Date of Award

Fall 2018

Document Type

Open Access Thesis


Computer Science and Engineering

First Advisor

Duncan A. Buell


This research examines conflicts accompanying the proliferation of computer technology and, more specifically, constellations of dependency in the always expanding volume of software, platforms, and the firms/individuals using them. We identify a pervasive phenomenon of “divarication” in the growing variety of progressively specialized systems and system roles. As software systems enter new thresholds of sophistication, they effectively aggregate many distinct components and protocols. Consequently, we are confronted with a diverse ecology of stratified and thereby incompatible software systems. Software inherits the limitations and potential flaws of its constituent parts, but unlike physical machinery, it isn’t readily disassembled in instances of failure. The individuals using these systems have no means to dissect and analyze their tools, and thus are necessarily dependent on external assistance.

We assert that divarication is a consequence of interfacing, and particularly in the way computer interfaces operate as the sole point of contact between a user and a software system. These interfaces condense tremendous volumes of computation into outputs that can be read and understood by almost anyone. This is self-evident in the total ubiquity of computing devices across populations and throughout sectors of commerce. However, and unfortunately, merely “using” software doesn’t promise any depth of understanding beyond its most superficial aspects. We argue that this circumstance makes divarication inevitable. Opaque components accumulate into opaque wholes, and so the magnitude of this problem will likely scale with increasing software sophistication.

Taking Charles S. Peirce’s three types of sign (the icon, index, and symbol) into special consideration, we observe that term “icon” distinguishes a sign that directly resembles its referent. As the thesis title indicates, we bring Peirce’s notion of “iconicity” into accompaniment with “interfacing”, forming an abstract paradigm in response to divarication. We intend to develop a platform that facilitates at least partial disassembly and examination of program operations by incorporating a recurrent “iconicity” protocol. We composed a diagrammatic design scheme; a blueprint for software platforms that might emulate this “interfacing iconicity”. We then developed a prototype platform, implementing this structural logic. This initial prototype is a rudimentary HTML rendering platform, one that articulates the relationship between plain-text code, its Document Object Model (DOM) representation, and the rendered “web page” (as it would appear in a browser). Currently, this prototype is a useful analog for the arguments we present. Since it articulates the relationship between text markup (code) and its interpretation, it may also have educational utility. However, this prototype is not yet a fully realized implementation of our design paradigm, and at this stage a conclusion on whether the latter genuinely addresses divarication would be premature.


© 2018, George Akhvlediani