Draft: The software studies problematic

Yesterday I wrote:

“Later with the birth of software studies, code, algorithms and protocol were elevated as worthy of attention. Software art made them cultural and auratic. Whether they were being deconstructed as ideological or power-full in Fuller’s account of Word or constructed as problematic in Manovich’s identification of the ‘new media object’, they were still within the discourse of the virtual, the immaterial maybe even the ethereal. Of course this is not to say that those critiques we’re not concerned with the real and the material. Software studies and software art has a long history of radical critique and intervention, rather the point is to draw attention to the analytical separation between the material and the immaterial. The focus on software and code was an attempt to uncover a new determinant or player in that material reality.”

@juspar rightly pointed out that this was a bit throwaway, so… some more thoughts:

The term “software studies” was coined by Lev Manovich in The Language of New Media where he said: ”New media calls for a new stage in media theory whose beginnings can be traced back to the revolutionary works of Robert Innis and Marshall McLuhan of the 1950s. To understand the logic of new media we need to turn to computer science. It is there that we may expect to find the new terms, categories and operations that characterise media that became programmable. From media studies, we move to something which can be called software studies; from media theory — to software theory” (p48). He later refined this definition (in his unpublished Software Takes Command), arguing that the original positioned computer science as a kind of absolute truth rather than itself part of culture. “I think that Software Studies has to investigate both the role of software in forming contemporary culture, and cultural, social, and economic forces that are shaping development of software itself” (p5).

Manovich traces software studies after 1991 through three key texts. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort’s The New Media Reader, he argues, proposed a new model for thinking about software by juxtaposing historical accounts of computing with accounts of new media art (similar to the juxtaposition apparent in Galloway and Fuller’s work). This format, Manovich asserts, “demonstrated that both belonged to the same larger epistemes” (p6). Matthew Fuller’s Behind The Blip : Essays On The Culture Of Software continues this theme. It provides an analysis of the power relations inherent in software design and development refracted through Fuller’s own software art work with I/O/D and Mongrel. Fuller went on to edit a book that not only had software studies as its title but explicitly set out to define an emergent area of concern, even a discipline. Software Studies: A Lexicon. Fuller introduces this first volume in a new MIT series as a “project” (p1)and “software studies” as a conjunction of words (p11).

This emergence of “software studies” as problematic and discipline is framed by those involved in two ways: as a discovery of an overlooked object and as almost a meta-discipline necessary to deal with a new episteme. In his forward to his lexicon, Fuller says that his lexicon “proposes that software can be seen as an object of study and an area of practice for kinds of thinking and areas of work that have not historically ‘owned’ software, or indeed often had much of use to say about it” (p2). This is less an announcement of the birth of a new discipline as the announcement of the discovery of one hidden in the old. The “object of study” has been there all along but just overlooked by media and cultural studies.

Fuller organised the very first Software Studies Workshop at Piet Zwart Institute in Rotterdam. Manovich reports Fuller as saying:

“Software is often a blind spot in the theorization and study of computational and networked digital media. It is the very grounds and ‘stuff’ of media design. In a sense, all intellectual work is now ‘software study’, in that software provides its media and its context, but there are very few places where the specific nature, the materiality, of software is studied except as a matter of engineering” (Software Take Command, p8).

Here software is seen as so omnipresent and omnipotent that – in the sort of evangelical tones that the Birmingham Centre arguably used to position cultural studies – a society and economy soaked in software (as opposed to media) required a new meta-discipline. Manovich goes on to say:

“I completely agree with Fuller that “all intellectual work is now ‘software study'”. Yet it will take some time before the intellectuals will realize it…Fuller’s statement implies that “software” is a new object of study which should be put on the agenda of existing disciplines and which can be studied using already existing methods – for instance, object-network theory, social semiotics, or media archeology”. However, he argues: “if we are to focus on software itself, we need a new methodology. That is, it helps to practice what one writes about” (p9).

This hardly comes as a surprise from the man whose seminal, formalist account of the “new media object” argued for the specificity of its object and ways of approaching it. (Although one might draw attention to the fact that, as Michael Truscello points out in Film Philosophy, Manovich’s account of new media positions it in terms of existing approaches: “the visual culture of a computer age is cinematographic in its appearance, digital on the level of its material, and computational (i.e. software driven) in its logic”(p180).)

In his later work Manovich argues that software studies practitioners draw their legitimacy from their “systematic involve[ment] in cultural projects which centrally involve writing of new software” (Software Take Command p9). He does not talk about “practice-research” in the sense in which I use it, but the implication is clear. A dialectical relation between practice and theory/analysis is the only way to deal with this particular object of study. He even goes as far as to position other writers on technology such as Zielinski, Castells and Latour as “without this experience” (p9) implying a gap in their CV or even credibility.

This theme is apparent throughout the founding texts of software studies. Fuller as editor makes clear that “one rule of thumb for the production of this book is that the contributors had to be involved in some way in the production of software as well as being engaged in thinking about it in wider terms” (Lexicon p10). Wardrip-Fruin and Montfort in their ‘directions to readers’ say: “understanding new media is almost impossible for those aren’t actively involved in the experience of new media; for deep understanding, actually creating new media projects is essential to grasping their workings and poetics” (pxii). Geert Lovink, in his self-reflexive interview as introduction to Uncanny Networks lauds “the artists and critics featured in this book [as] working with the technology itself” (p4). Truscello even goes as far as to invoke Gramsci’s idea of the intellectual as one “grounded in the practice of everyday life and not simply an effect of oratory,” arguing that, “Manovich embodies this progressive creed”.

This concern for practice appears as a way of grounding software studies, separating it from or possibly privileging it over, other explorations of digital media and cultural analysis. It also has implications in terms of its account of the object. Software is not just something that is now so powerful and present that it demands explanation and exploration, it is also the means to that end. As such software studies demands an ontology, a theory of the object that it explores and creates. Unlike cultural studies which addresses practices and texts or cyber/digital culture studies which looks at practices and spaces, software studies has a specific object that it maps and traces across society and power relations. It is Microsoft Word (Fuller), or the Perl computer language (Mackenzie), a virus (Parikka) or an interface (Galloway) that allows one to trace the operations of power. And it is the creation of alternative browsers, programmes or interventions within networks by artists and activists that offers one the tools, the space, the insight and the hacker-like credibility to do that mapping. Without an object to analyse or to create as part of that analysis, software studies would be just another form of cultural critique divorced from the hacker communities it likens itself to and unable to distinguish itself from textualist and formalist accounts of digital space and culture.

When Galloway approaches protocol in 2004, he carries with him this sense of the overlooked, a belief that software offered a way into a meta-critique of control societies and a concern for practice. His account was also forged in an emerging discourse where the software object offered the key to analysis and indeed change.