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Transparent Designs

Personal Computing and the Politics of User-Friendliness

Michael L. Black

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This fascinating cultural history of the personal computer explains how user-friendly design allows tech companies to build systems that we cannot understand.

Modern personal computers are easy to use, and their welcoming, user-friendly interfaces encourage us to see them as designed for our individual benefit. Rarely, however, do these interfaces invite us to consider how our individual uses support the broader political and economic strategies of their designers.

In Transparent Designs, Michael L. Black revisits early debates from hobbyist newsletters, computing magazines, user manuals, and…

This fascinating cultural history of the personal computer explains how user-friendly design allows tech companies to build systems that we cannot understand.

Modern personal computers are easy to use, and their welcoming, user-friendly interfaces encourage us to see them as designed for our individual benefit. Rarely, however, do these interfaces invite us to consider how our individual uses support the broader political and economic strategies of their designers.

In Transparent Designs, Michael L. Black revisits early debates from hobbyist newsletters, computing magazines, user manuals, and advertisements about how personal computers could be seen as usable and useful by the average person. Black examines how early personal computers from the Tandy TRS-80 and Commodore PET to the IBM PC and Apple Macintosh were marketed to an American public that was high on the bold promises of the computing revolution but also skeptical about their ability to participate in it. Through this careful archival study, he shows how many of the foundational principles of usability theory were shaped through disagreements over the languages and business strategies developed in response to this skepticism. In short, this book asks us to consider the consequences of a computational culture that is based on the assumption that the average person does not need to know anything about the internal operations of the computers we've come to depend on for everything.

Expanding our definition of usability, Transparent Designs examines how popular and technical rhetoric shapes user expectations about what counts as usable and useful as much as or even more so than hardware and software interfaces. Offering a fresh look at the first decade of personal computing, Black highlights how the concept of usability has been leveraged historically to smooth over conflicts between the rhetoric of computing and its material experience. Readers interested in vintage computing, the history of technology, digital rhetoric, or American culture will be fascinated in this book.

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Transparent Designs

Michael L. Black

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Reviews

I unequivocally endorse Michael Black's Transparent Designs. Across multiple contexts and theories, Black traces the concept of 'easy-to-use' in user design. A fascinating and useful read for many fields, including design, sociology, computer science, communication, rhetoric, and history, Black's argument reveals how we are influenced by hidden designs and interfaces in our digitally mediated world. Black's story is a must read for anyone interested in how 'easy' technology is not easy at all.

In this necessary and insightful book, Michael L. Black reveals how our current conception of user-friendliness, tied intimately to notions of transparent design and restriction of user choices, came about historically. Black forces a reconsideration of the degree to which our computers are truly personal and whether they should even be friendly.

This provocative book turns the concept of 'user-friendliness' inside out, revealing a struggle for power in the design of everyday software. Black compels us to imagine a new model of usability that confronts the complexity and frank injustices of our computing environment.

In this deeply researched and compelling historical study, Black takes a sledgehammer to lazy associations of early personal computers with countercultural politics and personal liberation. Instead, the young industry committed to 'user-friendliness,' 'appliance computing,' and 'transparency'—all of which meant preventing users from understanding or controlling how their computers worked.

About

Book Details

Publication Date
Status
Available
Trim Size
6
x
9
Pages
280
ISBN
9781421443539
Illustration Description
4 b&w photos, 2 b&w illus.
Table of Contents

Acknowledgments
Introduction. The Politics of User-Friendliness
Chapter 1. On the Origins of User-Friendliness
Chapter 2: The Sources of the Personal Computer Revolution
Chapter 3: Appliance Computing

Acknowledgments
Introduction. The Politics of User-Friendliness
Chapter 1. On the Origins of User-Friendliness
Chapter 2: The Sources of the Personal Computer Revolution
Chapter 3: Appliance Computing: The Revolution Comes Home
Chapter 4: IBM, Apple, and a Computer Literacy Crisis
Chapter 5: The Human Factor
Coda: Imagining an Unfriendly Future
Notes
Index

Author Bio
Michael L. Black
Featured Contributor

Michael L. Black

Michael L. Black (LOWELL, MA) is an assistant professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.