Re-coding Everyday Technology: A Glossary

Verena Kuni

Access Alternative Analogital Black box ​Code ​Data Disruption Door ​Habit ​Hack ​Re- ​Standard (I) ​Standard (II) System Tool ​User ​ ​

This glossary comes as a companion to the project. It does so without claiming to be complete or comprehensive. On the contrary, not only is it deliberately incomplete but it also aims to re-code everyday technology, namely by re-coding the very idea of a glossary itself, which is, after all, a traditional tool for the processes of knowledge building and canon construction that are closely and systematically linked to this subject. This is why the glossary has evolved into a questionnaire. However, in homage to the original format the alphabetical order has been kept.


Remember the programmatic claim from the 1990s: “ACCESS4ALL”? Has the task been accomplished since then? And if so, on what terms?


Alternatives are crucial, and a lack of alternatives can be calamitous. On the other hand, it may at times appear to make life easier. If there is only one DOOR with a handle, I will probably be inclined to use it to enter the building. And yet, the noble task of helping and supporting USERs can also fail, for example, when it leads to STANDARDization, which often comes with an unfortunate lack of alternatives that exclude diversity. This is why the question of how to foster alternatives is crucial in design.

The same may also be true in many other areas, from politics to knowledge building – areas where we can find both potentials and potential problems of open ACCESS and participation. After all, there may be alternative standpoints and even alternative STANDARDS, but there is no such thing as “alternative facts.”

What are your favorite alternatives?


The term points to the considerably wide and rich, manifold and multifaceted, ever-growing field of relations between the analog and the digital – including objects of all kinds, processes, and structures, even whole SYSTEMs. Both the relations and their articulations are significant, ranging from appropriations to rejections, from transfers to transformations, from materializations to medializations, from embodiments to disembodiments, from concretizations to dissolutions, from simulations to symbioses. Exploring them and experimenting with them can not only help to better understand the everyday technologies on which whole SYSTEMs are built, but also inspire critical HACKs of existing designs.

Can you name a few analogital objects you come across in your everyday life, in your personal and professional practice?


Presumably derived from the military jargon used for found or captured enemy objects that were considered too risky to open because of their unknown contents, black boxes have become a fetish in both theory and practice. While the concept of a known unknown that allows its USERs to focus on input and output is embraced in some fields, such as in systems theory or in design solutions for everyday technology, in others we find people who insist that black boxes should be dismantled and that blackboxing – the problematic mechanism behind their construction – must be abolished. In contrast to a soldier who finds a strange, sealed object behind enemy lines, it should be easier for us to decide whether to open the box or not.

How many black boxes are part of your personal and/or professional environment? Have you ever opened one? If so, what happened?


Code originally comes from Latin, “codex” or “caudex,” meaning “tree trunk” or “book.” However, it probably came to us through Middle English, where “code” meant a “system of law.” Today it is a general term for a sequence of signals or signs composed in a chosen language in order to be interpreted by a human being or a machine. For code that is used for writing algorithms, there must be a common set of rules, and there must be strict discipline among its USERs. Unfortunately, the latter is not always the case. This can lead to nuisances, errors, sometimes even catastrophes. And sometimes it offers new opportunities or even requires RE-CODING.

Do you understand all the codes and rules that are important to and have a major impact on your daily life?


In Latin, “datum” means “given.” Although its etymology may already point to its fundamental meaning, it is indeed data's direct link to INFORMATION that makes it one of today's most powerful and valuable resources. INFORMATION is not given, but the result of a process – the ways data are gathered, stored, presented and retrieved do matter. Thus we should always ask: What exactly is “given,” by whom and to whom, and to what ends? Is it really “given,” or rather made? How has this datum been generated?


It is our very own fault. We may never have been modern, but we have successfully created the myth of modernity and still live by it. Part of this myth is the notion of an “avant-garde” (one would love to cry out, “beware of military jargon” – but, alas, it is all too late), and with it comes the myth of disruption: a radical break in everyday HABITs, structures, and/or technologies that leads to a creative outburst of productivity, a fundamental change within a SYSTEM, and a better future. The dominant narratives of “modern art” may indeed be a model for this, which suggests that disruption was a better kind of revolution. The most prominent one, however, found expression in the continuation of “Californian Ideology,” linking the latter to the market. Indeed, the main function of so-called “disruptive technologies” seems to be to distract and disconnect USERs from their habitual everyday technologies, so that they actually need, or at least think they need, to buy something new.

Have you ever experienced disruption? How did it feel? What were the substantial differences before and after?


For good reason, doors mean ACCESS. As a small book from the late 16th century tells us, the citizens of Schilda – not the East German village you may find on the map, but a fictional one – were famous for their tomfoolery. As when they built a guildhall but forgot to add windows, so they had to collect sunlight in bags and carry it into the building. Now, what if they forgot the front door as well? Or, even worse, what if they built an entire palace with windows, a main entrance, and of course, fantastically furnished rooms and a large treasury, but then only guarded it in the front and not in the rear – where thieves happily built their own back door to enter the building?

Have you ever counted the doors in your everyday environment? How many are open to you? How many are closed? How many do you leave open for others?


Daily practice forms the foundation of habit. Only then does habit become a tool that is not merely at hand, but feels like a hand –. all natural. However, there is no such thing as a “natural habit:” Habits are usually adaptions to some SYSTEM. Thus, analyzing and deconstructing everyday habits tells us a lot about the SYSTEM(s) within which they have evolved. By the way, the same goes for everyday technologies.

Can you list all the everyday technologies that you would consider essential to your habits? How many of them do you have full access to or control over?


Hacking means breaking (into) an existing SYSTEM and/or structure – e.g., a log of wood, a DOOR, a server – in order to use it for some desired end, such as making it available to USERs who are not given STANDARD ACCESS. Indeed, this is all about the ACCESSibility of SYSTEMs or rather about the attempt to overcome the lack thereof.


Inherited from Latin, the prefix “re-” originally means back or backwards, for example, “retro:” You look back, as you review or reconsider something. You got something, so you give something back, as in a reply. You gave something, so you get something back, as in a remuneration. However, many of these actions (and reactions) are not actually directed to the past, but to the future. Among the more prominent examples are “reengineering" – a process of reviewing and debugging something, such as SYSTEMs and processes – and “reverse engineering,” a promising strategy to gain ACCESS to sealed technology such as a BLACK BOX; in other words, to HACK.

Now, when it comes to software and to re-coding, would you consider the latter closer to reengineering or to reverse engineering? Perhaps this is different from case to case. So what would be your criteria for each?


Some time ago, I was looking up the etymology of “standard.” When I typed the term into Wikisource’s search window, the result was “1. (science fiction, fantasy) Denoting the name of a universal language in various works.” I had entered “Standard” with a capital “S” instead of “standard.” For a second, this seemed really attractive to me, until I realized that we already have these kind of standards (more than one, at least), resulting from linguistic colonialism, which poses a real threat to the poetic diversity and precision of our “pluriverse” of languages and dialects. Have you ever had a similar experience?


The etymology of “standard” refers to a shared standpoint, both literally and figuratively. But what does this mean exactly? We can assume that such a standpoint would have features and qualities that are considered agreeable, so it would be something people can get behind. However, do we have a choice? If the standpoint does not match with our needs and/or opinions, we might look for alternatives. But what if we do not conform to the standard? Thus, the most important question is: Who defines the standard? Are there possibilities to participate in this process, to reject its results, and/or to develop ALTERNATIVE standards?


A system consists of interrelated – and often (but not necessarily) interacting – elements. Relations and/or interactions can be stable or unstable. They are usually defined and governed by rules. Many systems also interact with their environment, although this is not always transparent, and there are also opaque systems that appear to be, or are, BLACK BOXES. Any attempt to change a system by changing its parts requires insight into the system and knowledge about its elements, their relations and/or interactions, and the rules behind them. If the system or its parts are neither ACCESSible nor transparent, then it may be necessary to use both invasive, sometimes experimental or playful strategies and TOOLs. In some cases, collecting information about the HABITs of its USERs may be the best HACK to open a DOOR.

What kind of strategies and tools have you tried to change a system and/or to install an ALTERNATIVE one?


A tool is made to be used. The output and results of a tool are determined by its qualities as well as by the skills of its USERs. However, poor tools are not the only nuisance. Bad design can be a hindrance as well. Moreover, there are also pseudo-tools – gadgets and devices that look like tools, are marketed and sold as tools, but are actually more or less useless, serving as decoration, playthings, or the like. At least the alternative uses of (pseudo-)tools can point us to the more general capability of everyday technology. In other words, it can trigger powers of suggestion and suggestibility, of aesthetics, and of play.

Have you ever toyed around with (pseudo-)tools? And what are your favorite tools to use in your everyday life?


A person or entity – often imagined as a human, but not necessarily one – who or that uses something is called a user. This is, of course, a tautology, idem per idem. The term has been the subject of critical debates because it can be associated with passivity and a heteronomous and/or otherwise pejorative position. However, there are many kinds of design – such as social design, interaction design, and interface design – that emphasize the activity, (inter-)activity, and creativity of users, pointing to the powerful influence users can have on design. Moreover, it seems obvious that usability, along with functionality, should be one of the basic STANDARDs and one of the most fundamental criteria for the design of everyday things and of everyday technology. Unfortunately, the latter remains difficult, as so many everyday design solutions, from DOOR handles and teapots to forms and websites may show. At the same time, this annoying and persistent problem is also one of the catalysts for creative HACKs.

We are all users, aren’t we? If so, what does it take to become HACKers as well?