Are Flagan on Sun, 3 Nov 2002 21:20:02 +0100 (CET)

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[Nettime-bold] Software

This is an open invitation to join and participate in a discussion around
the social aspects of computer software held on the Sarai reader-list over
the next three weeks. Contributions will be (re)threaded, compiled and
edited for inclusion in the Sarai Reader 03. More information about the
annual Sarai Reader publications can be found at:

List subscriptions are handled here:

We hope to open with some considerations of the cultural, social and
economic hegemonies perpetuated through proprietary software, move on to
what challenges may be posed through free or open source alternatives, and
conclude with the prospects of other software economies in both the private
and public sector, not least through the spread of the Linux kernel.

The opening address below attempts to broadly set the scene for how software
may be considered in order to approach questions about what it is and what
it does.

Hope you will join the discussion.


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What is software?

The mechanistic answer would be that it is assemblages of algorithms
compiled to perform and automate specific tasks on a computer -- what we
succinctly call a program or an application. If we resided on the circuit
board, somewhere among its rigid corridors of conduction, such a reductive
definition may surmise to understand software, but only within the dark
limits of the black box. Letıs look outside this box for a moment.

During the 1980s, the American photographer Lee Friedlander produced a
series of photographs that make for some interesting observations. In 1982,
he published _Factory Valleys_, a look at the grim industrial rust belts of
Ohio and Pennsylvania. Five years later, a book chronicling the work of
people assembling supercomputers, entitled _Cray at Chippewa Falls_, came
out. The year after, in 1988, an exhibition of photographs depicting people
working at computers was shown at Massachusetts Institute of Technology
(MIT). Over the span of a decade, Friedlander had charted and documented the
gradual shift from an industrial toward an information society, with subtle
commentary on how the two intertwine.

There is a symbiosis of complementary forms, combining metal and flesh, in
the factory photographs that turns each machine into an anthropomorphic
mold. Controls are located according to the operatorıs physiognomy, and the
joint actions they perform, along with the resulting outcome, are the sum of
these opposed yet allied parts. Each machine is furthermore the summation of
past labors: it replaces a set of skills and a set of relations on the
production line to make the process more effective. The operator and the
factory owner consequently embrace the machine as a valuable tool, because
it allows these skills to be synthesized, mechanized and performed
automatically. But the machine fundamentally speaks of the relations
mandated by the conveyor belt where it converses. Its primary role and
function, descriptive of its form and operation, is to serve as a cog in the
wheel that keeps the factory churning.

When people build supercomputers at Chippewa Falls, and later program them,
they equally strive toward apotheosis in obsolescence. The inner sanctum of
the silicon chip is clinical and sterile, devoid of human contamination.
Bodies move around like dangerous pollutants, resembling proverbial ghosts
in the machine. As the layers of production peel back, the wiring of
connective tissue gets increasingly messy with soldering and screws.
Programming follows a similar path, articulating itself from the
instructions embedded in hardware via binary machine code to levels of
conversant syntax and desktops littered with objects we recognize and
languages we speak. At the heart of these related assemblies are principles
isolated from touch, kept from us due to the danger of corrupting their
impervious functionalities.

If eyes are indeed considered to be mirrors of the soul, there appears to be
something amiss with people staring at computer screens around MIT: their
eyes are identically focused on some diffuse distance, all with lids wide
apart and pupils strangely glazed over. For the analogy to hold, with the
recognition it invites, the inner life on display must be one of a
collective spirit, undivided among these individuals and realized through
their common denominator, the computer. We are looking at machine that
synthesizes and automates modalities of social, cultural and economic
relations, removes most tinkering from its root, and installs a generalized
operator to perpetuate a program of utility valued and developed by its
owners. Now that the initial question has been rephrased, it should be asked

What is software?

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