more from the
Jan/Feb 2015 issue:
by David Reinfurt (O-R-G)
Logistics Make the World
by Jesse LeCavalier
by Shumon Basar
by Barry Bergdoll
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ON VERNACULAR COMPUTING
Text / Jacob Gaboury
A manifesto confronts the ways we actually use technology.
On September 9, 2014, in Cupertino, California, Apple unveiled the newest product in its hardware lineup: the Apple Watch. The event marked the company's
entrance into the growing field of smart watches, and was met with anticipation, speculation, and enthusiasm by industry and consumers alike. The watch,
Apple suggested, was designed to "embrace individuality and inspire desire," an object "as simple and pure as [it is] functional." Building on a platform
and style that have been instilled in users for almost a decade through iPhone devices and applications, the Apple Watch promises the future in a familiar
form, waiting to be seamlessly integrated into the lives and onto the bodies of its users.
In recent years the design of computer hardware and software has increasingly followed the maxim set forth by Steve Krug in 2000, an insistence
that above all, Don't Make Me Think.1 At the time, Krug was writing about web usability as that technology was undergoing a dramatic transformation,
from the early vernacular web2 of the home page, the web ring, and the chat room to our contemporary social web, in which news feeds are curated,
information aggregated, and "likes" tabulated. Krug's maxim was a push for simplicity and intuition over complexity or multiplicity, and its basic
principles have become acutely visible in the clean lines, bright colors, and minimalist aesthetic of contemporary digital devices. Although Apple
may exemplify this trend, the entire field of user interface design has become devoted to this pursuit, streamlining the paths through which users
navigate and use their technologies, with each click and gesture anticipated and designed for.
Of course, design is not without politics. Advocates, authors, and technologists from Cory Doctorow to Richard Stallman have pushed back against
this trend, insisting on the right to open and tinker with devices through competing mantras like "Screws Not Glue."3 In lieu of encapsulation and
walled gardens they propose hacking and making as a kind of critical practice. We must take charge of our tools, they insist, building software,
hardware, and objects that suit our individual needs and desires. Theirs is a push toward mastery and control concerned with the unique needs of
a deeply liberal subject.
Together these competing philosophies form a confused dialectic in which freedom either necessitates total mastery of our devices or complete
acquiescence to the logic of their design.4 Hacker or user? Open or closed? Ultimately these are questions of intent and
idealization. Each makes a claim about what technology is for, and in doing so suggests who may use that technology and how. They are the questions that
shape the way we design our future.
And yet these binary distinctions erase the vast majority of ways people use and understand their computers, phones, and digital devices. Recall
the last time you watched a parent stubbornly double click a hypertext link. Or the last email you received with a massive image attachment sent
sideways at full resolution. Text messages that end "Love, Grandma." Chain emails that are 90% header text, their path through the Net laid bare in
an almost endless string of Fwd: Fwd: Fwd: Fwd: Fwd:. Each of these exemplifies the everyday practice I term "vernacular computing," a form of life
that is obstinate and pervasive.5 It is a use that refuses to change or to understand, which lingers long after it should, which remains despite all
insistence to the contrary.
And it is important. While design may train us in particular forms of ideal use, or allow us to optimize our lives by integrating newer and more
efficient tools, most features of any new technology are more often than not misunderstood, misused, or ignored. It is here that vernacular computing
persists, incapable of update. It is an embodied practice, emerging from the memory of platforms past – an insistence on an earlier logic remembered.
Tolerated but dysfunctional, it is confused and difficult to capture. It cannot be made productive as designed use or elite practice.
For some this behavior is simply rude or incorrect. It is something that should be rooted out over time as operating systems update and software is no
longer supported. Its solution is proper design and education. It is not something to encourage or examine.
Yet in vernacular computing there lies a powerful critique of the way we imagine technology to function. Until now the debate around design and use
assumed that users were either mindless vessels for input and output or transgressive hacker-makers; but this binary is false. Both are idealized and
deeply political positions that are largely uncritical of technology as a social good or individual need. Vernacular computing has no explicit politics.
It has no ideology. It simply stumbles forward, texting, clicking, dragging, typing; and yet it forms the basis for an entire economy of use. It is the
labor that makes possible targeted advertising and direct marketing. It is the path along which spam, viruses, and bugs travel and multiply. In vernacular
computing we find the mundane everyday of technology's use and design – that which we simultaneously exploit and disavow.
While we may hope for a perfect system that conforms to the needs of every user, or for users who take control of their own de-
vices and RTFM
(Read The Fucking Manual), the majority of users have no need for such things and will, without intention or desire, break and abuse every device or system.
If we continue to insist that our tools are neutral channels through which we express our individual desires, we misunderstand the way tools
inform and limit their own use. In ignoring the vernacular computing of everyday users, or in dismissing vernacular computing as poor or misinformed,
we persist in the assumption that the solution to technology's problems is simply more and better technology. We assume that failure is a human flaw
and that it can be designed and hacked away. Not so, suggests your mother as she comments on a Facebook post you had written to wish a friend happy birthday:
Jacob Gaboury is an Assistant Professor of Digital Media and Visual Culture at Stony Brook University and a staff writer for Rhizome.org.
1. Steve Krug, Don't Make Me Think (San Francisco: New Riders Publishing, 2000).
2. The culture of this early web is explored in detail in Olia Lialina's "A Vernacular Web," which served
in part as inspiration for this piece. See art.teleportacia.org/observation/vernacular
3. See for example Cory Doctorow's "Why I won't buy an iPad (and think you shouldn't, either)," Boing Boing,
April 2, 2010, boingboing.net/2010/04/02/why-i-wont-buy-an-ipad-and-think-yo.html
4. This conflation is explored in detail in Wendy Chun's Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age
of Fiber Optics (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005).
5. I see a great deal of commonality between this work and Brian Droitcour's "Vernacular Criticism," though
this piece was conceived prior to the publication of Droitcour's article. See thenewinquiry.com/essays/vernacular-criticism