User Interfaces as Social Operators (Video)


How are norms and deviations constructed through user interfaces? What are the sociopolitical and biopolitical dimensions of user interfaces? And – in the context of an art and design school – what is the social responsibility of those who design them?

User interfaces are not only zones of mediation between humans and machines, they are also part of a constant interplay between ”processes of holding apart and drawing together, of confining and opening up, of disciplining and enabling, of excluding and including.” They always perform work of translation and work of purification simultaneously. Therefore they constantly produce social difference.

Digital user interfaces in particular have become ubiquitous today and are therefore an integral element of social system differentiation (Systemdifferenzierung). Through their ability do include and to exclude, to segment and to stratify society, user interfaces act as social operators. I will illustrate the argument with the following examples:

– the guidelines of the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), founded in 1997, for a barrier-free internet

– the ongoing discourse on how computer game interfaces construct gender roles

– new tendencies of social stratification on the job markets through mobile recruiting


Clemens Jahn is a Berlin-based graphic designer, editor, and cultural producer. He studied visual communications at the University of the Arts (UdK) Berlin and the London College of Communications (LCC) with a focus on multimedia graphic design and visual systems. Additional to his design work he has organized various panels and lectures with institutions such as the University of the Arts Berlin and the MAD Museum of Arts and Design New York. His work and writing have been published and exhibited on several occasions.