? And beyond video games, how are multiple domains of life becoming enveloped by the gamification of reality?
Ash’s most obvious influence across the book is the post-Heideggerian tradition in general, and the philosophy of Bernard Stiegler in particular. Yet the cast of characters and ideas at play are wide-ranging. Beyond Heidegger and Stiegler, Ash draws inspiration from Levi Bryant, Ian Bogost, Bruno Latour, Peter Sloterdijk, and many others. The book, however, “does not attempt to produce a meta-theory or account that reconciles the differences between these thinkers” (9). Instead, Ash seeks to uncover how these thinkers contribute to the central ideas of interface and envelope. The book therefore goes beyond video game studies and will be of interest to scholars drawing ideas from speculative realism, human geography, and other new materialisms. Ash’s sensitivity to the spatial breathes fresh air into our conceptions of video games.
Chapter 1 sets the scene for the rest of the book, introducing the book’s main concepts and contributions. Chapter 2 explores the idea of interface, ultimately building towards a conception of interfaces as environments, that is, assemblages of (digital) objects. Chapter 3 puts forward the idea of resolution, a term that plays on the idea of pixel density in video games. Here, resolution is used to articulate the different intensities of objects that appear in an interface. This distribution of object intensity is what Ash calls a form of neuropower, a term he reworks from Warren Neidich. Chapter 4, Technicity, looks more carefully at the technical manipulation of phenomenological experience. Stiegler’s work on psychopower is a key touchstone: how is it that games capture our attention?
Chapter 5, Envelopes, is perhaps the most important of the book, since it is where Ash joins together the idea of interface and envelope. As he writes, “an interface envelope emerges from the relationship between a set of objects which disclose qualities in order to create a space and time in which player activity takes place” (82). Envelope power is thus the specific localization of space-time that organizes perception and affective responses. Chapter 6 explores the idea of ecotechnics, moving into Chapter 7, which expands upon the context of envelope from video games to “envelope life” more generally. This is perhaps where I wanted the book to develop a more explicit politics of envelope power, but Ash resists a caricature of interface envelopes as sites of mesmerizing capitalist neuropower. Instead, he is hopeful that they can be used to construct new communal worlds, as with video games like Minecraft. As he writes, “Living with envelope life means…working to retool them to create conditions for the emergence of new modes of newness or ways of utilizing the newness of envelopes for helpful purposes” (138).
I appreciate Ash’s reluctance to caricature envelope power as a solely positive or negative force (they are instead “pharmacological”). But I couldn’t help but feel the book leaves unexamined the politics and violence of our collective mediated life. Although I too see redeeming and even hopeful qualities in games like Minecraft—a space of worldly experimentation—this surely has a limit, and still does not address the problematics of mass psychic synchronization in contemporary capitalism. And despite signals to the commodification of perception/attention (i.e. how envelopes are typically, if not always, for-profit), it’s an area that is never fully fleshed out, much like the militarization of interfaces. Here, I would have liked Ash to discuss Stiegler and Sloterdijk’s more scathing critiques of modernity. So, while Ash moves beyond reductive notions of psychopower, and is less negative in general about the commodification of attention, surely we must also account for the uneven conditions and representational schemas by which perception is oriented? How can we think a politics—and perhaps a political economy—of perceptual transduction?
The toolkit Ash brings is sharp, and I can see multiple opportunities—as Ash does—for thinking beyond video games. In fact, despite my own research on the affective qualities and politics of video games, I read the text more as a broad theoretical contribution. It breaks important ground and does a lot of lifting for scholars thinking through a broadly defined post-phenomenology literature. Indeed, I often felt that Ash’s engagement with video games was the less interesting dynamic of this book. Each chapter, which is oriented by a concept (i.e. Interface, Resolution, Technicity, Envelopes, Ecotechnics, Envelope Life), usually opens with a theoretical examination followed by its application in video games. The result of this structure is not so much that video games are an afterthought (clearly that’s not the case) but rather, they are not as important or interesting as the philosophical setup.
The Interface Envelope is an interesting text that clearly articulates a vision for how video games localize folds of time-space to orient, and profit from, our perceptual and embodied capacities. I can see it being taken up across multiple disciplines, since it serves as a platform for understanding the ontological links between—and beyond—gaming, technology, and power.