Niels Kerssens on the cultural logic of use

Interview from August 29, 2014 (also archived here)

1. It’s been proven that PhD projects can change direction over the years. But if you had to give a title and abstract right now, what would it be?

The Cultural Logic of Use: The Computational within the History of Computing

The computer – in its many manifestations – functions as the center of gravity of our lives. To state the obvious, it can only function as such because we ‘use’ it. Disengaged from its uses in the world, the computer would merely be the embodiment of a formal system, and too inaccessible, forbidding and abstract an object to be key to the practices of everyday life. For that reason this project argues that the examination of uses should both be the starting point and the testing ground for our understanding of what is variously termed, ‘computational culture’, ‘digital culture’, or ‘algorithmic culture’. It does so through the lens of history, through the examination of ‘cultures of use’ in which concrete practices of using computer systems enter into relationships with the “productive apparatus” of their making. This ‘practical’ view on the history of computing opens up an archaeological substrate of new media culture that is not limited to the usual suspects of its “productive apparatus”, such as computer science and cybernetics, but includes new domains, such as the library, the office, the school, and the connected knowledges on using computers as they are conceptualized within library science, management science, and education, but also within domains of practice and knowledge that lack a ‘proper’ domain, such as the home, where the computer magazine constituted the key source of information on how to use the computer.

2. Your research involves digging into old computer magazines and other industry publications. Which ones play a big role in your work? Byte gets mentioned a lot, what are some other cult magazines we should know about?

As you can see in my response to the first question I am interested in the 'use' of computers in connection to the apparatus of the computer's production. Then the question is, where do you find the historical traces of use practices? I would argue that computer magazines provide an interesting lens into 'uses'. 'Besides Byte, there is whole range of computer magazines that I have used including Creative Computing, Personal Computing, Compute!, Family Computing, On Computing, Popular Computing, Telecomputing, TeleLink (UK). In addition to magazines I also used a wide variety of introductory books on computers directed at users, mainly published in the 1980s. For instance, when trying to find the traces of the uses of computers within schools in the early 1980s I stumbled upon a whole range of books on computer literacy including titles such as My Students Use Computers: Learning activities for Computer Literacy (1983) and Bits 'n Bytes About Computing : A Computer Literacy Primer (1982). Publications directed at industry and professionals for instance include Computerworld, and Info World. Another very interesting publication that was directed at the users of computer systems was Online: The Magazine of Online Information Systems, which was first published in 1977. The users in this case were librarians trained as search intermediaries who searched on behalf of end-users for bibliographic references in the computerized information retrieval systems that were first introduced in the library in the early 1970s.

3. What’s the state of the archives for all these magazines and manuals you read? Can you find everything on Google Books or is it all treasure hunting on ebay?

Many computer magazines are available as scanned pdfs from This is great as with these pdfs being ocr'ed 'search' is now also an option. The next domain to obtain such publications is THE LIBRARY! In the Netherlands we have a couple of technical universities that have the older computer magazines archived. But also a publication such as Online is available in the library in a regular university such as Utrecht. For books Amazon is a great place. Many of the older computer books have been 'withdrawn' from libraries and can be bought for very reasonable prices. I also obtained some magazines through ebay.

4. You’ve been known to sing the praises of Sente, the archiving/referencing program for Mac. No need to start listing features or write a techcrunch review, but what is someone like me (who barely uses Zotero) missing out on? Is it simply about efficiency or do you think there are noticeable qualitative effects on your research or the research process?

In using Sente, for me, the question of efficiency is connected to the question of qualitative effects on the research process. Sente allows me to order and organize the many articles and books on computing flexibly, for instance by a simple option as tags by which I can connect documents to the different chapters. Having the source materials of a chapter available in almost a single view is fantastic. For instance, it allows me to quickly see connections between sources by the scholarly and serendipitous device that we humanities and historical scholars love so much: browsing. In addition, it is now very easy to open pdfs connected to entries, make notes, and save these again within the Sente Library. In short, I use Sente as a tool for the management of written documents to enable easy access and a clear overview of what I have. For instance, producing bibliographies and integrating Sente with a word processor doesn't interest me that much. Of course, Sente isn't the only program around, there are many alternative such as Papers and Zotero.


Niels Kerssens
PhD Candidate (promovendus), Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis (ASCA)
University of Amsterdam, Department of Media Studies
Turfdraagsterpad 9
1012 XT Amsterdam
The Netherlands
Phone: +31628201642