The User Condition 06: How to Name Our Computer Monoculture?

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.

The second problem has to do with the socio-technical conditions. Those can be so widely different, that might be impossibile to make a generalization. And yet, generalize we must if we want to be able to interpret things. If we don’t, we will be stuck believing that each computer experience is different and unique. How to go about with this? In my mind I can easily picture the portion of reality I’m referring to, which is more difficult in words. Actually, this picture is not just in my mind. Here it is:

What do you see? Apple (almost) everywhere. Am I then concerned with the (declining) Apple hegemony? Not really. These people might be busy ordering stuff from Amazon, checking Facebook or writing their paper in Microsoft Word. So, Big Tech, the GAFAM, is what I mean! Nope. The range of experience I want to indicate is broader than this and yet identifiable as one. It includes the GAFAM, the user interface of Instagram, the push notification, the “pull to refresh” behavior, the expectation that a note written on your phone will be also accessible from your laptop, the Tik Tok hype and the Facebook tedium, the App Store and Google Play, the new release of Mac OS, Twitter Bootstrap, Mark Zuckerberg saying that VR is the future, your friend’s surprise when they find out you don’t have a Whatsapp account, and the list can continue indefinitely. This very blog, with its Medium.com clone layout, is part of this.

This portion of reality, this culture, can not only be described cumulatively, as I just did, but also negatively, namely, by pointing out what is not. One name comes to mind: Richard Stallman. The way he does his computing is antipodal to this culture.

I’m pretty aware I didn’t do a great job in explaining what I mean, but I’m confident I gave a good sense of it. And things are not black and white: are Slack or Twitch part of this culture? I’m not sure.

I believe that a good way to speak of something is to name it. So here’s some names:

  • Mainstream Computing
  • the Anti-Stallman
  • the Technium (in Kevin Kelly’s words “the greater, global, massively interconnected system of technology vibrating around us”, brr)
  • GAFAMondo
  • The Generalist Software-Hardware Continuum
  • The IThing (from the horror movie)
  • Normie Computerdom
  • Platform Consensus
  • Computer Convenientism
  • Hegemonic Computing
  • Platform Defaultism

None of them is satisfying. A few might sound derogatory (Normie Computerdom), some too obscure (IThing), or too narrow (GAFAMondo). Some are just silly (the Anti-Stallman). Most of them simply don’t sound good. However, among these there is one that, as Fionnáin pointed out, has potential: Computer Convenientism. I’m reminded of a 2005 essay by Paul Graham:

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. If Web-based software wins, it will be because it’s more convenient. And it looks as if it will be, for users and developers both.

This term has the advantage of suggesting a rationale for today’s computer culture, or more precisely, monoculture, as David Benqué suggested. The rationale is an economic, efficientist one. It’s about seamlessness and straightforwardness. Alex Galloway puts it nicely: “There is one game in town: a positivistic dominant of reductive, systemic efficiency and expediency”. Makes sense to me.

I turned to the Fediverse for help and I generously got some nice ideas (thank y’all!), each one valid in its way because it highlights one of the aspects of such monoculture. Examples of that are Human-Centered Hells or The Californian Cloud Consensus by rra. Both of them emphazise the monoculture’s ideological roots in a discipline (service/interaction design) and in a specific part of the world (California).

I end this list, which you find in full at the bottom, with Brendan Howell’s proposals, that are so vivid that don’t need commenting:

  • The Valley of Wretched Conformity
  • Commodity Cameraderie
  • General Acceptance Fault
  • Virtual Suburbia
  • Inhuman Resources
  • The Motherfucking Shitstack

Instead of choosing one term once and for all, I’m going to briefly discuss some qualities of the monoculture these terms are meant to signify.

  • Hardware + Software: the monoculture involves both. I think for instance of the relationship between the Kindle as device and online Kindle Store.
  • Present + Future: the monoculture takes place now, but it includes more or less plausible visions of the future. I think of the VR picture with Mark Zuckerberg.
  • Platforms + the Rest: they play a big role in shaping the monoculture and therefore users’ conditions. I think of how much the current appearance of the whole web has been shaped by Bootstrap.
  • UX UI IT HCI, etc.: lot of autonomous fields contribute to the monoculture
  • Tecnologies + Practices: the monoculture is not just about the way things work but also how are they used, not used, or expected to function

Full list

  • Mainstream Computing
  • the Anti-Stallman
  • the Technium (in Kevin Kelly’s words “the greater, global, massively interconnected system of technology vibrating around us”, brr)
  • GAFAMondo
  • The Generalist Software-Hardware Continuum
  • The IThing
  • Normie Computerdom
  • Platform Consensus
  • Computer Convenientism
  • Hegemonic Computing
  • Platform Defaultism
  • Computer Monoculture
  • The Valley of Wretched Conformity
  • Commodity Cameraderie
  • General Acceptance Fault
  • Virtual Suburbia
  • Inhuman Resources
  • The Motherfucking Shitstack
  • Abilene Computing (from the Abilene paradox)
  • Human-Centered Hells
  • Californian Cloud Consensus
  • Computational Realism
 

Silvio Lorusso

Silvio Lorusso is a designer witouth qualities, an artst without a gallery and a writer without spell cheker. Get his first book, entitled Entreprecariat, here!

 

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