Software is a thing in our neighbourhood

Wendy Hui Kyong Chun appears to be searching for a similar opening in her conclusion to Programming Visions{Chun 2011} to Galloway and Thacker’s Exploit (2007) where she asks whether software’s anomalous position and nature can “enable freedom and movement”{%Chun 2011@177}.

At first sight Chun’s account of ‘programmability’ and ‘software as a metaphor for metaphor’{Chun 2011} would appear to provide an object-oriented approach to code objects. She stresses its materiality as always embodied and not simply the fabled matter of ones and zeroes{%Chun 2011@131}. She is also clear about the nature of software as object. “Software as a thing cannot be reduced to software as a commodity”{%Chun 2011@6}. Software is more than a particular programme or proprietorial or even open-source standard. Of course it can be bought, sold and fought over in the courts but there is an almost Heideggarian “vapory materialization” in play{%Chun 2011@2}. Software has a “fundamentally ephemeral” nature{%Chun 2011@3}. Chun traces how software has become thing{%Chun 2011@41}, has ‘hardened’, becoming an object of legal and governmental fixity in distinction to hardware.

Chun looks to trace the governmental enfoldings of software in terms of content but also in terms of logic{%Chun 2011@128}. It is the nature of software Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs) that are governmental as much as the content. The way AJAX allows a web page to dynamically update, seemingly at the will of the user, creates what Tara McPherson calls “volitional mobility”, the feeling of liveness, choice and freedom{Mcpherson 2002}.⁠1 Regardless of what is on a webpage, the very ways that software and protocols structures the user experience, hails them into a particular position and manages their interaction, generating fetishes and illusions of control and freedom are deeply ideological.

The issue, from an object-oriented point of view, is that the object is once again drawn in terms of relations. Echoing Adrian Mackenzie’s account of software as a “neighbourhood of relations”{Mackenzie 2006@169}. She says: “Treating software as as a thing means treating it, again , as a neighborhood, as an amalgamation”{%Chun 2011@6}. “Amalgamation”, “assemblage”, “ecology”, “actor network”: the “simultaneous ambiguity and specificity”{%Chun 2011@6} of software is best drawn in terms of position in a field of relations. Software is “in media res – in the middle of things”{%Chun 2011@176}.

For Chun, software has become memory as it “not only embodies the always already there, [but] also grounds it… It creates an enduring ephemeral that promises to last forever”{%Chun 2011@137}. As the ontology of new media{%Chun 2011@97}, this software-memory “is not static but rather an active process”{%Chun 2011@167}.⁠2 “If our machines’ memories are more permanent, if they enable a permanence that we seem to lack, it is because they are constantly refreshed”{%Chun 2011@170}. Screens are redrawn, page components asynchronously refreshed, data compressed, images rendered on the fly, searches updated and data trails remarked. Software works⁠3 and that working, software as process needs to be accounted for.

1 The term AJAX was not coined until 2005{Garrett 2005}, before McPherson’s account. She concentrated on ‘static’ updated webpages, where a whole page is refreshed by the user. AJAX or Asynchronous JavaScript and XML technologies means sections of content can be updated automatically or by user action without having to reload the whole page.

2 Chun discusses BrendaLaurel’s work where human computer activity is understood as a “designed experience” akin to theatre. {Laurel 1993}. Here software can be seen as ‘characters’ defined by their action.

3 Drawing on N. Katherine Hayles’ account of code as performative where code is presented as a specific form of language that quite literally “causes changes in machine behavior{Hayles 2005@50}, Hayles of course drew on Galloway’s own discussions of code as “executable language”{Galloway 2004@165} as well as Judith Butler’s account of ‘excitable speech’{Butler 1997}. Chun further expands on the idea of ‘executable’ in terms of notions of the ‘executive’ in neo-liberal governance{Chun 2011@27}.

  • Butler, J., 1997, Excitable Speech : A Politics Of The Performative, Routledge, New York.
  • Chun, W.H.K., 2011, Programmed Visions : Software And Memory, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass..
  • Galloway, A.R., 2004, Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.; London.
  • Galloway, A.R. & Thacker, E., 2007, The Exploit: A Theory Of Networks, Univ Of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.
  • Garrett, JJ 2005, Ajax: A New Approach to Web Applications, Adaptive Path. Retrieved July 20, 2011,  from
  • Hayles, N.K., 2005, My Mother Was A Computer: Digital Subjects And Literary Texts, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  • Laurel, B., 1993, Computers As Theatre, Addison-Wesley Pub. Co, Reading, Mass..
  • Mackenzie, A., 2006, Cutting Code: Software And Sociality, Peter Lang, New York.