Not just a matter of engineering

In 2006, introducing the Software Studies Workshop at Piet Zwart Institute in Rotterdam, Matt Fuller said: “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” (cited in Manovich Software Takes Command).

Software is pervasive. It is the atmosphere within which we work, have our work and social relationships as well as the context within which those relationships are policed. Our shopping happens within and through software. Our news and media production and consumption as well as political participation and struggles happen within and through software, whether as a Smart Mob (Rheingold), as activist ( Hands) or as the object of surveillance, tracking or data mining. Our economy, markets and even capital itself work through software, perhaps, in the case of financial instruments, even exist only as/in software.

It is not just the well worn commentary around information and the network society (cf Lash, Castells, Benkler etc). Clearly these critiques are right to point to the effects of protocol/software-powered in the developments and deployment of new forms of capitalism, social and cultural relations, media ecologies (Fuller) and what can be addressed as actor-networks (as distinct from the technical IT networks). What software studies argues is that to leave the analysis and critique at the level of effects is to miss those forces and players (actants) that set those forces and relations in motion. Studies of specific software packages, programming languages, anomalies and protocols seek to draw attention to code as a material actant ‘doing things’ in the world.

Where object-oriented philosophy can add to that account is in providing a framework for discussing that actant as more than a “matter of engineering”. Software studies accounts have been caught between high-level, often Deleuzian-inspired accounts of assemblages and ecologies and technical, often textualist, deconstructions of code, languages and structures. Both are of course necessary if we are to trace the workings, effects and alliances of Google’s algorithms, Tesco Clubcard’s, the London Congestion Zone or Oyster Card databases or the ambient intimacy of Twitter. But accounting for how those ‘levels’ relate demands an account of code in terms of ontology – an account of the thing.

Technically the code (em)powers software to set in motion control societies (Deleuze) and governmental and scopic relations. But in order to avoid a form of code-determinism, we must see that code (or in my case protocol) as an actant not a determinant. OOP’s great contribution is a flat ontology, a refusal to allow depth models or foundations, an anti-essentialist account that can place code as a black box not as a determinant or foundation but as an active player in alliances and translations, a box that has become accepted and transparent but which can be opened out (rather than up) to explore other code and non-code actants within which it is in/enfolded.

Studying protocol is not looking to position it as base to a code or assemblage superstructure in an engineering or ideological sense. It is to position it within a flat ontology of actants within software, capitalism and media ecologies. Protocol must be looked at at the same ‘level’ as governmental relations, corporate strategies, multinational data-holders, iPads, IoS, Apple, Apple stores and the cult of Apple.