Queering Our Interface
“Queering Our Interface” is a project born out of my fascination with the internet that blossomed from a very early age. The internet in the early aughts seemed to be a space of great potential, a space that allowed me to explore myself effortlessly and seemingly free of consequences. In an article entitled “Remembering The Golden Age of Queer Internet”, Sofia Barnett-Ibarria writes about websites like Tumblr, LiveJournal, and even Neopets’ ability to help young millenials explore their sexuality and gender identity. The anonymity and ephemeral nature of the internet seemed to permit users to explore and discover themselves through a platform that itself was constantly evolving. In fact, the word “queer” is often defined in such terms; Naomi Clark aptly described the word “queer” as being “in a constant process of mutation, inherently unfixed.” The shape-shifting identities of young queer people on the internet, like myself, thrived in the similarly amorphous landscape of the internet. Queerness values self-exploration, unconditional human connection, “freedom to be public”, experimentation, taking the time to find oneself, and change. While some might use the word interchangeably with an LGBTQ+ identity, this is often inaccurate. Clark notes that the word itself is “inextricably bound up with the idea of resisting dominant, naturalized narratives and categories”, she continues, “queer comes with a politic.” Using the word queer is a choice, as reclamation of a once prominent slur. Its use erases individualism, in a sense, suggesting a collectivity under a common enemy. Queerness is specifically anti-normativity in a world that prizes work and money above all else, leaving little room for identities or activities not focused on gaining capital. The internet of the time made room for experimentation, play, and inconsistency largely because the internet had not been discovered yet as the moneymaking tool we now know it to be.
Though, as the internet grew in popularity, it became abundantly clear that its potential for profitability was immense. Living in America already meant an existence steeped in capitalism, and of course, the internet was no exception. Both corporations and people are incentivized to be profit-driven above all else, or risk a life of hardship. The limitlessness of capitalism means that no potential for gain is overlooked, and today we see a very different internet, one that is wholly commercialized.
Capitalism’s entrenchment in the internet has made a digital queer existence more difficult. Part of the opposition to queerness comes with its inherent threat to a capitalist agenda. Gender and heteronormativity work to ultimately ensure profit; They normalize a specific lifestyle that encourages and necessitates unending labor to support a traditional nuclear family. Any divergence from this norm creates space for a narrative not centered around capitalism. In short, when money is on the table, queerness becomes a threat to a system that revolves around capital.
My work is a response to this shift in our digital spaces. What foundational elements enabled this shift? How might we begin to address the harm done by this pervasive digital hetero/gendernormativity? Lastly, what might we do to reclaim our digital space? In order to investigate these questions I decided to start at the root and explore how human/computer interactions are manifestations of hetero/gendernormativity.
Interface is often how the average, non-technical computer user experiences code, and functions as the primary site of interaction between humans and computers. Interface presents code in ways that are metaphorical, drawing on symbols that reflect these underlying norms. For example, “desktop”, “files”, or “folders” are metaphors that align neatly with components of office work of white-collar employees. These metaphors emphasize that the computer is a tool meant for work, thus serving as tools for efficiency, productivity, or utility. Originally the computer did exist solely in that kind of context, but while the use of our computers has expanded, these metaphors endure. Because interface is so heavily guided by the value systems of the world it was built in, it brings our society’s conceptions of normativity into its functionality and therefore into our digital world. My work explores interface as a site for reinforcing normativity and therefore excluding queer-identified people who do not follow these norms. Existing in such a space as a queer person, much like existing in the real world, can mean facing instances of erasure, shame, and aggression baked into the elements of our digital existence. More concretely, these instances might take the form of a nonbinary person being required to select “male” or “female” when registering for a popular social media site, to a trans woman exclusively finding pornographic results when using a mainstream engine to search for trans communities. These sorts of examples are prevalent on the internet, but they point to a deeper logic of capitalism. This logic is fundamentally opposed to the values of queerness; it prioritizes the gaining of capital over being and searching for the truest version of oneself. A common male/female drop down interface is not just an oversight, but a profit calculation. In the former example, having users select binary genders serves advertisers. The classification of a person registering for a site as “male” or “female” allows advertisers to continue to market based upon what they believe that user might buy. “Nonbinary” as a variable, on the other hand, does not have the arsenal of research, data, and case studies reinforcing what people in this category might purchase, or at least not yet. Regarding the latter example, this is also a form of profitability. People using this search term are more likely to click on links to pornography, rendering a profit for both the advertiser and the pornography site. Community-oriented sites are likely clicked on, on average, by fewer people and likely do not turn a profit in the same way as pornography sites.
My work is interested in the foundational elements that enable and encourage this opposition to queerness. This work focuses specifically on queering the human/computer relationship. I argue that the human/computer relationship that Americans view as normal is one that is based on a patriarchal, utilitarian and transactional view of what a relationship should look like. These traits are all characteristic of heteronormativity. For example, traditionally a man isexpected to be the breadwinner in a heterosexual relationship, serving to provide for a family that is tended to by his wife. The transaction here lies in the exchange of providing financially for a family on the assumption that a woman tends to the needs of her husband both physically and emotionally. This emotional and physical work is assumed; here it is not a choice but a necessity for survival. In today’s world the role of men and women are not quite as strict, but still feature this power dynamic when men, on average, earn more money than women. This kind of financial power is still unequal, rendering a power imbalance within the model heteronormative relationship. While heteronormativity privileges heterosexuality, heteronormativity can affect people of any sexual orientation because it is prescriptive about the strict roles an individual can occupy in any given relationship. The interaction we have with our computers models this hierarchical power dynamic: the human user gives a command and the computer is expected to dutifully respond. Any resistance in the form of freezing or lag is often met with anger. I instead attempt to cultivate a new kind of relationship: one that is born out of unconditional love, subverts a hierarchical power dynamic, is non-transactional, and works to establish mutual caretaking, all elements of a relationship that are uncharacteristic of a traditional heteosexual relationship. In order to achieve this, I have built four Google Chrome extensions that attempt to manipulate interface elements featured across various websites to cultivate these qualities in the computer/human relationship. All four of my extensions attempt to address a specific interface element and queer its functionality.
“Queering Our Interface” is preceded by the work of thinkers, writers, makers and activists like Zach Blas, Jack Halberstam, Adrienne Shaw, Naomi Clark, Merritt Kopas and so many others. Particularly, Zach Blas’ “Queer Technologies” served as a catalyst for my work. Blas writes about queer technology as a necessity to counter a society increasingly defined by technology. He asks, “is there a subcultural technology that offers empowering, subversive structures and processes to all bodies, producing a freedom that exists as fact—a freedom that is foreign to no one?” might creating queer technology, specifically technology that subverts or resists these power paradigms, carve out a space for all kinds of oppressed people to find safety and freedom in their existence? How might we strip these paradigms of the power they hold? Queer theory, to me, and approaching queerness as an embodied resistance, can be applied to interface as a means to digitally embody resistance to its implicit hetero/gendernormativity.
Blas also writes, “I think Queer Technologies want to work in the interstices of useful and useless, or to find new uses through the useless.”. Heteronormativity expects relationships to be utilitarian in nature. A heterosexual relationship is expected to be “useful” for both parties; The aforementioned transactional nature of heterosexuality is bound up in this utility. If the relationship does not provide, for example, if a woman cannot cook, or a man has little money, it may be critiqued as a less desirable relationship. Queer relationships, and particular relationships that do not follow a heteronormative script, are not explicitly trasactional and may be criticized as useless for this reason. Jack Halberstam’s Queer Art of Failure also examines the critique of homosexuality as inutile. Historically queerness has been viewed as existing outside of the traditional narrative of growing up, finding love, having children, and providing for your family so that they can one day do it all again. Queer people have been excluded from this narrative in a number of ways. Because heterosexuality is assumed as the default, queer people often do not form relationships until later in life, and children or family that they do have does not mirror the typical family structure. This diversion from the norm often casts queer people as “failed” in this respect. Halberstam writes, “we can also recognize failure as a way of refusing to acquiesce to dominant logics of power and discipline and as a form of critique.” Failure is typically not acknowledged as potential in this way. Failing to live the “ideal” life permits one to give up fighting a system that is inherently not built for queer people. Failure grants us permission to instead not quite know, to experiment, to find alternative forms of success. Queerness can therefore be seen as breaking free from a traditional success narrative, and giving oneself permission to seek fulfilment on one’s own terms.
When applied to our human/computer relationship, we typically cast “success” here in very concrete terms. Success, in a technological sense, often lies in the usefulness of a piece of technology. The more “useful”, often defined as automated, efficient, or fast, the more power technology holds. Using Halberstam’s notion of failure as a guide, I wanted to create interface elements that also rejected utility, and encouraged a human/computer relationship that is similarly “useless”. Just as failure allows us to redefine success for ourselves, reimagining interface permits us to reject the capitalist markers of success, and ultimately redefine the values that guide our human/computer relationship.
My creative process started simply with the question “how might technology express queerness?”, inspired by Zach Blas’ Queer Technologies. I embarked on this journey by writing a simple script to randomly pair words together from two sets: one containing words related to “technology” and one of “expressions of queerness”. My list of technologies casts a wide net, focusing on digital technologies that the average technology-user might come in contact with. Though I ultimately decided to focus on interface, and specifically interface design on the internet, I wanted to leave room to explore other avenues. My list ranged from interface design elements, such as radio buttons, to larger technologies such as programming languages. The expressions of queerness, on the other hand, featured a list of words that veered away from the capitalist markers we typically associated with technology. Instead of listing words like “fast”, “efficient”, or “powerful”, I focused on words that were amorphous, unfixed, and decidedly human in contrast. My list included words like “curiosity”, “mischievousness”, and “promiscuity”. My script resulted in several randomly generated prompts following the form “how might [technology] express [queerness]?”. My reason for randomization here permitted me to avoid pairing technologies with expressions of queerness that I thought might be an interesting pair. Instead, I was set on letting the computer decide for me, pushing me to create outside of my preconceived notions. The following is a list of prompts, brief descriptions, and images of the prototypes that came out of my initial round of experimentation. Each prototype, while clarifying my concept, also provoked additional questions that led me to a clearer understanding of my goals for this work.
1. How might close buttons express connection?
This work led me to think more deeply about the act of closing. On a human scale, the act of saying goodbye or seeking closure carries a lot of weight. The act of closing in digital space can feel capricious and inconsequential; often it is reversible. Modern design standards prioritize indestructible design, or design that allows an accidental closing, deleting, or erasing to be undone. In most browsers the shortcut [command/control + shift + t] revives the most recently closed tab. This is often regarded as a “life-saving feature”, but are there implications for how this feature might translate over to our physical lives? How might our cavalier closing be reflected in the way we carelessly treat someone we love, for example? These questions informed the design of this particular prototype. Figure 1 demonstrates how I chose to ritualize the act of closing. At the end of a tab or a browser window’s life, the browser delivers its human counterpart a message containing a memory from their time together (in URL form), a brief thank you for the birth and death of these windows, and a numerical identifier. How might creating a mindfulness surrounding the relationships we so easily create and terminate with our browser windows instead cultivate care and intention around their summoning?
2. How might icons express a bedtime ritual?
Care, in a human sense, does not conventionally exist digitally. The act of caretaking for our computers is often in service of performance, rather than its growth or happiness. Human-to-living entity caretaking does not translate over to the digital world in part because of the lack of infrastructure encouraging it. We cannot take our icons on a virtual walk, for example, or enable a mechanism that allows them to hear us when we greet them good morning. This prototype instead envisions a world where turning off our computers at the end of the night becomes a nighttime ritual for computers as well as their human counterparts. In my prototype (Fig.2) I imagined a desktop background depicting a room with a setting sun, icons littering the floors and virtual shelves. As one’s time on the computer comes to an end, one methodically takes each icon and puts them in their virtual bed. When all icons have been put in bed, one turns the brightness of their computer all the way down, and closes the laptop. It felt important to me to take something as intimate, as parental, as tucking someone into bed and apply that to the machine we spend so much time with throughout the day. How might our relationship to our computer change if we were in charge of gently waking it up every morning or putting it to sleep?
3. How might push-notifications express promiscuity?
What if our push notifications, while still representing information about the influx of notifications on our phones, also moved around freely to have relationships with one another? Figure 4 depicts an iPhone covered with red dots to indicate push notifications. In part, I wondered if the nagging feeling of needing to relieve our notifications might disappear if they were not so dependent on us. Perhaps the little number that populates their being isn’t a tool for our own purposes. Instead, the number represents their happiness, or number of partners, or maybe something altogether unquantifiable. Ultimately I wanted to reimagine an interface element that typically relies on us, as an entity that has its own sexual and romantic desires, and is able to act freely on them. How might viewing our push-notifications as autonomous creatures change their presence in our lives? Would their existence come to be meaningful in another way to us?
4. How might switches/levers/buttons express purposelessness?
I allowed this particular prototype’s emphasis to be on “play”. Though play is often regarded as an important part of child development or innovation, for example, I wanted to render purposeless design elements that are conventionally thought of as purely utilitarian by transforming them into tools meant exclusively for play. I took a traditional Windows 95 properties window and reduced the input mechanisms on the screen to only their animations. Buttons could pop in and out but execute no function, levers could be aimlessly moved up and down, or radio buttons could be selected and deselected at will. My intent was purely to draw attention to the physicality that these elements emulate. The act of playing with them was meant to be purely experimental, as if this window existed solely for the purpose of tweaking elements to see the results. What if all “functional” input was solely for play?
5. How might a cursor express mediumship?
Here I invite the user to envision the relationship with spirits that a medium might have, to one that a cursor might have to what we presume are “dead” bits of code, text, hyperlinks, etc. This prototype stores browser history data and at random displays bits of the code, text, and links from previous browsing sessions that “haunt” the cursor as the human browsing the internet navigates from page to page. Each “ghost” that appears sets its own time limit for remaining on screen, and some even remain for the duration of an entire browsing session. Ultimately, this haunting asks that the person browsing acknowledge their history and serves as an interpretive exercise of sorts, giving human users room to speculate as to why certain “ghosts” appear on certain webpages, for certain amounts of time, etc. Commonly, though browsers store and display browsing history, users can easily delete it or avoid seeing more than the title of the page they once visited. This prototype imagines a world in which browsers ask that users confront their history for the duration of each and every browsing experience. How might knowing this confrontation will occur change the way humans choose to browse the internet?
6. How might a click express a change in perspective?
What might it mean for an interface that mediates our physical and digital selves to change our perspective? In some ways, a click already does this. Clicks open software, move us from hyperlink to hyperlink, or help us better understand and manipulate our digital landscapes. Because the prompt is vague, I chose to represent a change in perspective visually, and in this case, I opted to have it affect the way that we see the internet. The prototype I created existed as a Google Chrome extension and actively manipulated the content on each website visited. Fig. 6 shows an example in which content on the site Stack Overflow is manipulated. The site allows users to pose a question (often programming related) and crowdsources answers from members of the website. Though helpful, Stack Overflow often features self-appointed “computer experts” calling out inexperienced programmers. With each click, my prototype rearranges the nodes of text on the page. The spots on the page reserved for the question may be replaced with the copyright date, a snarky answer with a promoted post, etc. This prototype in some way felt particularly empowering, in part because the click of a mouse could move an aggressive answer from being highlighted at the top of the page, to occupying a space as the footer. How might this kind of power affect the way we consume content on the internet?
7. How might hyperlinks express shyness?
Like establishing a bedtime ritual for icons, this prompt also centered on the caretaking of hyperlinks who behave as if they are shy. In this prototype, taking the form of a Google Chrome extension, the human interacting must move their cursor incredibly slowly to interact with hyperlinks. Otherwise, fast cursor movements cause hyperlinks to temporarily shed their click-through ability and shrink down to an incredibly small size. Once the cursor movement slows, the hyperlinks grow back to their original size and regain clickthrough abilities. The element of trust is crucial in this work. In order to ask a hyperlink to carry a human from one site to another, in this case, one must earn the trust of the hyperlink and spend the time it takes to understand their sensitivities. The anthropomorphic aspect is critical here because it asks that humans read into the behavior of the entity they are interacting with. How might taking the time to understand these “creatures” extend to how we view the traits of other interface elements? Could our browsing habits change to accommodate these traits?
8. How might touchscreens express warmth?
My final prototype examines what it might mean for a touchscreen, an interface that also mediates our physical and digital selves, to express warmth. A warm device often means that the processor is hard at work, and the device is generating heat. While warmth might be generated physically by the machine, how might we, as humans, both appreciate this warmth as evidence of hard work on the part of the computer, and also show warmth in return. This prototype exists as a Google Chrome extension and, every so often, redirects the browser to a black screen. Text on the screen encourages those browsing to seek out the warm spots with their fingers, taking a moment to appreciate their computer’s labor. Through touch, my hope was to make this prototype one of intimacy and acknowledgement, while also engaging in a mutual cooldown exercise with one’s computer. This project begins to envision a world in which one’s computer asks for physical connection during a particularly strenuous time, as one might do with a romantic partner or friend. How might the role of communication between digital and physical realms, and asking for what one wants, change the way we expect our computer to behave?
As technology like voice assistants or artificial intelligence continue to advance, our machines are increasingly being designed to become more human. Yet we still treat them as tools. While my work argues that hetero- and gender normativity are reflected in these interfaces, I wonder if any of our society’s progress toward inclusion is mitigated by continuing to design our technology in this way. While the values that we live by in the physical world affect the design of our digital one, how might the digital in turn manipulate our physical world?
My intention for this work is to push for a shift in digital space that is simultaneously intimate and jarring, speaking to the queer experience. There’s intimacy in understanding oneself, knowing one’s community, and allowing oneself to exist outside of traditional norms, but that also wars with the oppressive nature of coming face to face with these very norms. Those who do not experience this kind of digital resistance to their identity may feel that interacting with this work renders their computer foreign and unnavigable. For me, and for people who might have similar experiences, our online spaces may have felt this way for a long time; my hope is that these tools dislodge the stilted, rote nature of our interface and provide an element of agency to those who need it. Just as queer theory might illuminate queerness in a very binaried and heteronormative world, my hope is that applying this same framework to the digital spaces that are similaly binaried can help to release us from the grip of these rigid digital structures. I would like to imagine that my project is part of a world where we can modify our personal technology to begin to collectively imagine what an alternative future might look like. I intend for this project to expand into a repository of sorts where people of all kinds can add their own queer interfaces.
James Bridle addresses the potential that lies in the unknown, a quote that aptly describes the intent of my work, “We have been conditioned to think of the darkness as a place of danger, even of death. But the darkness can also be a place of freedom and possibility, a place of equality. For many, what is discussed here will be obvious, because they have always lived in this darkness that seems so threatening to the privileged. We have much to learn about unknowing. Uncertainty can be productive, even sublime.”