“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?
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.
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).
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
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).
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.
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.
* 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)
Moving Forward Towards Another Project