Queering the Universal User - a 'personal' reflection

This is a slightly edited version of an article I wrote a year ago for the House of Brag zine. House of Brag have run a number of queer social centres in London and are totally awesome – check them out.

A year or so ago, regular radio listeners may have noticed some adverts on the airwaves. They were full of bouncy music and “don’t you just hate it when …” anecdotes of the trials working life – unreasonable bosses, lost laptops, late trains – that we’ve all experienced. (Yes, even you. Especially you.) It announced Microsoft Office 365, ‘your complete office in the cloud’, proclaiming that “now everybody’s unique needs are met with just one solution!” Phew. Thank Gates for that.

Seriously though, I loved that slogan. I was grateful every time my radio alarm spat it out. I wanted to open a cloud-based MS Word document, type it out, print it (possibly in a different location to where I wrote it) and pin it above my desk workstation. I loved it because every time I heard it made me want to howl with FUCKING RAGE. The idea that any single software suite (let alone one created by Microsoft) could fulfil the desires (let’s not say needs, no one needs office software) of people with diverse bodies, histories, relations to the world is laughable, beyond ridiculous, and yet time and time again the corporate software industry gets away with spewing this drivel.

But seriously seriously, I do love it, all of it, because it stops me from forgetting how, behind the smokescreen of accessibility settings and personal preferences, much modern software creates a ‘you’ - in the form of a ‘user’ – which carries a whole set of assumptions about who this person is and what they want to use a computer for. It creates a band of possible activity (office worker, art worker, internet browser) and then proceeds to celebrate how fabulously unique you are within the narrow little strip they’ve provided for your existence. [1]

And while it might be possible to step outside of this, it’s policed on both sides – on the one the transformation of software writing into the intimidating tower of software engineering, and on the other through the figure of the pitiable, antisocial ‘geek’ who you’d never want to be like, would you? [2] And beyond this – when people say they are not technical, or they find computers difficult, I wonder if they could be internalising the fact that software technology was not designed with their bodies and desires in mind.

For me, this alone is reason enough to pursue a particular kind of queer computing, one that seeks to expose the alleged ‘universality’ of software platforms, in the same way other queer strategies can expose the workings of power in western-centric, cisgendered heteronormative patriarchy. (I’d note at this stage, my open source office software is underlining cisgendered and heteronormative as spelling mistakes).

When I reflect, though, perhaps the idea of ‘one solution’ fulfilling all needs was possibly key to the founding of computing. The 0 and 1 machines that underlie our networked economy are based on Turing’s Universal Machine, a device that, given infinite time, can compute all that is computable. And this universal machine has come to gobble up many (but perhaps not all) media forms – music, letter-writing, film, television, radio, novels, photography, even the production of many physical objects through computer-driven automation. It aspires, it seems, to be the universal media machine.

And yet when Alan Turing – himself a queer driven to suicide by an oppressive and ungrateful state – conceived of the universal computing machine, he did this to show that there were some things had to be outside of this, that some things could not be computed. [3]

What if we took a queered approach to computing, one which tried to undermine, subvert, queer the supposedly universal ‘user’ by attempting to strike out past what computation is or is supposed to be? What if we attempted to program the unprogrammable, the uncomputable, or else to use computers in complete contradiction to how we’ve been instructed to use them?

It’s a difficult territory to explore, because successful attempts to do something different within digital cultures are often swiftly snatched right back to serve capitalism. So my proposal is to fail, fail on purpose. To fail small at first, poke at the interfaces, use every program backwards, and work up from there, try to construct crazed logic gates, collapsing self-referential algorithms. But more – to bring these destabilising methods into contact with the technologies by which the universal user is constructed. And here the failure has to be spectacular if it’s to expose deeply embedded workings of power within digital culture.

This means fucking with more than just logins, email accounts, ‘personal preferences’, constraining software suites and social networks that only let you be one person with one name and one identity. It means going deeper, into the positive feedback loops that convince us that we’re always controlling these systems and never the other way round, that trick us into thinking that its ‘one solution’ is fulfilling our desires, rather than creating, shaping and structuring them.

Notes on writings lovingly pillaged:

1. This, and much of what follows, is heavily heavily indebted to Wendy Chun’s Programmed Visions: Software and Memory (2011, MIT Press) and Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fibre Optics (2006, MIT Press).

2. It’s been suggested that these two factors – the embedding of software in engineering, and the cultural stereotype of the geek – is part of what has been keeping women out of computing. Incidentally, in contradiction to the idea that we’re slowly becoming more equal, the number of women in computing actually has been going down and not up since the 1980s - take a look at Thomas J Misa (eds) Gender Codes: Why Women are Leaving Computing. (2010, Wiley).

3. I came across the connection between Turing’s queerness and his work through Jacob Gaboury’s articles: ‘A Queer History of Computing’ – parts 1-3, available here