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Software Takes Command_Reading Notes_delayed from October 20th

“The time for ‘software studies’ has arrived”  

(Manovich, Kindle Location 413). 

These are part one of my reading notes for Lev Manovich‘s Software Takes Command, with part two to be posted soon.

So who is our main writing star for this entry?

Lev Manovich. Image hosted on CUNY Academic Commons.

Lev Manovich, a professor at the Graduate Center at CUNY. Image hosted on CUNY Academic Commons.

This text by Manovich can be considered a kind of sequel to his The Language of New Media, published in 2001, and he discusses the changes that have happened to the Web as “the developments of the 1990s have been disseminated to the hundreds of millions of people who are writing blogs, uploading videos to media sharing sites, and use free media authoring and editing software tools that ten years earlier would have cost tens of thousands of dollars” (Kindle Locations 139-141). He also points out that companies like Google and Facebook are updating their codes on a regular basis (sometimes daily), from which emerges a “world of permanent change— the world that is now defined not by heavy industrial machines that change infrequently, but by software that is always in flux” (Kindle Locations 145-146). What I found the most interesting of his opening statements what when he showed just how important software has become to our work as individuals and as scholars (for Humanists as much as for everyone else): “Software has become our interface to the world, to others, to our memory and our imagination— a universal language through which the world speaks, and a universal engine on which the world runs” (Kindle Locations 155-156). As someone who is maintaining a blog devoted to academic writings and assignments, who does research through online databases more often than physically combing the library for a book, and who accesses others in the field and in my own program, I can see why Manovich would claim that software is our interface to the world and to others. So much of what we do is now online, accessible almost anywhere.

Virtually touch all of the things. Image hosted on the site Les idées des IESAViens.

Virtually touch all of the things. Image hosted on the site Les idées des IESAViens.

His interest for this book is looking at consumer products to see the daily uses of software as a tool instead of looking at programmers and the work they do. His interest is in the ways software adds a new dimension to our culture (Kindle Locations 626-627), something I will discuss further below. Manovich goes on to explain that the prevalence of new media in our culture masks the software that makes it all possible and declares that since “software development is gradually getting more democratized. It is, therefore, the right moment to start thinking theoretically about how software is shaping our culture, and how it is shaped by culture in its turn” (Kindle Locations 411-413). His aim in this book is to engage in software studies, especially with an emphasis on cultural software, maintaining that there seven categories of media application (Kindle Locations 452-469):

1) Media software - The creation of cultural artifacts (like music videos or memes) and interactive services (apps and websites) that “contain representations, ideas, beliefs, and aesthetic values” –> With the nod to music videos, this reminds me of Beyonce and her music videos, but it is also Microsoft Word, Dreamweaver, paint, and other “media authoring/editing” software.

2) “Accessing, appending, sharing, and remixing such artifacts” – Manovich mentions YouTube, Vimeo, Pinterest, and Tumblr, but, for me, Flickr’s pages on Creative Commons and the attributions users can allow and are required to follow offer a good example of people coming into contact with cultural software and having to engage with the affordances and limitations that the software’s creators and other users’ creators are placing on those who explore and use the site. Manovich mentions that this category overlaps with Media Software as sites that allow access to artifacts also allow for the editing and authoring, even going so far as to say that communication sites like Google are for publishing as well as creating content.

Manovich makes an interesting comment under this category, mention that, “Alternatively, we can define ‘content’ by listing genres, for instance, web pages, tweets, Facebook updates, casual games, multiplayer online games, user-generated video, search engine results, URLs, map locations, shared bookmarks, etc. Digital culture tends to modularize content, i.e., enabling users to create, distribute, and re-use discrete content elements— looping animations to be used as backgrounds for videos, 3D objects to be used in creating complex 3D animations, pieces of code to be used in websites and blogs, etc. (This modularity parallels the fundamental principle of modern software engineering to design computer programs from small reusable parts called functions or procedures.) All such parts also qualify as ‘content'” (Kindle Locations 495-501).

Image hosted on the site Dealer-Communications.

Image hosted on the site Dealer-Communications.

3) “Creating and sharing information online” – Manovich lists Wikipedia and Google Earth as sites for users to engage in the creation and sharing of information, but even this blog would be an example as I am sharing with visitors knowledge of Manovich’s work.

4) Communication technologies –> Gmail, Yahoo!, Facebook, Snapchat, FaceTime <– What’s interesting with this one is how often we create a culture around our communication technologies (such as iPhone vs. Android vs. Windows Phone) where certain service providers start to become more prevalent to our activities because of what they allow us to access and do (think of how often Facebook and Gmail are a way to log in to a website instead of filling out forms).

5) “Engaging in interactive cultural experiences” –> Manovich lists video games, but that could also extend out to apps like Zombies, Run!

6) “Participating in the online information ecology by preferences and adding metadata” –> data mining on sites like Amazon seem appropriate here, especially as they filter into spaces like Facebook and YouTube as advertisements based on your searches

Just keep buying and it will be ALL the data on your preferences. Image hosted on Tumblr.

Just keep buying and it will be ALL the data on your preferences. Image hosted on Tumblr.

7) “Developing software tools and services that support all of these activities [above]” –> Think of the people who designed YouTube or WordPress as larger examples of this, but Manovich also looks at smaller creations like a single theme being created for WordPress

Manovich mentions another category that has appeared in the wake of sharing apps, stating that “we should also include software tools for personal information management such as project managers, database applications, and simple text editors or note-taking apps that are included with every computer device being sold” (Kindle Locations 544-546). This would include software like Zotero that helps collect and store research source, as well as Drop Box and Evernote that can be synced across devices so long as there is internet connection and the app is downloaded. This information does not always have to be shared (unless the user prefers it that way) and can be maintained away from the public sphere, though even private files are not as safe as we believe them to be.

But, how much of our lives do we keep private? Manovich explores the social nature of current software and its uses: “However, since at the end of the 2000s, numerous software apps and services started to include email, post, and chat functions (often via a dedicated ‘Share’ menu), to an extent, all software became social software” (Kindle Locations 542-543). We do this all the time with articles we read on websites, we upload pictures we take to Flickr or Instagram, and we share statuses and tweets we like. I am constantly driving my best friends to distraction by sharing my favorite YouTube videos (as I do with every blog post), news articles, funny gifs, and and animal stories. We create a networked identity through what we choose to share from the sites we choose to explore and the communities we choose to share with. Manovich further explore the sociability of software and how culture shifts with software and software shifts with the culture:

“These and all other categories of software shift over time. For instance, during the 2000s the boundary between ‘personal information’ and ‘public information’ has been reconfigured as people started to routinely place their media on media sharing sites, and also communicate with others on social networks. In fact , the whole reason behind the existence of social media and social networking services and hosting websites is to erase this boundary as much as possible. By encouraging users to conduct larger parts of their social and cultural lives on their sites, these services can both sell more ads to more people and ensure the continuous growth of their user base. With more of your friends using a particular service and offering more information, media, and discussions there, you are more likely to also join that service”  (Kindle Locations 546-553).

Erasing the boundary should always look something like this. Image hosted on Tumblr.

Erasing the boundary should always look something like this. Image hosted on Tumblr.

Think of how often people go on Facebook or Twitter to post pictures of themselves, friends, pets, family. How often do people write statuses detailing not major moments in their lives, but small, day-to-day occurrences? For me, social media is kind of like a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) in that it is not the software that draws people in, but other people being active in that community. In no one played World of Warcraft, the game would collapse and fade into the memories of gamers and the archives of the internet. If people stopped posting on Facebook and turned off their accounts, the site would lose its advertisers and the site would most likely be shut down. People’s activities are at the core of social media, hence the title social. Businesses take advantage of these social spaces, collecting data from our searches on sites like Google, Amazon, and YouTube to strategically place advertisements, but in a way that can be more personalized than ads on television. These businesses rely on the belief that people will follow the trends of their loved ones and friends, and then these businesses loop their own sites back to the social media as a way to draw in more customers. One example would be Netflix and its option for users to share on Facebook what they have been watching on Netflix, potentially drawing in those who may not have Netflix or who may only have streaming versus getting the physical DVDs. Those who share their preferences with friends are doing the advertising work for Netflix, as is Facebook by allowing Netflix ads to appear in their interface. It becomes a social space, even though it is a private account.

Go on, take a peek at what your friends are watching. And then add to the cycle by displaying your favorites. It's all in the social, darling. Image hosted on a blog on the New York Times website.

Go on, take a peek at what your friends are watching. And then add to the cycle by displaying your favorites. It’s all in the social, darling. Image hosted on a blog on the New York Times website.

Following up on his list of cultural software categories, Manovich adds two more: programming environments and media interfaces. He includes programming environments because they are part of the process of making software, “Since creation of interactive media often involves writing some original computer code” (Kindle Locations 563-564). With media interfaces, Manovich reminds me of Bruno Latour’s Actor Network Theory as he lists the kinds of interfaces and how these interfaces are the connection between people and the software they use: “icons, folders , sounds, animations, vibrating surfaces, and touch screens— are also cultural software, since these interfaces mediate people’s interactions with media and other people” (Kindle Locations 565-566).

Manovich also sets up a dichotomy to explore:

“media/ content” versus “data/ information/ knowledge”

The example for media/content was that of a film, while an excel spreadsheet was listed for data/information/knowledge. However, Manovich mentions that, oftentimes, the dichotomy is blurred, with an object being both media and data. This intersection is really interesting as Manovich has projects where he makes visualizations of data, letting these two categories blend together. My favorite project of his is called Phototrails as it looks at photographs posted on Instagram from 13 cities around the world. In the case of Phototrails, the pictures become the data and the visualization becomes the content. However, there is another way in which these two categories blend and it is familiar to all of us who use the computer: “Of course, since media software operations (as well as any other computer processing of media for research, commercial or artistic purposes) are only possible because the computer represents media as data (discrete elements such as pixels, or equations defining vector graphics in vector files such as EPS), the development of media software and its adoption as the key media technology (discussed in this book) is an important contributor to the gradual coming together of media and data” (Kindle Locations 595-598). Video games do this as well when they take the binary codes underlying the gameplay and produce images, music, videos, and actions to take for the users. What we are seeing as media is made possible through the data and we interact with that data to engage with the media.

 New Vocabulary

* Metamedium – “was coined in 1977 by researchers at computer Americans Alan Kay and Adele Goldberg to refer to the ability of computers to influence other media (the media , the singular medium ) and to simulate the features, or to transform into other media in function of the software executed by the computer itself (obviously in the presence of appropriate hardware and peripherals)” (Google translated from an Italian page on “metamedia” on Wikipedia).

*Cultural Software – It is “cultural in a sense that it is directly used by hundreds of millions of people and that it carries ‘atoms’ of culture —is only the visible part of a much larger software universe” (Manovich, Kindle Locations 231-232). When Manovich uses the phrase cultural software, he is talking about the software that underlie “actions we normally associate with ‘culture,'” such as YouTube, Facebook, cell phone apps, and Adobe Photoshop.

* Software Studies “has to investigate the role of software in contemporary culture, and the cultural and social forces that are shaping the development of software itself” (Manovich, Kindle Locations 287-288).

Manovich develops this further by discussing topics software studies underlie: “I think of software as a layer that permeates all areas of contemporary societies. Therefore, if we want to understand contemporary techniques of control, communication, representation, simulation, analysis, decision-making, memory, vision, writing, and interaction, our analysis cannot be complete until we consider this software layer. Which means that all disciplines which deal with contemporary society and culture— architecture, design, art criticism, sociology, political science, art history, media studies, science and technology studies, and all others— need to account for the role of software and its effects in whatever subjects they investigate” (Kindle Locations 369-373).

*Media Software – “programs that are used to create and interact with media objects and environments” and “a subset of the larger category of ‘application software’— the term which is itself in the process of changing its meaning as desktop applications (applications which run on a computer) are supplemented by mobile apps (applications running on mobile devices) and web applications (applications which consist of a web client and the software running on a server)”  (Kindle Location 517 and 517-520) –> This kind of software “enables creation, publishing, accessing, sharing, and remixing different types of media (such as image sequences, 3D shapes, characters, and spaces, text, maps, interactive elements), as well as various projects and services which use these elements” (Kindle Location 520-522)

Let's all bound for joy together. Image hosted on the site Love This Pic.

Let’s all bound for joy together. Image hosted on the site Love This Pic.

Citations

Manovich, Lev. Software Takes Command. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013. Kindle Edition.

Moving Forward Towards Another Project


MediaCommons Survey Response: ‘How has reblogging and reblogging culture on sites like Tumblr and Twitter complicated the notion of authorship?’

I proposed to respond, and was invited this week to post a response, to the MediaCommons frontpage survey question and video interview with Max Marshall: How has reblogging and reblogging culture on sites like Tumblr and Twitter complicated the notion of authorship?

Here’s the interview with Max Marshall that, along with the survey question, prompted my response.

My response, “Laminated Identity: Author(iz)ed Sharing on Facebook” and the conversation that follows, is posted on MediaCommons.

MediaCommons Survey Response: ‘How has reblogging and reblogging culture on sites like Tumblr and Twitter complicated the notion of authorship?’

I proposed to respond, and was invited this week to post a response, to the MediaCommons frontpage survey question and video interview with Max Marshall: How has reblogging and reblogging culture on sites like Tumblr and Twitter complicated the notion of authorship?

Here’s the interview with Max Marshall that, along with the survey question, prompted my response.

My response, “Laminated Identity: Author(iz)ed Sharing on Facebook” and the conversation that follows, is posted on MediaCommons.

Reading Notes: 2/27

Canonical Books Assignment:

Baudrillard, Jean. The Illusion of the End. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1992. Print.

The Event Strike:

"What we seek now is not glory but identity, not an illusion but, on the contrary, an accumulation of proofs - anything that can serve as evidence of a historical existence" (21).
Baudrillard opens his chapter with this claim. Replacing the generationally repeated tales of epic glory that represented immortality, we turn to a frenzied gathering of personal history to assure ourselves that we exist and propel ourselves into immortal remembrance.

The source of the frenzy, this need to collect history, can be traced to our construct of time as linear. As Baudrillard explains, there can be no idea of something as history unless it exists as a point along linear time. Once that point has passed, the linear structure forces us to accept that the point can not be returned to; it has passed into a historical "event." And if all of our lives we hang between a past that has disappeared and the threat of an inevitable "end of the line" - the event strike itself, then we are never reassured of our existence or survival. Thus the frenzy.

It immediately reminded me of the new Facebook time line displayed in the screen shot below. The new feature is set up in a linear fashion, with the years someone has been a member listed on the side and with the ability to organize photos, interests, relationship statuses, and all the other various "proofs" of his or her existence.

CC Screen Shot of Facebook Timeline from Suzanne Sink

However, Baudrillard argues that instead of these accumulations working to create a linear (the word time line itself suggesting such a linearity) history, they merely "fall into the order of the recyclable" (27). He does not see time in this linear fashion; therefore, he concludes that the historical events are not gone. They merely await resurrection, so as friends view time lines and interact with the past in this way, the ideas and events will inevitably be recycled again and again.

He might argue we need not expend energy gathering tidbits of remembrances, which is rather a liberating argument to make in this age of hyper-documented living.


The Thawing of the East:

This short chapter outlines Baudrillard's belief that the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe will allow for a cultural exchange and expanded communication between the West and the East. However, he warns of the danger of such rapid expansion that is generally followed by rapid collapse. He sees in the new openness a disruption of balance that could bring freedom to the East but eventual economic instability to the West.

Another potential problem is in our revisionist impulses, which he covers further in later chapters. This communal (re)creation of the past "whitewashes" our history, allowing us to retract the violence of war and revolution and return to an "initial state" from which we can begin again, clean and fresh (32-33).

If we forget our past, will it liberate us to forget all the slights and grievances, start new and on equal footing? Or does it mean will be doomed to recreate it, having unlearned its lessons?

I am prone to believe these are not mutually exclusive results. Can we ever really wipe the slate clean? Should we? I for one would like to know what had been on the slate. What knowledge had we acquired and attempted to share before it was made clean? The emptiness does promise possibilities, but those possibilities include the repetition of previous mistakes. Perhaps we should do what I do in my own classroom. Start writing on the board along the side of the room, leaving the other notes in tact.

Chalkboard
CC Image Posted on Flickr by nokozin

The Strategy of Dissolution:

Michael Jackson replaces Stalin
CC Image Posted on Filckr by Jonathan Marks

Michael Jackson replaces Stalin
"There used to be a statue of Stalin in the communist period. It beamed across the river into the old town from a park on hill just North of the old town. The statue was removed and replaced with a sort of metronome. I climbed the 254 stairs to the top to find a skateboard park and a sort of shrine to the late Michael Jackson." - Jonathan Marks, July 2, 2009

I think the photo above proves exactly the kind of cultural exchange that Baudrillard claimed would develop between the East and the West after the fall of communism.  However, this exchange does not come without Baudrillard's repeating conclusion that these communication advances have a diminishing effect (see the discussion about the void from The Ascent of the Vacuum Towards the Periphery) on the value of the information and culture overall. He argued that "if democratic values spread so easily, by a capillary or communicating vessels effect, then they must have liquefied, they must now be worthless" (44). The values that had once been "held dear and dearly bought" are now so easily bought and sold that their worth is cheapened. Without struggle there can be no appreciation. Something given and taken so freely and easily can have no value.

It is clear that Baudrillard was rather prophetic in many aspects:
  • He sees how the overwhelming amount of information that is so easily bounced over the globe and into the void so instantaneously has brought an emptiness to our culture. We long to find meaning, but so often anything of worth is lost in the crushing information wave that inundates us at every waking moment. "Language seems to wish to go beyond its intentional operation and get caught up in its own dizzy whirl" (37).
  • Baudrillard sees the spread as infectious and causing dis-ease.  
  • He posits that the "model of viral collapse" initiated by the fall of communism will be passed on to other countries desirous of "a virulence of destructive power" (38). In this new era of free-flowing information and exchange, his prediction is borne out by the collapse of power during the Arab Spring of 2011, quite a virulent spread with technology given much credit for making information widely-known and organization possible.
In the end, I am more optimistic than Baudrillard. While I see many of the same cultural losses as he, I also see the many more benefits that technology and the new media have brought about. Perhaps this is where the text becomes dated. Had Baudrillard written this today, would he be less pessimistic about the cultural ruin he so often alludes to? I do feel there is a saturation point that makes it difficult to process the information, a lack of depth to make room for breadth, and a devaluation of information that is so quickly and readily exchanged without consideration. However, for technology and media, the same rule applies that applies to all other things in life: moderation is the key.

Perhaps the take away message is that we all need to remember to step away from the keyboards and screens from time to time. Stop and move at the non-technologically-enhanced pace of humanness. I do not want to lose the value of experiences in my rush to document them and follow the documents of others.

Perhaps it is best to leave this post in the hands of another great thinker/poet/theorist/philosopher....





I think Baudrillard would approve.


Also Read:

The Timisoara Massacre:

The Illusion of War: