Blog Post

Ch. 1: Tara McPherson, "U.S. Operating Systems at Mid-Century"

Part of the Distributed Book Review of Race After the Internet, ed. by Lisa Nakamura and Peter Chow-White

Review of Chapter 1, "U.S. Operating Systems at Mid-Century" by Tara McPherson
On Difference as an Operating System
I rarely get the deep geek thrill that I felt reading Tara McPherson’s “U.S. Operating Systems at Mid-Century” chapter of the book Race After the Internet, and almost never simultaneously with the resonance of a powerful social justice argument. The attention to the details about the workings of the UNIX kernel, shell and the pipe operator reflect a kind of understanding of UNIX that made me recall the years I spent as a Debian developer and a professional programmer working on Linux based software. Her discussion of the nine rules of the UNIX philosophy “Modularity…Clarity…Composition…”, actually took me back to being a teenager struggling to install Linux on my bondi blue flavored iMac and the years of inspiration I found and still find in the ideas of the Free/Libre/Open Source Software movement.
McPherson deftly weaves together a very serious understanding of the concepts underlying the UNIX operating system and ties them to an analysis of the social operation of race, down to the details about memory space separation between processes in UNIX as a comparison to modularity in social forms such as post-fordist organizations of labor, persistent racial segregation that is hidden under different names and intentional divisions areas of social movements as a strategy for defeating them. Her analysis goes on to critique the logic of modularity that underlies UNIX as it can be seen in academia in divisions between departments and disciplines. She summarizes her argument saying “We must remember that computers are themselves encoders of culture… Code and race are deeply intertwined” (36).
Her most clarion calling moment in the essay, which has been cited by Amanda Philips earlier here on, states:
We need database literacies, algorithmic literacies, computational literacies, interface literacies. We need new hybrid practitioners: artist-theorists, program- ming humanists, activist-scholars; theoretical archivists, critical race coders. We need new forms of graduate and undergraduate education that hone both critical and digital literacies. We have to shake ourselves out of our small, field-based boxes so that we might take seriously the possibility that our own knowledge practices are normalized, modular, and black boxed in much the same way as the code we study in our work. (35)
In an earlier version of this essay, with a different title, McPherson directed this call directly at the digital humanities, stating “today, we risk adding the digital humani- ties to our proliferating disciplinary menus without any meaningful and substantial engagement with fields such as gender studies or critical race theory.” I find these critiques very resonant with my own work and concerns, and very broadly relevant to contemporary culture. McPherson argues as broadly as to say that “capital is now fully organized under the sign of modularity” (34). An analysis of the politics of UNIX in itself has a incredibly broad relevance, as UNIX derived systems such as Linux power roughly half of all internet servers as well as Google Android based devices, and Darwin underlies both Mac OS and iOS, the software that makes every iPhone and iPad function.
In what she calls her most “polemic” moment, McPherson urges scholars “do more than simply study[] our screens and the images that dance across them”(34), saying “I would argue that to study image, narrative, and visuality will never be enough if we do not engage as well the nonvisual dimensions of code and their organization of the world.”(35)
I am driven to extend McPherson’s argument to include other forms of difference and underscore the continuing urgency of this work. Perhaps the logic of hierarchy that capitalism necessitates is inseparable from social forms of exclusion and discrimination that facilitate the wealth of a few members of privileged groups at the expense of everyone else. My recent experience at the South By Southwest (SXSW) Interactive conference absolutely reinforced my understanding of the broader culture of technology as perpetuating a multitude of forms of social discrimination. In particular, at a screening of a film at SXSW, a trailer before the film titled “How Not to Be Lame at SXSW” presented a differently abled person, with facial muscle difficulties and sitting in a wheelchair, asking inappropriate questions during a director question and answer session, ending up with no shirt on. This deeply ableist depiction was profoundly offensive and problematic, to the point of making me question my own participation in the event in the future. This official SXSW trailer, approved to be repeated over and over at this festival and the fact that there has been no outcry about it reflects a broad acceptance of ableist discrimination. Additionally, at the event, I was struck by the way that talks about LGBTQ issues, such as a talk by the CEO/Founder of Grindr and a talk by Danah Boyd largely about LGBTQ youth suicides, were not advertised using any indication of the LGBTQ content of the talks. The panel I presented on “Queer Viral Practices in New Media Art and Philosophy” with Zach Blas and Pinar Yoldas was presented differently.
Of course there have been so many new media artists and scholars who have inspired my work at the intersections of analyses of difference and technology such as Avital Ronell, Donna Haraway, Wendy Chun, Ricardo Dominguez, subRosa and Shu Lea Cheang. Still, what comes to mind is the black feminist poet June Jordan’s words “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for”, and all of the contemporary scholars whose work I think is realizing the dreams that McPherson is calling for. The quote came from ongoing inspiration from Alexis Pauline Gumbs, whose new project Brilliance Remastered seeks to nourish “community accountable scholarship” through digital networks. The title of this essay quotes HASTAC community organizer Fiona Barnett, who says of HASTAC that “difference is not our deficit, it’s our operating system”. Scholars whose work I see as deeply engaged with new media praxis include Margaret Rhee, Alexis Lothian, Zach Blas, Julie Levin Russo and VJ Um Amel. Hopefully the timely call that McPherson makes about the need to change our approaches will help the work of these scholars be recognized and allowed to make the most impact possible to reshape the nature of education.


Micha, I share your same sense of inspiration over this chapter and McPherson's work in general - I referenced the polemic she gave at ASA as a shining moment of the conference for me!

I'm currently at CCCC in St. Louis this weekend (instead of SCMS, where I'm sure much of the DH community is spending their weekend!) and have already had some great conversations about thinking outside of disciplines - breaking out of the modular thinking/digital binaries/lenticular logics that McPherson connects not only to programming, but to the reductive modes of identity politics and rights legislation, and also to academia itself.

I was asked by someone when explaining this whether non-digital programming is possible, or if we are, in fact, locked into the binary logic of the 1 and 0. My computing chops are pretty basic, and from what I understand binary switches are a way of ensuring reliable machines. I'm really intrigued by what I see as a further implication of McPherson's chapter - can new modes of thinking (such as queer non-binary logic) begin to influence programming practice and lead to new computational logics? I suppose biocomputing might be an example of this, but I'm not terribly familiar with the field. You seem like the perfect person to ask about this!



Hi Amanda, there are infinite possibilities of number systems on which computing could be based. Simple electronics like Arduinos can handle both digital and analog input, analog being anything between one and zero, but Arduinos still represent analog data in binary. Reza Negarestani's book Cyclonopedia imagines a computational system based on a system of numbers from 1-9, as I wrote about in The Transreal. There are certainly new future possibilities for biocomputing, and some existing examples include bacteria that store data encoded in their dna, see:


Bioencryption can store almost a million gigabytes of data inside bacteria

Although biologists question whether or not this can scale beyond early examples. Nanotechnology and quantum computing also point to the vast possibilities that open up when we go lower than the scale of bits and electrons. So yes, there is much to imagine outside of the binary foundations of digital computing. 

I think it raises an interesting point though, about Tara's analysis. How much does it matter how particular data is encoded? If something is encoded in binary or encoded in decimal, and the decoded representation is an artwork by Tracy Emin, does the encoding system still shape our logic? I suppose it's also a question for Critical Code Studies, how much the underlying systems that produce the media we see affect their meaning, if at all?