TurboTax: Business Accounting as Counter-Bureaucratic Medium

Drawing on original archival research and interviews, this talk analyzes TurboTax, an application currently used by more than 40 million people, as it arrived at market in the 1980s. In the midst of a personal computing revolution and Reagan era tax reform, the software found purchase amongst business owners, tax preparers, and CPAs. It was part of a remediation of office work through desktop machines, laser printers, and intranets. TurboTax offers a lens for thinking about graphical user interfaces as part of a history of reconfiguring the state. What does it mean to “Think different” when the President declares that “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help’”? TurboTax inserts a private program between payers and the IRS. It lays the groundwork for an alternative political imaginary by remediating paperwork, the bureaucratic medium of administration. It transforms an experience of paying taxes framed as somewhere between anxiety-provoking and rage-inducing, into something minimalist, pleasurable, anxiety-relieving, and user-friendly. Indeed, TurboTax is an overlooked aesthetic object, despite smooth, beautiful design. While the difficulty of filing taxes deserves scrutiny, situating that predicament in a context of tax cuts for top earners and slashed social services for everyone else, matters. Under what conditions does it seem better to pay a corporation for a service that can be done through the government for free? In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, TurboTax use exploded. Today, businesses, households, and individuals pay taxes online. Intuit, the parent company, secures their market position through carve-outs and exemptions. In the case of TurboTax, but not only TurboTax, people experience a counter-bureaucratic medium alternative to private experts and public services. They find, as we all do, banal means of managing expectations about what markets, households, and states can do.