Dissertation

My dissertation historicizes and unsettles the concept of user-friendliness. This concept emerged from the field of interface design, but it has spread into digital writing pedagogy and practice, where I hope to intervene. Drawing on software studies, feminist theory, and new materialism, my dissertation argues that the deliberate disappearance of digital materiality, encouraged by revenue-generating innovations like Facebook’s “frictionless sharing” and Amazon’s “one-click buying,” is detrimental to inventive practice in new media.

The first section of my project demonstrates that to privilege user-friendliness is to enforce a misunderstanding of software code, which is and has always been error-prone and durably material. Building on recent contributions to media history, I position the turn to affordable interactive computing in the 1960s as a transformative shift in values within the field of computer science and the larger computer industry. Prior to this shift—during World War II and the decade following—computers were primarily number-crunchers complete with nests of wires, crews of (often female) attendants, and stacks of punched cards. Gradually, the development of operating systems and graphical interfaces took technical functionality out of the human user’s field of vision, replacing it with symbolic representations (icons, text boxes, buttons) of actions and objects. The principle of immateriality as a user experience emerged.

Having laid this historical groundwork, I then turn to my area of concern: writing studies in the 21st century. In the second section of my dissertation, I argue that rhetoric of user-friendliness encourages writers of all kinds to look for readymade composing surfaces and necessarily avoid frustration or difficulty. I use Jane Bennett’s notion of antimaterialism (2010) to help me illustrate experiential examples of how this hierarchical relationship to technology actively devalues ways that computers shape what is possible in writing and how that writing happens in a network of actors. When antimaterialism moves from interface design to the writing classroom or new media studio, lost is the rewarding encounter with the rough edged energy and difficulty of not only language, but also the stuff of composing.

The final section offers some correctives to user-friendly ideology. My approach in this section is to find alternatives to the strong, individualist agency that inheres within the figure of a purposeful user. Thus, I theorize feminist forms of writing that neglect values of control and coherency: the experimental metafiction of Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf; web-based glitch art and poetry; and source code of the Dreamwidth online journal platform. These texts disclose a heuristic for revising the relationship between users and writing technologies (screen- and paper-based) to be a more contemplative and open-minded one.