#WIP from The User Condition essay
Let's call it impersonal computing (or … <!-- footnote -->), shall we? Its features: computer accessorization at the expense of an authentic computer literacy, mobile-first asphyxia, dispossession of an intimate know-how. A know-how that, we must admit, is never fully annihilated: tactical techniques emerge in the cracks: small hacks, bugs that become features, eclectic worksflows. The everyday life of Lialina's Turing-Complete user is still rich. That said, we can't ignore the trend. In an age in which people are urged to "learn to code" for economic survival, computers are commonly used less as a medium than as a vehicle. The utopia of a classless computer world turned out to be exactly that, a utopia. There are users and there are coders.
"There are endless possibilities as to what a #website could be. What kind of room is a website? Or is a website more like a house? A boat? A cloud? A garden? A puddle? Whatever it is, there’s potential for a self-reflexive feedback loop: when you put energy into a website, in turn the website helps form your own identity." - Laurel Schwulst
An all-inclusive computer literacy for the many was never a simple achievement. Alan Kay recognized this himself:
> The burden of system design and specification is transferred to the user. This approach will only work if we do a very careful and comprehensive job of providing a general medium of communication which will allow ordinary users to casually and easily describe their desires for a specific tool.
Maybe not many users felt like taking on such burden. Maybe it was simply too heavy. Or maybe, at a certain moment, the burden started to *look* heavier that it was. Users' desires weren't expressed by them with the computer medium. Instead, they were defined *apriori* within the controlled setting of interaction design: theoretical user journeys anticipated and construed user activity. In the name of user-friendliness, many learning curves were flattened.
Maybe that was users' true desire all along. Or, this is, at least, what computer scientist and entrepreneur Paul Graham thinks. In 2001, he recounted: "[…] near my house there is a car with a bumper sticker that reads 'death before inconvenience.' Most people, most of the time, will take whatever choice requires least work." He continues:
> When you own a desktop computer, you end up learning a lot more than you wanted to know about what's happening inside it. But more than half the households in the US own one. My mother has a computer that she uses for email and for keeping accounts. About a year ago she was alarmed to receive a letter from Apple, offering her a discount on a new version of the operating system. There's something wrong when a sixty-five year old woman who wants to use a computer for email and accounts has to think about installing new operating systems. Ordinary users shouldn't even know the words "operating system," much less "device driver" or "patch."
So who should know these words? "The kind of people who are good at that kind of thing" says Graham. His vision seems antipodal to Kay's one. Given a certain ageism permeating the quote, one is tempted to root for Kay without hesitation, and to frame Graham (who's currently 56) as someone who wants to prevent the informatic emancipation of his mother. But is it really the case? The answer depends on the cultural status we attribute to computers and the notion of autonomy we adopt.
We might say, with Graham, that his mother is made less autonomous by some technical requirements she doesn't need nor want to deal with. For her, having a computer functioning like a slightly smarter toaster is good enough. Most of the computer's technical complexity, together with its technical possibilities, are alien to her. They are a waste of time and source of worry to her, a burden. Moreover, in order to continue using her machine, she might be forced to familiarize with a new operating system.
On the other hand, we might say, keeping in mind Kay's vision, that the autonomy of Graham's mother was eroded "upstream", as she has been using the computer as an impersonal vehicle, unaware of its profound possibilities. If you believe that society at large is at a loss by using the computer as a smart toaster, than you're with Kay. If you think that is fair, then you're with Graham. But are this two views really in opposition?
Let's consider an actual smart toaster, one of those Internet-of-Things devices. Your smart knows the bread you want to toast and the time that it takes. But, one day, out of the blue, you can't toast your bread because you haven't updated the firmware. You couldn't care less of the firmware: you're starving. But you learn about it and update the device. Then, the smart toaster doesn't work anymore as it used to: settings and features have changed. What we witness here is a reduction of agency, as you can't interrupt the machine's update behavior. Instead, you have to modify your behavior to adapt to it. Back to Graham's mother: the know-how she laboriously acquired, the desire for a specific tool that she casually developed thorugh time, might be suddenly wiped out by a change she never asked for.
Alan Kay has a motto: "simple things should be simple, complex things should be possible". Above, we focused on complex things becoming less possible. But what about simple things? Often, they don't stay simple either. True, without read-write computer literacy a user is stuck in somewhat predetermined patterns of behavior, but the personal adoption of these patterns often forms a know-how. If that is the case, being able to stick to them can be seen as a form of agency. Interruption of behavior means aborting the update.
The revolution of behavioral patterns is often sold in terms of convenience, namely less work. Less work means less decisions to make. Those decisions are not magically disappearing, but are simply delegated to an external entity that takes them automatically. In fact, we can define convenience as automated know-how or automated decision-making. We shouldn't consider this delegation of choice as something intrinsically bad, otherwise we would end up condemning the computer for its main feature: programmability. Instead, we should discern between two types of convenience: autonomous convenience and heteronomous convenience. In the former, the knowledge necessary to take the decision is accessible and modifiable. In the latter, such knowledge is opaque.
Let's consider two ways of producing a curated feed. The first one involves RSS, a standardized, computer-readable format to gather various content sources. The user manually collects the feeds they want to follow in a list that remains accessible and transformable. The display criteria is generally chronological. Thus, an RSS feed incorporates the user's knowledge of the sources and automatizes the know-how of going through the blogs individually. Indeed, less work. In this case, it is fair to speak of autonomous convenience.
The Twitter feed works differently. The displayed content doesn't only reflect the list of contacts that the user follows, but it includes ads, replies, etc. The display criteria is "algorhythmic", that is, based on some factors unknown to the user, and only very partially manipulable by them. This is a case of heteronomous convenience. While the former is agential since the user can fully influence its workings, the second is behavioral because the user can't.
Broadly, algorhythmic feeds have mostly wiped out the RSS feed savoir faire, overriding autonomous ways of use. The Overton window of complexity was thus reduced. Today, a novel user is thrown into a world where the algorithmic feed is the default, while the old user has to struggle more to maintain their RSS know-how. The expert is burdened with exercising their expertise, while the neophyte is not even aware of the possibility of such expertise.
Blogs stop serving RSS, feed readers aren't maintained, etc. It is not coincidence that Google discontinued its Reader product, with the following message on their page: "We understand you may not agree with this decision, but we hope you'll come to love these alternatives as much as you loved Reader." In fact, Google has been simplifying web activities all along. Cory Arcangel in 2009:
> After Google simplified the search, each subsequent big breakthrough in net technology was something that decreased the technical know-how required for self-publishing (both globally and to friends). The stressful and confusing process of hosting, ftping, and permissions, has been erased bit by bit, paving the way for what we now call web 2.0.
True, alternative do exists, but they become more and more fringe. Graham seems to be right when he says that most user will go for less work. Generally, heteronomous convenience means less work than autonomous convenience, as the maximum amount of decisions is taken by the system in place of the user. Furthermore, heteronomous convenience dramatically influences the perception of the work required by autonomous convenience. Nowadays, the process of collecting RSS feeds URLs *appears* tragically tedious if compared to Twitter's seamless "suggestions for you".
On Twitter, we can experience the dark undertones of heteronomous convenience. User Tony Arcieri [developed](https://twitter.com/bascule/status/1307440596668182528) a worrisome experiment about the automatic selection of a focal point for image previews, which often show only a part of them when tweeted. Arcieri uploaded two versions of a long, vertical image. In one, a portrait of Obama was placed at the top, while one of Mitch McConnell at the bottom. In the second image the positioning was reversed. In both cases the focal point chosen for the preview was McConnell's face. Who knows! The system spares the user the time to make such choice autonomously but its logic is obscure and immutable. Here, convenience is heteronomous.
Does it have to be this way? Not necessarily. Mastodon is an open source, self-hosted social network that at the first glance looks like Twitter, but it's profoundly different. One of the many differences (which I'd love to describe in detail but it would be out of the scope of this text, srry) has to do with focal point selection. Here, the user has the option to choose it autonomously, which means manually. They can also avoid making any decision. In that case, the preview will show the middle of the image by default.
(thx @joak for pointing me to this case!)
Heteronomous convenience is an automated know-how, a savoir faire turned into a silent procedure, a set of decisions taken in advance for the user. Often, this type of convenience goes hand in hand with the removal of friction, that is, laborious decisions that consciously interrupt behavior. Let's consider a paginated set of items, like the results of a Google Search or DuckDuckGo query. In this context, users have to consciously click on a button to go to the next page of results. That is a minimal form of action, and thus, of friction. Infinite scroll, the interaction technique employed by, for instance, Google Images or Reddit, removes such friction. The mindful action of going through pages is turned into a homogeneous, seamless behavior.
And yet, this type of interaction seems somehow old-fashioned. Manually scrolling an infinite webpage feels imperfect, accidental, temporary if not already antiquated, even weird one could say: it’s a mechanical gesture fitting the list's needs<!-- clarify -->. It’s like turning a crank to listen to a radio. It's an automatism that hasn't been yet automatized. This automatism doesn't produce an event (such as clicking on a link) but modulates a rhythm: it's analog instead of digital. In fact, it has been already automatized. Think of YouTube playlists which are reproduced automatically, or Instagram stories (a model originated in Snapchat that spread to Facebook and Twitter), where the behavior is reversed: the user doesn't power the engine, but instead stops it from time to time. In the playlist mode, "active interaction" is an exception.
We see here a progression that is analogous to that of the Industrial Revolution: first, some tasks are just unrelated to one another (hyperlinks and pagination, pre-industrial), they are then organized to require manual and mechanical labor (infinite scroll, industrial), finally they are fully automated and only require supervision (stories and playlists, smart factory). Pagination, infinite scroll, playlist. Manual, semi-automated, fully automated. Click, scroll, pause.
Late French philosopher Bernard Stiegler focused on the notion of proletarianization: according to him, a proletarian is not just robbed of the form and the products of their labor, but especially of their know-how.<!-- verify --> Users are deprived of the rich, idiosyncratic fullness of their gestures. These gestures are then reconfigured to fit the system's logic before being made made completely useless. The gesture is first standardized and then automated. The mindless act of scrolling is analogous to the repetitive operation of assembling parts of a product in a factory. Whereas the worker doesn't leave their position, the user doesn't leave the page. Both feature movement without relocation. Furthermore, in the factory, machines are organized according to an industrial know-how which makes it the only one that fully understands the functional relationships between parts. How do we call a computational system organized like such factory? We can call it a platform and define it as a system that extracts and standardizes user decisions before rendering them unintelligible and immutable. In the platform, opaque algorithms embody the logic that arranges data into lists that are then fed to the user. The platform-factory is smart and dynamic, the user-worker is made dumb and static.
'“The new power is action,” a senior software engineer told me. “The intelligence of the internet of things means that sensors can also be actuators.” The director of software engineering for a company that is an important player in the “internet of things” added, “It’s no longer simply about ubiquitous computing. Now the real aim is ubiquitous intervention, action, and control. The real power is that now you can modify real-time actions in the real world. Connected smart
sensors can register and analyze any kind of behavior and then actually figure out how to change it. Real-time analytics translate into real-time action.” The scientists and engineers I interviewed call this new capability “actuation,” and they describe it as the critical though largely undiscussed turning point in the evolution of the apparatus of ubiquity."' Zuboff, 2019
The User Condition #WIP
Who hasn't caught themselves daydreaming while scrolling? Stiegler, backing art critic Jonathan Crary, maintains that the new proletarianized environments tend to eliminate "those intermittences that are states of sleep and daydreaming". But, for the time being, it seems that attention, although under siege, is not fully captured and thus intermittence is still at hand. A fully behavioral territory, with its anesthetizing repetitiveness, might be in fact the most suited for zoning out. While behavior takes place on the screen, content blurs and action unfolds in the mind. This might be the general state of proletarianized interactivity. After all, most people take a break from their cognitive work by scrolling feeds or watching stories.
The User Condition #WIP
Proletarianized interactivity is hyperlinear. A typical feature of the assembly line is, as the name suggest, *linearity*. The informational equivalent of the assembly line is the list. Both standalone and networked computers highlighted at first the possibility to break from the linearity of the list, a quality inherited from the printing press. E-literature celebrated this revolution. HyperCard-designed novels emerged, with many paths and no single origin nor conclusion. The early web could be understood as a giant collaborative hypertext. Keeping everything together was the hyperlink, the building block of nonlinearity. But nonlinearity (or multilinearity) requires a higher cognitive load, as navigation doesn't fade into the background. The user is tasked with many decisions, which are enacted by clicking.
The User Condition #WIP
Then, Web 2.0 came and webpages became more dynamic, more interactive, but also more behavioral. Multilinearity was defeated by an AJAX-fuelled convenientist drive. The outcome was _hyperlinearity_. Hyperlinearity is the networked linearization of disparate content, sources and activities into list form: personal photos, articles, discussions, polls, adverts, etc. Sure, a user can still click their way out, but that feels more like sedentary zapping than an active exploration of networked space. From Facebook to Instagram to Reddit and back again. That is hyperlinear zapping, especially evident in the compartimentalized structure of mobile computers.
The User Condition #WIP
Speaking of zapping, in 2012 I created [ScrollTV](https://silviolorusso.com/work/scrolltv), a plugin that would automate scrolling on social media while playing a muzak soundtrack. The project was highly inspired by “Television Delivers People”, a 1973 video by Richard Serra and Carlota Fay Schoolman, in which the passive role of the TV spectator is revealed through the language of broadcasting media themselves. But there are many other projects that more or less directly comment on this semi-automatization of interaction, such as a [rubber finger](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IaoDfOaYF4w), that “swipes right on Tinder so you don’t Have To”. Or another [one](https://vimeo.com/111997940), definitely less subtle, that uses a rolling piece of meat instead. In [a 2017 project](https://stephaniekneissl.com/reset-social-media) by Stephanie Kneissl and Max Lachner, physical automation is used to trick social media algorithm, but the machines also mirror the semi-automated labor performed by humans on a daily basis.
The User Condition #WIP
More recently, Ben Grosser created the Endless Doomscroller, specifically made for mobile, which comments on the compulsion to browse bad news on social media. This work reminds me of the older [Infinity Contemporaneity Device](http://www.wintermute.org/brendan/?p=the-infinite-contemporaneity-device) (2012) by Brendan Howell, which consist of a giant mouse with a rolling wheel creating an idiosyncratic news experience. Finally, in 2015 two years of the Tumblr blog CLOAQUE were printed (the size of a football field) as a paper scroll attached to a [crank-activated wooden machine](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J8xut1XUJvA). This latter case foregrounds manual labor but also the creative opportunities that hyperlinearity can offer: exploiting the homogeneity of the list for an explosion of diverse visual material.
*The User Condition update* [1/3]
To Shoshana Zuboff, the feudo-fascist society feared by Norbert Wiener is today a reality. She writes: "Many scholars have taken to describing these new conditions as *neofeudalism*, marked by the consolidation of elite wealth and power far beyond the control of ordinary people and the mechanisms of democratic consent." According to the US scholar, the culprit is to be found in a new breed of capitalism capable of extracting profit from the "behavioral surplus" generated by user, who are unconsciously tracked by digital platforms and smart devices alike.
[2/3]: > The dynamic of modernization consists in the increasing outsourcing of regulatory functions from the social sphere to the techno-administrative sphere: everything that was previously managed through informal, non-codified, traditional norms is progressively transferred to a specific class of "competent" individuals who indicate the most rational options in every field: economics, urban planning, psychology, health, public order, etc.[^ventura] <!-- 29 -->
We might add that norms and behaviors are not just transferred to a group of people but also to the systems that these people build and make available: interrelated product, services, interfaces. Convenience is another term for this rationalized restructuring. However, a question emerges: whose ratio informs the systems? Some people might argue that capitalism and modernization are inseparable [^weber], and that could be a correct assessment, but distinguishing these two souls helps us to foreground one aspect over another: heteronomous convenience—"misconvenience" if you will–over surveillance and extraction.
[^ventura]: Ventura, Raffaele Alberto. _Radical choc: ascesa e caduta dei competenti_. Torino: Einaudi, 2020. Translation mine.
[^weber]: For instance, according to Max Weber there is no full understanding of capitalism without the inclusion of economic rationalization. Cfr. Weber, Max. _The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism_. Wilder Publications, 2018. Preliminary note.
new "User Condition" #wip: **Speedrun Computing**
Misconvenience is about closing things up: limiting gestures, minimizing choices, reducing options. This might appear a purely coercive endeavor, but we shouldn't forget that options, choices and gestures are costly time-wise. When Alan Kay was speaking of the burden of system design and specification offloaded to the user, he was speaking about time and expertise, the latter being also ultimately about time.
Each added option generates a new viable path. The stratification of paths is what makes a system look like a world. Not only something meaningful that is built, but also something in which one can exercise a degree of free will. Let's consider videogames. An open world game like *The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild* is a lot about exploring and enjoying landscapes, taking different directions, getting lost. People spend hundreds of hours on this game (I spent 70h). But one can also finish the game in less that [30 minutes](https://www.speedrun.com/botw/run/zgvo38dz). On the one hand a calm, lengthy discovery journey, on the other a so-called speedrun.
I'd say that computer use is mostly carried out in speedrun mode. This might have to do with the fact that for the most people, the computer turned from medium to tool (or vehicle, to use Kay's words). Nowadays, people use the computer (and by that I mean also the smartphone) to achieve a specific goal and not to *dwell* an ambient. It doesn't matter if they spend most of their days in front of it: most of them remain at read level, seldom touching upon read-write level, which is the level of medium. By using prepackaged software, they interact with content. When I read-write issue emerges, it appear as a bug or a nuisance, a time-sucking problem.
It becomes obvious, then, that in order to nurture a sense of *open-worldliness*, which can be translated, in computer terms, as general-purpose, one needs time. Any talk of general-purpose and true computer literacy should be accompanied by a reflection on available time. Speaking of the privacy issues of Google Street View, Joanne McNeil puts it this way: "a person—a user—can hardly rail against technology forever, when it is widely deployed. It isn't normalization, exactly, but the nature of priorities in a busy life."<!-- 26 --> This is true not only for biased technology, but for technology at large.
<canvas id="canvas" width="450" height="450"></canvas>
<figcaption><a href="https://raphaelbastide.com/free-snake/">Freesnake</a> by Raphaël Bastide, 2016. In this piece, we get a sense of open-wordliness both at content level (the goal of the game) than at medium level (Bastide tweaked the code of the original Snake game).</figcaption>
Now, a user who invests time on computing shouldn't necessarily do things by hand instead of automating them. Automation is not misconvenient by default. According to a cliche, a programmer/coder/geek will often spend more time automating a repetitive task than what it would require to do it by hand. They, just like me when I play Zelda, don't stress out if they deviate from their main mission. And that's a luxury.
Nowadays, we long for the good ol' web, the bulky desktop computer, the 56k modem screeching. We live in a time of netstalgia. The netstalgic era might have already lasted for a decade. The evidence is abundant: from the success of the confusing notion of [brutalist web design](https://brutalistwebsites.com/),[^brutalist] to the launch of networks like [Neocities](https://neocities.org/) (2013) and [Tilde.Club](https://tilde.club/) (2014), from gardening metaphors applied to websites, to a new agey faith creed worshipping ["HTML energy"](https://html.energy/). In 2015, artist and writer J.R. Carpenter evoked "the term 'handmade web' to suggest [among other things] slowness and smallness as a forms of resistance."[^carpenter]
[^brutalist]: Pascal Deville, who founded Brutalist Websites, speaks of Brutalism as "a reaction by a younger generation to the lightness, optimism, and frivolity of today's web design." Besides the pervasiveness of cute corporate illustrations, I struggle to see much lightness and frivolity in today's web design. And to a certain extent, I notice more optimism in what Deville would call brutalist websites than elsewhere. The websites collected by Deville are too diverse to derive from them an understanding of what brutalist means. It might simply be that the label is stronger than the content.
[^carpenter]: Carpenter, J. R. 2015. [“A Handmade Web.”](http://luckysoap.com/statements/handmadeweb.html) March 2015.
But what are we nostalgic about specifically? Netstalgia has not to do as much with a precise aesthetic or to an age of innocence that it supposedly symbolizes (the internet was never innocent), as it has to do with a time, idealized by memory, in which the convenience trade-off wasn't so stringent. A time in which the "burden of system design and specification", wouldn't feel so heavy, because there was nothing faster to compare it to, and because the speedrun wasn't the default mode of computing. All these aspects added up to a personal experience.
I think we shouldn't eulogize friction for friction's sake, because friction, in itself, is just user's frustration. We have to be able to recognize elegance and generate autonomous convenience for ourselves. We shouldn't deny a computer the possibility to take decisions for us, we just have to be aware of how such decision-making takes place. Programmability is still at the core of computers, and that is where we can find full read-write computer literacy.
In a way, netstalgia already hints at this. Etymologically, nostalgia refers to the pain of not being able to come back home. We conveniently arrange the things in our home so that we can create our routines (some would say program our behavior). Those give stability and solidity to our everyday life. Remember the toaster? Netstalgia might then be nostalgia for non-predetermined computer behavior, for the computer as a home that is not fully furnished in advance.
The User Condition: a conclusion
[Dynamicland](https://dynamicland.org/) is a "non-profit long-term research group in the spirit of Doug Engelbart and Xerox PARC." Their goal is to invent a new computational *medium* where the user doesn't interact only with symbols on screens but with material objects in the physical space. Few lines ago I stated that a serious discussion on computer literacy can't ignore the issue of time. Well, Dynamicland's time-frame is 50 years. What follows, then, will come as no surprise: one of the founders is the frequently aforementioned Alan Kay (the other one is programmer Bret Victor).
The new computational medium envisioned by Dynamicland is not a device but a place, an environment. This environment is both physical and virtual. It looks like a beautiful, communal mess. Within it, users (kids, adults, the elderly) interact with paper, toys, pens and, of course, with each other. Because togetherness and participation is valued by the folks at Dynamicland. Borrowing from gaming, they say that's "as multiplayer as the real world."
How to encourage participation? Dynamicland's computational media are not intimidating, don't look crystallized once and for all, they "feel like stuff anyone can make". Quite the opposite of today's impersonal computing, where interfaces, even if they constantly change, they appear set in stone. Dynamicland puts it very clearly by saying that "no normal person sees an app
and thinks 'I can make that myself.'" They want agency, not apps.
Not unlike Dynamicland's media, netstalgic homepages, with their "under construction" gifs, often look changeable, not solidified in an organic cycle of invisible updates. They look like a thing that's built, and not just built, but built by someone. With these websites we inherit a world that's incomplete and therefore open to new beginnings. Whereas we might feel stuck in a behavioral present, we can find agency both in the netstalgic past and the communal future.
So, after one year of read-write time about computers I thought of having a Mastodon première of The User Condition, a looong text on computer agency and behavior. Here's the link, enjoy:
Of course I'm profoundly grateful for the help that I received from all of you people here (check acknowledgements at the bottom).
Needless to say, I welcome feedback, criticism, bug/misspells reports and whatever else comes to mind :)
@raphaelbastide as I liked your Freesnake piece so much, Iopted for actually including it into the text, instead of adding just a picture of it :)
@jeffcliff it seems to me that they simply apply Engelbart's framework to AI, I thought it was worth mentioning to show that "augmentation" is still a thing
@entreprecariat That looks like a very interesting text. Will read it. Thanks for featuring my work!
@slwr i cannot find rss/atom feeds on your website. are they exist?
if not - i would suggest not only adding those, but also to move your blog to something that would stream it to activitypub people - like writefreely engine.
@tanakian@ծմակուտ.հայ hi, the reason why you can't find rss/atom on the https://theusercondition.computer/ is because the whole website is meant to be a single website. On my blog (where i post semi-regularly) I have rss/atom: https://networkcultures.org/entreprecariat/
Also, writefreely is in my list of things to check, thanks for the reminder!
@entreprecariat Congratulations! Great read! Really enjoyed the dancing pieces of pcb, loved the speedrun metaphor!
@l03s thank you SO MUCH. Your comments were really helpful. I'm still going to implement some of them in the alpha version :) And there will be other suprisessss
BEEP BOP BEEP BEEP BOP
This is really brilliantly written, and very well structured. And it looks really nice on that page. Congratulations on resolving, to a point.
I love this reference to Stiegler, and a whole area of his more recent writing that I don't know.
I love where this is potentially headed too. It's like taking the computer out of the computer.
Brilliant gag with the non-user button.
Also @raphaelbastide : Freesnake is inspired.
@entreprecariat this joke took me to a tab about Linux containers! Serendipity :) Now off to put some untrusted processes behind bars 🤖
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