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Unclean Interface: On Computing as a Cleanliness Problem

Date and Time: 
Tuesday, February 11, 2020. 05:00 PM - 07:00 PM
Meeting Location: 
Watt Dining Room
Digital Aesthetics: Critical Approaches to Computational Culture
Meeting Description: 

Histories of computing tend to focus on particular elements of computation (such as invention of computers; early PC use; interface design, or viruses), but this study aims to approach computing from a novel, alternative angle – mess. From the earliest advent and use of computers, mess has been a particularly thorny problem that gets defined differently in different contexts, across technologies and spaces, and through a variety of computing practices. Computing is inherently messy: screens, mice, disks and keyboards pick up dirt, dust and crumbs; messy bodies touch and handle computers day in and day out; air is full of unclean particles; and problems of humidity, temperature, and static are routine. At the level of software, too, metaphors of cleanliness and dirtiness persist in terms of “clean” design, “dirty” content or data, desktop icon organization, and fears over contagion and contamination from viruses and spam. By beginning from the vantage point of mess, it becomes possible to crystallize a very different history of computing driven from efforts to contain, control and eliminate dirt, to valorize cleanliness, and to enforce particular protocols, habits, and behaviors. In the messy interface between bodies, environments, software, and hardware one can find persistent concerns about what it means to be “human” and what it means to be “technology.” At the same time, this approach weaves in discussions of care, maintenance, and repair into computing, recognizing that innovation is not the only – or always most salient – way to understand human-technology relations, and that in fact much of everyday interactions with computers take place in acts of protection and cleaning. Innovation may also occur as a result of particular messiness problems, rather than the other way around. Lest we think of mess as a computing problem of the past (given ethereal metaphors of “cloud” computing and increasingly encased computing devices), recent examples of messiness demonstrate the ongoing problem of cleanliness in computing. A few representative cases include: Apple’s continued problems with its butterfly keyboard; concerns over “dirty” databases and how to clean big data; and the booming market for cases, screen protectors, and cleaning devices for tablets, laptops and smartphones

Rachel Plotnick is assistant professor in the Media School at Indiana University–Bloomington. Her book, Power Button: a History of Pleasure, Panic, and the Politics of Pushing, was published by MIT Press in 2018.