A general question, to start with:
What are today’s socio-technical conditions embedded in hardware and software that shape a computer user?
There are various issues that make such question too broad. The first has to with the word computer: a Roomba, a Raspberry Pi and the laptop I’m using right now are all computers. In this respect, I tried to refine the question by offloading the problem to Google Images. According to it, the computer user is one who uses either a laptop or a desktop. I think such framing is reductive as it excludes the computer device that is most used nowadays: the mobile phone. So, the computer I’m talking about is an explicitly pseudo-general purpose device (pseudo- ’cause smartphones often need jailbreaking) which can be on one’s desk, lap or pocket. Problem solved.
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In a previous post I stated that one of the features of interface industrialization (and therefore of user proletarianization) is “movement without relocation”. Here I’d like to characterize a bit better what I mean this two terms, especially the latter, and how they apply to computer software.
I guess it’s unavoidable to mention the very word cybernetics, coined by Norbert Wiener in 1948, which comes from the Greek kybernḗtēs, standing for the “helmperson” of a ship. The helmperson drives or better governs the vehicle. Here, the emphasis is more on movement and trajectory than relocation. We can imagine this ship traversing a boundless sea with no island and still have a sense of this activity of governing.
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Nowadays, computers can be found inside cars, fridges and watches. So, what do we envision when we think of a computer user? Google Images will provide you mostly with images of people sitting in front of a laptop or desktop computer, somehow confirming the concern that the computer, in the very moment when it becomes truly pervasive, disappears not only from sight, but also from the imagination. Here, I want to briefly argue why the most productive conception of a computer user today is that of a smartphone user.
“Computer user” search on Google Images.
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I’m posting this table, as I think it fairly elegantly summarizes what I called “proletarianization” in the previous User Condition posts. The step forward I made here is to connect the level of user gestures to that of the algorithm. The table as image can be found here.
|repetitive, semi-automatic, “mindless” gestures
||infinite scroll, swipe
|movement without relocation
||feed (the user doesn’t leave the page)
||conveyor belt (the worker doesn’t leave their position)
|externalized, opaque, inaccessible knowledge (savoir)
||algorithm (arranging data into lists)
||industrial know-how (arranging parts into objects)
Apple’s “revolutionary user interfaces”
In a previous post, I hypothesized that the evolution of web user interfaces can be understood as their progressive automation which, following the paradigm of industrialization, produces in turn a proletarization of the user. In this post I propose a tentative chronology of technical inventions as well as future forecasts, formulations of trends, and public admonishments that have contributed to and engaged with such transformation. The term proletarization is inspired by French philosopher Bernard Stiegler. I do not use it in an accusatory or moralistic sense; by that I intend to simply point out that, by means of semi-automation first (infinite scroll), and full automation then (playlist, stories, etc.), the user is turned into a “hand” first and then into a machine operator, someone who supervises the machine pseudo-autonomous flow and regulates its modulations. Following Simondon, the machine replaces the tool-equipped individual (the worker).
There are four main intertwined threads in this chronology: the emergence of web apps, the invention of the infinite scroll, the appearance of syndication and aggregation, the introduction of smartphones and thus the swipe gesture.
As I’m sure I’m missing or misunderstanding some aspects of it, comments are very welcome. There is also a loong Mastodon thread about this. Let us begin.
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These are some notes related to a research project I just started at KABK. It’s entitled “The User Condition” and it follows Arendt’s tripartite model of vita activa to understand user activity and behavior. The initial intuition leading to my proposal was a blogpost in which I hypothesized that the contemporary web is characterized by a sort of ersatz praxis, aka political action, that replaced the fabrication dimension of the early days: whereas users were craftpeople at first, they later became political agents (in a very broad sense). I’m posting my note to self on a single thread on Mastodon, if you feel like following my convoluted thought process. If you like what you read invite me for a seminar / lecture / workshop, so I can keep developing this, or buy my book on the Entreprecariat.
If I were to intuitively point out a fundamental paradigm shift of user activity in terms of interaction, after the advent of the “corporate web” (this expression needs some clarification), I’d say that the user was reconfigured as a “hand”, understood both as a body component and as a someone who “engages in manual labor”.
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Gui Machiavelli and I didn’t really know where to publish our weird takes on videogames so we came up with our own text repository. It’s called npc.cafe because non-player characters are our friends. When I say ‘text’, I mean it: no images whatsoever, except for a bunch of emojis. It’s either read or play.
The text on Angry Birds vs Flappy Bird is quite connected to The User Condition’s posts, so if you’re into that, make sure to check it out!
by Silvio Lorusso and Geert Lovink
“Media: we must work together to go back as soon as possible to normality. Normality:”
During these long days, thinking is hard. Coronavirus updates come from every milieu: friends, family, work, governments, finance, the economy at large. None of them can be ignored. Remember, we used to complain about information overload. What about now? Now that we’re uninterruptedly tuned to different sources, from apps, radio, TV and newspapers, to Whatsapp chats with people in various countries and timezones. Now that our minds are busy processing the conditions and worries of our relatives and acquaintances, the selective scarcity of close-by supermarkets, the permutations of our shaky working schedules, the proliferation of software to set up. We put effort into changing our embodied automatisms, such as the urge to touch our face. In many ways, we are not ourselves.
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I’m jotting down some quick notes on what seems to have become an obsessive thought: the relationship between poiesis and praxis, as understood by Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition. In broad strokes: poiesis means fabrication, it is the activity of the homo faber, the craftman (be them an engineer or a sculptor); praxis means acting politically, taking initiative, while being seen by other human beings. Poiesis implies a shared world of things, praxis implies a public sphere.
The latter was originally considered the highest human activity but nowadays this is not the case anymore. And here I would like to argue, or at least to suggest, that praxis functions today as a surrogate for a poiesis that is hardly achievable by the most. In other words, people act politically (in a broad sense) because they are unable to make (design + fabricate) things or find gratification in this making.
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The writing of this essay, which was originally published on Modes of Criticism 3 under the title “LinkedIn Society”, was concluded just before a quite drastic redesign of LinkedIn’s interface. In its conclusions I somehow predicted the elimination of the anomalous functionalities that made LinkedIn peculiar in comparison to the standards of other generalist social media platforms like Facebook. As I argued, these now obsolete functionalities illustrate a utilitarian transparency more genuinely adherent to the ideology and the aims driving the design of the platform than the full “rhetorical turn toward conviviality” (Davies 2016) that characterize other dominant social media and guided the current redesign of LinkedIn. Instead of updating the essay according to the new design, I decided to preserve my original analysis in order to provide a chronicle of the recent history of social media and a proof of the difficulty to formulate a timely critique in a medial ecosystem that is in “permanent beta”, just like contemporary workers must be according to LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman (2013).
“Linkedin is a Waste of Time”
In the last years, much has been written on the Facebook Like Economy, on the grassroots genealogy of the Twitter hashtag, on the formation of a narcissistic subjectivity on Instagram. During this period, LinkedIn has been almost completely ignored. In the Social Media Reader, published in 2012, it is not even mentioned once. In the Unlike Us Reader, published the year after and focused on possible alternatives, LinkedIn appears five times, but only as a fleeting example. Unlike generalist social media, LinkedIn has a specific focus, the world of professionals. IHowever, it is a platform where it’s possible to identify , both in its interface, its communication and its origins, some latent dynamicsthat presently orient social media and, therefore, society at large. This is what makes it unique and therefore valuable in the current social media landscape. In this essay, I discuss LinkedIn’s unique functionalities, rhetorics and principles.
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