Nicole Starosielski: Reskinning the Digital Surface: Borders and Immobility at the Interface

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I want to pause, here, at the skin of the interface. What does it mean that skin is the metaphor through which we encounter digital surfaces? How does this term, skin, affect the way we make sense of the interface? And just as our view of the interface is affected by the language we use to describe it, our understanding of skin itself is discursively constructed. Its meaning fluctuates with historical and cultural context. It might be layered or homogenous, a barrier or a penetrated space, a reflection of, a stand-in for, or the extension from this interior. The way skin is depicted, represented, and made sense of reflects specific relationships of the self to the world. Thus we can ask: which kind of skin is the skin of the interface and, through this question, explore what kind of relationship between the technological body, its surface, and the users body lies implicit in contemporary discourses.

In technical discussions, popular texts, and many new media theories, the dominant tendency has been to treat the interface skin as less important, interchangeable, and insignificant in light of the system. If the skin is marked as significant at all, it is typically for its function as a permeable and porous membrane, and is as far as it facilitates access to this authentic interior. This understanding of skin is valuable in that it counteracts a longer cultural tradition which has increasingly portrayed skin as a rigid border, and the emphasis on skins transgression enables the delineation of new types of subjectivities, especially from a feminist perspective. However, understanding the skin as simply permeable becomes problematic when we look at the type of space the digital skin tends to represent: it is a transparent space, existing only in and through the users penetrations. In addition, these skin discourses distinguish the digital ontologically from other media skins and surfaces, which becomes difficult as digital media is increasingly embedded in the environment and convergent with other media. I would like to suggest that an attention to the digital skin as a selective border is both an important part of a feminist critique, as it helps to recuperate immobile experiences at the interface, and can help break down the boundary between new media interfaces and the surfaces of other media, such as film and video, and the divide between theories which address them.

In her book, Skin: On the Cultural Border Between Self and the World, Claudia Benthien traces various discursive shifts in the way skin has been understood as a symbolic surface between the self and the world. Paradoxically, while medicine has exposed the interior of the body, skin has become understood as an increasingly rigid boundary, and in the twentieth century, the central metaphor of separateness. 1 She identifies two primary levels of the articulation of skins meaning, each which points to diverging conceptions of subject and body. On one hand, the skin is an outer shell, a sheltering, concealing, or deceptive cover which is other than, and foreign to, the authentic self underneath. The second conception of skin equates the skin with the subject; skin metonymically stands in for the whole being. The expressions and language of this second conception, where skin stands in for self, has diminished over time in favor of skin as separate, deceptive, and rigid boundary.

In discourses of computer science and design, skin is most often configured as an insignificant layer over the authentic system. PROSKIN, a research project optimizing a skinning tool, defines the skin as follows:

A skin is considered to be the appearance of the user interface, including graphic, haptic, and/or aural patternsSkins are used typically to change the look and feel of the interface components, often a cosmetic change alone (i.e. the colours change or a background image is applied, but the interface components remain unaffected in location, attribute or function.) 2

This layer, though distinct from the system, is far from the rigid boundary Benthien describes. It doesnt separate the system from the users body, but rather, is an interchangeable, superficial, or cosmetic element without any effect on the relationship of interior to exterior.

This perspective is mirrored in popular discourses. A reviewer in the New York Times writes, Skins are faceplates that cover your MP3 player like masks, creating a visual appearance of your choice. There are hundreds to choose from, and you can switch between them as often as you want.3 Skin is not significant in itself, does not affect the users experience of the new media object. advertises their skinning program: You dont wear the same clothes every day, your house doesnt look exactly like your neighbors - why should the computing interface you use every day be any different?4 Skins, just like our own, are recognized and defined by difference. However, the skins difference mirrors the user rather than the computer. Mark Rolston, the VP of Frogdesign writes, You sit in front of (your computer) all day ... and it represents you...5 Thus, on one hand, skin describes the part of the interface that is replaceable and disconnected from the authenticity of the system, it also becomes a reflection of the user. In this way, skin is not considered as important to phenomenological experience, but rather, is discursively understood as a space to be colonized by the user.

This tendency to downplay the role of skin might be attributed to the structure of programming, as the interfaces look and feel is easier to alter than system functionality. However, it can also be understood in the context of, and enabled by, cyber-structuralist thinking that has disregarded the importance of borders and surfaces. In the annihilation of time/space discourse characteristic of early new media theory, Marshall McLuhan and others hailed the potential of new media to overcome temporal and geographic boundaries, as well as the material limitations of their own bodies.6 McLuhan famously writes, [i]n the electric age we wear all mankind as our skin.7 In these discourses, the focus is the system and its ability to propel the subject. Like the senses I outlined before, the actual skin of the interface is only significant to the user experience as a means to extend their own reach: both the interface skin and the skin of the subject is transcended.

This emphasis on transcending the skin is echoed in formulations of the cyborg and the post-human. Donna Haraway writes, [h]igh-tech culture challenges these dualisms [of human and machine] in intriguing ways. It is not clear who makes and who is made in the relation between human and machineWhy should our bodies end at the skin, or include at best other beings encapsulated by skin?8 The skin, both that of the interface and that of the subject, is as a boundary to be trespassed. Claudia Benthien argues that this rhetoric of new media is characterized by the breaking down of the previously rigid formulation of skin as border. Skin becomes trespassable and broadly penetrated.

Recent new media phenomenologies have reinvested the material surface of the media object and the material body of the user. As one example, Anna Everett, in her theory of digitextuality, argues that the click fetish of new media lures the body with a promise of sensory plentitude. It is the users click at the site of the interface that draws them into the hyperlinked space. For Everett, and a number of others, the surface of the interface is significant as the space in which bodily and sensory experience is generated: the skin is the concrete place in which the bodys moves are made. Interface skin is important because of its materiality: rather than being simply transcended, it is understood as permeable, porous, a means of input, output, exchange and mobility. It is the presence of this skin which makes information accessible, and which allows us to understand ourselves as penetrating the system in the first place.

On the whole, then, we can extract two levels of meaning from this range of discursive examples. First, the skin understood as interchangeable and replicable, a space for the user to insert herself. And second, the skin is constructed as a permeable, porous, membrane, the space that enables the users movements. As Benthien recognizes, this second mode is a valuable corrective in light of breaking down the rigid boundary between self and other, between bodies, and between bodies and digital media objects.

This mode of understanding the skin of the interface, its appearance, can be problematic if taken by itself. In a longer version of this paper, I use Gillian Roses feminist work on geography to articulate how these discourses understand the space of the interface (and bodily skin). In geographical terms the permeated interface skin is a transparent space which allows action and energy to pass through. It is a space to be traversed, and conceptualized in the movements through it. Skin, however, does not exist only in its connections, and simply thinking about how digital media skins enable us to move does not address experience which is isolated or immobile. While these discourses frequently deem irrelevant, or interchangeable, or non-affective, the parts of an interface skin which do not serve a function in connecting or transporting the user, I would like to argue that it is what skin keeps out, what it refuses movement and immobilizes that in some sense defines it. An attention to permeability must be complemented with an understanding of skins selectivity, the way in which the interface is a perceived boundary which, at points, we cannot trespass. It is this meaning, skin as a border zone, which is infrequently attributed to interface skin by popular media, but more often addressed by hybrid new media artwork.

I want to bring up here, as a counterpoint, the way in which the video surface has been formulated as a skin. In her book The Skin of the Film, Laura Marks theorizes the surface of film and video as a skin partially through an exploration of haptic images. In contrast with optical images, which represent a three dimensional, symbolic place that the Cartesian viewer imagines as extending their space, haptic images are incomplete and partial, fragmented or blurred. Rather than plunging into the depths of the diegetic world, our gaze rests on the skin of the screen, distinguishing its textures and patterns. Marks suggests that viewing haptic images may be more like a mode of touch, evoking our other senses, and our bodies. The viewer is called on to fill in for the images gaps, engaging with its traces. Thus, an immobile, but fully embodied viewer, is drawn into an affective relationship with the skin of the film. The viewer comes to understand the media surface as a skin, as another body, precisely because he or she is not allowed through it.

Here, I want to insert an object for discussion which problematizes the dominant understanding of digital skin as penetrable, easily transcended, and defined in opposition to the less permeable or impenetrable skin of other media forms. The video game Playas: Homeland Mirage, foregrounds the way in which the skin itself, its appearance and its function as a selective border can immobilize the user. The game play is set in the real-world desert town of Playas, New Mexico, which was purchased and converted to an anti-terrorism training facility. Now host to a variety of U.S. military simulations, the few residents left over have a choice to either role-play in the simulation or stand by as onlookers.9 The game itself takes place on a street of the town populated with terrorists, civilians, and Department of Homeland Insecurity agents. The game play itself is limited and circular. There are no levels. There are no goals. There are no significant actions that the player can take. They can only haphazardly activate video clips, fragments left over from the residents lives. Thus, the players experience is characterized by an alternation between on one hand, agency and movement, and on the other, being gunned down. We can think of this metaphorically as an alternation between being allowed to selectively trespass and being held up at a border. The game thus schematizes the different functions of the digital media skin: permeability and selectivity. These modes of engagement are meant to mirror the situation of the real world Playas, where the player can either take the role of the spectator or the victim.

The physical construction of the game mirrors the experience of the game world. The game is projected onto a screen in an enclosed room, and while only one player is allowed to navigate the world, it is built for an audience. Sensors register the other people in the room and project a blurred reflection of their movements onto the screen. The audience members can only trace the remnants of their reflection over the depths of the game world. Within the physical game space, there is thus a play between movement forwards, in and through the room itself, and an attention to immobility, a captivation at the surface of the screen.

The way in which this immobility is made obvious to the player and the spectators is through a use of haptic imagery and a redirection to the surface itself in the way that Laura Marks describes the viewers relationship to the skin of the film. On one level, the longer the player engages, the more the game environment fragments and blurs. Both this mirage aesthetic and the mirroring of the audience members render an incomplete, impressionistic and sensory world. The appeal is not so much in understanding the meaning of the characters movements and the three dimensional space of Playas, as it is watching the textures of the interface, the unexpected blend of user-reflections and the distortion of the landscape. A major component of the experience is also the haphazard activation of video clips, themselves distorted remnants of the residents lives. They are not the typical cut scenes of the video game, however, where the game play is stopped and the narration begins, but rather are mapped onto the surfaces of the world and can be left at anytime. While on one hand, they appear to extend our space, on the other they force us to call upon our own bodies, histories, and senses to fill in the traces left by the residents of Playas.

While we approach Playas with the expectation of navigating into a world, searching out targets, and fulfilling objectives, these desires are only partially fulfilled. At times, we are immobilized at the surface of the screen, in the space of mirage, distortion, and haptic imagery. We cannot simply search-and-scan for the relevant information, but rather are confronted with the limits of immersion, interaction and knowledge. Playass implicit critique of representation, and the penetration of the skin supports an explicit political critique of the circularity and lack of information flow in our contemporary political situation, as well as American penetration into other geo-political spaces.

Thus, in Playas the digital skin is configured as a selective border, as a borderland, where the viewer resides, unable to penetrate into space. This immobility is productive, precisely because it forces us to call upon our own bodies to fill in the gaps. This discursive example foregrounds its own surface, not as an interchangeable graphic pattern, but as a significant space which sometimes rejects our attempts to enter. I thus want to argue for a theorizing of the interface skin as a border, and for the significance of the skin as an affective, and potentially embodying, layer of the interface. Not just a space to be colonized and penetrated, but a possible space of resistance.

I want to conclude by noting that this is not simply a rhetorical move. Just as this metaphor of skin is used to understand the interface, we increasingly use the metaphors of the digital media interface to make sense of our own skin. Claudia Benthien writes, [t]he epidermis, the largest human organ in terms of surface area, is being discovered as an interface.10 This presentation, and hopefully this discussion, is a step towards a critical fleshing out of their interconnections, a move to articulate how contemporary perceptions of the border between technology and ourselves, our interfaces and our skins, are discursively intertwined.


Benthien, Claudia. Skin: On the Cultural Border Between Self and the World. Trans. Thomas Dunlap. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. p. 1.

Fine, Nick and Willem-Paul Brinkman. Avoiding Average: Recording Interaction Data to Design for Specific User Groups. Entertainment Computing - Icec 2004: Proceedings of the Third International Conference. Berlin: Springer, 2004. p. 399.

Strauss, Neil. The MP3 Revolution: Getting With It. New York Times, July 18, 1999.

Unsanitys website:, Last accessed April 5, 2007.

Quoted in: Kahney, Leander. How Mac OS X Can Shed Its Skin. Wired Magazine, December 12, 2003.

I borrow this phrase from Lisa Parks, Kinetic Screens: Epistemologies of movement at the interface. Mediaspace: Place, Scale and Culture in a Media Age. eds. Nick Couldry and Anna McCarthy. London: Routledge, 2004.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1994. p. 47.

Haraway, Donna. A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and the Socialist-Feminism in the Late 20th Century. The New Media Reader. eds. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003. p. 532-33

Hall, Mimi. War on terror takes over a thankful town. USA TODAY. 3/13/2005.

Benthien, Claudia. Skin: On the Cultural Border Between Self and the World. Trans. Thomas Dunlap. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. p. 6.