Somebody Help Us Understand What Software Does

Maybe I chose the wrong Ph.D. program. Our Monday Workshop on 03/17 made me wonder: if everybody in California is as cool as Fred Turner, then why did I decide for the East Coast?! After pondering on it for two weeks, however, I don’t believe that his distinctive character of creative smartness and uncomplicated supportiveness emerged simply by living on the West Coast. I’m quite right where I am.

FT delivered a stimulating talk on the design and use of multimedia environments in Cold War America, based on his recently released monograph The Democratic Surround: Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties (he would be pleased to know that I am announcing the 30 % discount here). He kept arguing that the multi-mediated world of the 1960s has much in common with our contemporary facebook generation. Some part of me instantly agreed, whereas some other part told me that media in the 21st century cannot be made intelligible by just extending the story of his recent book until 2014.1

I am getting older. It took me almost an hour during Q&A to figure out what the difference between my computers and FT’s multimedia environments with paintings, texts, movies, sounds, and artificial smell is: software. For FT’s story, the actors were pretty easy to identify. A bunch of interest groups directed (“manipulated”? “influenced”?) other people’s thoughts and perception. In FT’s story, we can see what intention by whom led to what action and reaction. With software it’s not that easy any more.

Some sophisticated support for this gut feeling of mine:

  1. Wendy Chun, in her political analysis of fiber-optic networks Control and Freedom, traces the development of the www back to its military origins. WC illustrates that control of individuals was deliberately implanted in the networks. Drawing heavily on Martin Heidegger (read her first, that will help you understand him better), WC describes how internet users became vulnerable to political attempts of oppression and performative social forces. Unlike in FT’s Cold War environments, however, users can negotiate and weigh the disadvantages and advantages of media use. If (and only if) they admit their vulnerability, users can employ fiber-optic technologies for their own benefit.
  2. At first glance, Natasha Schüll also seems to have identified a bunch of scheming people who cause Addiction by Design: gambling machine designers purposefully develop apparatuses to con money out of gamblers. But that is not the end of her story. Whenever gamblers interact with the machine, users become part of what she calls a machine zone, and their consciousness is altered. The software–human interaction goes beyond what we can explain with precedents of non-digital media environments. The threat of addiction resembles WC’s vulnerability, but the interaction between the individual user and the machine as illustrated by NS appears to be more: in the machine zone, interaction is experienced as mutual and almost symbiotic.
  3. Software Takes Command is the provocative title of Lev Manovich’s recent monograph. Luckily, what’s between the covers is not entirely as technologically determinist as one might fear. LM argues that “the result of this trend [of the evolution of software applications, their tools and media formats] was the emergence of a fundamentally new type of aesthetics which today dominates visual and media culture” (237). The individual’s vulnerability and the ostensible amalgamation of user and machine near completion: not only individual freedom, experience and consciousness, but also the further development of media depends on current software.

For what it’s worth, FT couldn’t answer my question how the strands of intention and transformative power could be disentangled.2 He used the metaphor of software as a building: it has to have a specific form to be useful, but what it finally looks like is also highly influenced by architects and the choices they make. These, in turn, are restrained by material limits. (Sounds pretty much like Fleckian passive and active connections, no?)

In other words, the relationship between human intentionality and performative forces through media aren’t overt any more. Neither in the age of facebook, nor in the age of fMRI, as I will illustrate in my next post.

1 More precisely, he already did part of the work in his earlier monograph From Counterculture to Cyberculture. (No discount on this book one on his website, I believe.)
2 Maybe we should ask Donna Haraway! Watch at least 1.13 to 1.51.


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