Are Flagan on Mon, 4 Nov 2002 01:16:08 +0100 (CET)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> 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

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.


+ + + + +

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 again.

What is software?

+ + + + +


#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  archive: contact: