Date of Award

August 2015

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Anne F. Wysocki

Committee Members

Richard Grusin, Lane Hall, Lisa Moline, Stuart Moulthrop


Computer History, Digital Rhetoric, HCI, Interface Design, Vannevar Bush


This dissertation is about how designers, experimental writers, and innovative thinkers have imagined both computer interfaces and the human/machine relations that might emerge through engagement with different kinds of interfaces. Although futuristic thinking about digital media and their interfaces has changed over time, we can isolate some constants that have persisted through almost all mainstream practices of interface design, particularly in American culture. Drawing from a historical trajectory that I associate with Vannevar Bush and his speculative invention, which he called “memex” in a 1945 essay, I name these constants sterilization and compartmentalization. They are two tendencies or values that I identify in mid-20th-century dreams of mastering information spaces by mastering their interfaces. My project shows how individuals and groups have reinforced or resisted these values in the engineering and design of computer interfaces, both speculative and real. The urge to sterilize and compartmentalize computers has directly and indirectly shaped what we expect and demand from our computers (and the things we make with them) today, and these values trace the horizon of what human-computer relations could be possible in the future.