I will be presenting at Theorizing the Web again this year! More information on this great conference: Theorizing the Web 2015. If you can’t make it, the conference will also be streamed online.
Rethinking Critiques of the Internet through the Anxieties of Web Professionals
Angela Kristin VandenBroek
While scholars and journalists focus on the anxieties of the public, the experience of professional web designers and developers involves anxieties that, although deeply implicated in the causes of public anxiety, may seem alien to most users and scholars. These anxieties stem from negotiating convoluted social and technical systems on a massive scale that are riddled with incommensurability and beleaguered by the misinformed expectations of users and clients. The immense collection of programming languages, standards, paradigms, frameworks, and software that make up the toolkits of designers and developers regularly introduce chaos rather than freedom and conflict rather than productivity. The large marketplace of incommensurable devices and software requires hacks, forks, and other unsustainable methods to make products function in expected ways across devices and platforms. And, the expectations of users, internal collaborators, and clients are generally based on their experiences of polished and simple client-side designs, which elevates their expectations of timeliness and technological possibility. For the web professionals who work within this milieu, the Internet can feel like an immense tangled landscape filled with precarious technologies and practices hidden in shadows that they must navigate with only the narrow light of their own experience while sprinting toward the next deadline.
Meanwhile anthropologists, sociologists, journalists, and other social commentators tend to focus on front-end user experiences (e.g Bernal 2005, Boellstorff 2008, and Golub 2010) and programmers working for pleasure or activism rather than for their livelihood (e.g. Coleman 2014, Kelty 2008, Lessig 2006, and Roig et al. 2014). This literature provides meaningful and fruitful space to discuss the politics and ethics of copyright, access rights, privacy rights, and the roles of technology in the lives of users. However, the scope of these attentions has left the perceptions of the Internet in scholarly discourse skewed toward the anxieties of users and scholars and has bolstered myths about the production of code as intentional, calculated, and mathematical. This often results in web professionals ignoring or merely paying lip service to scholarly critiques of professional practices and products, making these two populations seem at odds with one another.
Drawing from my experience working as a full-stack web developer in professional settings and employing Douglas Holmes and George Marcus’ call for “deferring to, absorbing, and being altered by found reflexive subjects” (2008:84), I will explore the implications of involving professional experiences and anxieties in theorizing the Internet. Web professionals are not by nature of their craft in opposition to users or scholars. Rather, I suggest that the problems that produce professional anxieties are often the underlying causes of popular and scholarly anxieties. While the user is concerned with privacy rights, the web professional is concerned with maintaining security among unfathomable technical complexity so as not to violate user perceptions of privacy. In this way, we might align web professionals, users, and scholars and approach their tensions as epistemic and communicative rather than as fundamental, intractable difference for perhaps more fruitful ends.