Universal Computer Users

Citing my talk on General Purpose Computing and regulation (and many other works), Olia Lialina describes a "General Purpose User... that was formed through three decades of adjusting general purpose technology to their needs":

General Purpose Users can write an article in their e-mail client, layout their business card in Excel and shave in front of a web cam. They can also find a way to publish photos online without flickr, tweet without twitter, like without facebook, make a black frame around pictures without instagram, remove a black frame from an instagram picture and even wake up at 7:00 without a “wake up at 7:00” app.

Maybe these Users could more accurately be called Universal Users or Turing Complete Users, as a reference to the Universal Machine, also known as Universal Turing Machine — Alan Turing’s conception of a computer that can solve any logical task given enough time and memory. Turing’s 1936 vision and design predated and most likely influenced von Neuman’s First Draft and All-purpose Machine.

But whatever name I chose, what I mean are users who have the ability to achieve their goals regardless of the primary purpose of an application or device. Such users will find a way to their aspiration without an app or utility programmed specifically for it. The Universal user is not a super user, not half a hacker. It is not an exotic type of user.

There can be different examples and levels of autonomy that users can imagine for themselves, but the capacity to be universal is still in all of us. Sometimes it is a conscious choice not to delegate particular jobs to the computer, and sometimes it is just a habit. Most often it is not more than a click or two that uncover your general purpose architecture.

The whole thing is a refreshing addition to the long debate and discussion over users, user experience design, and interfaces.

Turing Complete User (via Beyond the Beyond)


  1. My father always typed his correspondence using “copy con”. When I got mail from him I could almost hear the Ctrl + Z at the end.

  2. As a UX’er myself I often have to remind people that users can be incredibly resourceful – these are some great examples.  That doesn’t mean of course that greasing the wheels doesn’t come with benefits, especially in the commercial sector.

  3. Sounds like a garden variety Hacker to me, in the proper and original sense of the word :) I’m not giving up that word… I’m a Hacker, dammit! I’m not a developer, I’m not an engineer, I’m not even a technician… but I can hold my head up high and say with pride that I can make my computer do what I want it to because I’m a hacker! :)

    1. Although I’m “officially” a writer and designer, I’ve routinely worked as a sort of digital dogsbody/unofficial sysadmin in a a number of IT firms, and it often amazed me how people infinitely more trained than me would request that I solve some oddball problem for them. The single biggest advantage I seem to have over most users is the ability to do abstruse find/replace work and use operators in search engines.

      1. You might be surpised to learn that the infinitely trained staff don’t remember everything they’ve ever learned. I’ve had people who taught me my job years ago ask me to do stuff they taught me how to do because in their current role they don’t do it anymore and have forgotten how

  4. It was a really interesting distinction for me. I am not really a coder (a bit of Javascript and HTML don’t count in my book), but I am very much a universal user. Some of the app propagation drives me nuts.

    I do see the value in uniform interfaces for similar tasks, and I think that’s what we see. Millions of people have blogs, so blog apps and aggregators ultimately make sense. Millions of people want to post similar kinds of life updates, so we get a variety of social media apps which make it really easy to do commonly useful things. I think these apps take a lot of creativity and invention out of people’s (and users’) lives, but they also allow people to focus more on the content rather than the form.

    Ultimately, I liked the article for the perspective it provided, and I don’t need a damned button to say it.

  5. I’m just wondering how someone can tweet without Twitter, since… the verb is tied to 140-character microblogging on a specific platform.

    But if the author is saying that people have ways of blogging/microblogging or keeping a running status feed that don’t require Twitter.com, yes, of course. It just seems like a broken tautology to say that you can tweet without twitter.

  6. “Maybe these Users could more accurately be called Universal Users or Turing Complete Users, as a reference to the Universal Machine, also known as Universal Turing Machine — Alan Turing’s conception of a computer that can solve any logical task given enough time and memory.”

    That is wrong.

    Users are Universal Turing Machines that also can (and will) solve illogical tasks.

    (Exam preparation: For this question it is not necessary to be a User that has been defined as a device with the properties of being human, two feeted, featherless, with broad nails…)

    1. Jack Dorsey’s proposal seems misleading. There are many programs and devices used by many people that aren’t sellers, buyers, or what you would normally consider a customer at all.

  7. I actually wonder how many of us “Universals” were raised with command line interfaces. I think being forced to understand basic computing at that level of abstraction is essential to confidence with a GUI.

    It’s also very handy to understand the basics behind things like bitmaps, vectors,
    waveforms and whatnot, as well as their analogue equivalents.

    I never think of computing in terms of learning controls by rote but rather diving in headfirst and trying to think how a machine would achieve what I have in mind. The downside of this is that I find “user friendly” stuff irritating most of the time, because it usually assumes too much on my behalf.

    1. Whenever I see the phrase “user friendly” I automatically think: “This means that it will let me do no more than six things. And only in the exact way the designers intended.”

      In my experience, user friendly is a shallow excuse for not offering features useful to most people, and treating the user as if they’re so stupid they’re at risk of drowning in a rain storm

    2. My first computer was a Windows 98 PC (blech) and I still could identify with the “universal user” as descibed in the text. I’ve done a fair bit of Linux’ing a few years ago, though.

  8. It’s important not to confuse these people with computer users who simply aren’t confident enough to learn new software. I mean, many people who “write an article in their e-mail client, layout their business card in Excel” might simply have not mastered a word processor or a layout program, so they’re not being smart and resourceful. They’re being timid and sticking with what they know, bending the one or two tools they’re comfortable with in awkward ways to accomplish tasks better performed with other software.

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