Niels Kerssens: Politics of Use: Computer Application as Culture-Technical Configuration (2012-2015)

Niels Kerssens | Amsterdam School of Cultural Analysis (ASCA), University of Amsterdam, Department of Mediastudies | José van Dijck (Promotor) and Bernhard Rieder (Co-Promotor) | January 2012 – December 2015 | N.Kerssens[at]uva[dot]nl

In the midst of new media usage being dominated by ‘apps’, this project examines the historico-political dimensions of personal computer application, or, in more general terms, the utilitarian computing practice now simply known as use. These dimensions are examined through the exploration of use as culture-technical configuration, which principles of organization, arguably, are fundamental to a contemporary app culture that has the user as its main subject, the computer as central technology, and application as its core practice.

As a culture-technical history of computer use, central to this project, however, is not the historical formation of a technological object – the personal computer – nor that of a human subject – the user – but the study of personal computing as utilitarian practice. In other words, historicized are applications – practices of use – key to the utilization of the personal computer. On the basis of a vast array of source material from (once) popular computer magazines and books tuned to the computer user, such applications are approached as culture-technical configurations, with use examined as a historically situated nexus of interconnected ideas, processes, techniques and technologies.

In each of three case studies the configuration of an application key to the formation of personal computing is critically examined. To grasp the specificities of each configuration, the application is approached as re­-configuration of a closely affiliated computer practice that historically preceded it. In the first case study (1970s-80s) word processing is examined as reconfiguration of an earlier systems approach to electronic text production. The second case study (1980s) explores the productivity application as utilitarian reconfiguration of a former intellectual and educational practice of computer programming. The third case study (1980s-1990s) examines web browsing as reconfiguration of an earlier information retrieval practice connected to online database services.