Snowden, Usability, and Institutional Analysis

Friday 2014-01-24 16:00 -08:00

from the pivot dept.

A landscape photo of a protest in Germany, where several people are wearing Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden masks.
A landscape photo of a protest in Germany, where several people are wearing Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden masks.
Mike Herbst (Berlin, Germany) for Wikimedia Commons, CC Attribution Sharealike 2.0 Unported

It’s been over half a year since my previous post.

I was going to tell you about the drive crash I had last summer, and how it wiped me out for a few months (never trust your backups, ever!) But the real reason I stopped writing is irrelevance. Let me explain.

When I started this blog, I wanted to promote usability advances. But while important, these don’t interest me nearly as much as what I began privately calling ‘socio-usability’, or the study of how usability is already being used to further specific policy goals. I read The Dictator’s Learning Curve, and independently began learning about institutional analysis. Thus I realized that ‘socio-usability’ already had a name.

And then Chelsea Manning’s trial happened. And the Snowden NSA revelations happened, and kept happening, like an enormous tuning fork of horror, ringing out its totalitarian message throughout the newfallen darkness. It took out groklaw, and I guess, in a much less noble way, myself as well. I stopped writing because I realized my whole chosen topic was beside the point.

I realized then that I needed to write about the relationship between social control, convenience, and user interface design. This field, when it does not specifically involve computer user interfaces, is called institutional analysis. Although it is standardly not interested in the works of traditional usability—it has roots in activism rather than captialism—it should be. It and UX theory have much to teach each other. I want to help with this.

I am also lucky enough to be working professionally in the NSA mitigation field: post-Snowden, my employer (who is, like me, Canadian) requested that I move several key systems in-house. I now make my bread improvising solutions to the massive holes the NSA has drilled in the network’s security system. This makes me proud, but also vividly aware of the significance of Snowden’s revelations.

Originally, this blog was concerned with one thing: The interface between humans and computers. But now we will open the spotlight slightly. We now focus on the relationship between humanity and computers. Call this ‘HCR’ if you like, but it’s really just institutional analysis, but pointed at the most contemporary manifestation of bureaucracy. This is a much more important conversation to have right now than traditional HCI. Who gives a crap how easily I can apply one of twenty-six distinct photographic effects to my Instagram snapshots, when it has just been announced that it is the NSA that is compiling the yearbook? Who wants to be the next Arar? We know now that the shenanigans begun by that administration continue uninterrupted. ‘Hope’ indeed.

Going forward, we have one agenda, one single article of faith: the network must be usable by humans. And human beings have human rights. Like privacy. Like personal security.

I’m with the leakers–and so are your interests, citizen, no matter what your personal politics might be. Onward.

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