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Reading Notes_delayed from October 27th

Part 2 of Manovich’s Software Takes Command reading notes, with part one hashing out the categories of cultural software.

Lev Manovich divides his book into three parts: 1)Inventing media software,” 2) “Hybridization and evolution,” and 3) “Software in action.”

Because my New Text Report will be centered on Manovich’s text, I am going to focus primarily on the “Inventing media software” section since that will not feature as much in my report. So let’s start with what Manovich sees as the “secret history of software” and look briefly at the major movers-and-shakers of the software/hardware world:

Creator of the Universal Turing Machine, Image hosted on the blog for the UK-based 27 Stars.

Creator of the Universal Turing Machine, Image hosted on the blog for the UK-based 27 Stars.

Though Manovich does not spend a lot of time discussing Alan Turing and the Universal Turing Machine, he does make it clear that Turing is one of the key foundational people who made today’s computers and World Wide Web possible. Manovich states that Turing’s work “theoretically defined a computer as a machine that can simulate a very large class of other machines, and it is this simulation ability that is largely responsible for the proliferation of computers in modern society” (Kindle Locations 1286-1288). To supplement Manovich’s scattered comments about Turing, I turned to other sources: 27Stars’ blog entry on Turing, biographical website on Turing by Andrew Hodges, and the BBC section on the mathematicianOne article I found absolutely fascinating on the UK’s Daily Mail website is the work still being done with the film about Turing, “Imitation Game,” by academics.

**Side note: He was definitely not the most humanely treated man on the planet, as he was subjected to chemical castration for being a gay man and has only recently received posthumous pardon from the Queen of England.

Manovich also highlights over the work of Douglas Engelbart and Ted Nelson, who were integral to hyperlinking that we use all the time (I know I do!).

Douglas Engelbart_creator of the mouse and all around computer-New-Media badass. Image hosted on the site Telepresence Options.

Douglas Engelbart_creator of the mouse and all around computer-New-Media badass. Image hosted on the site Telepresence Options.

Ted Nelson_hyperlink pioneer. Image hosted on ComputerHistory.org.

Ted Nelson_hyperlink pioneer. Image hosted on ComputerHistory.org.

These two men are probably the coolest computer techies I have read about in Manovich’s text as they helped shape the kind of culture we have on the interwebs. While Engelbart is famous for inventing the computer mouse along with Bill English, he is also known for his team’s development of “the ability for multiple users to collaborate on the same document” (Kindle Locations 1309-1310). The collaborative nature of the second development is something we use heavily in the New Media course as we work together on Google Docs (along with other software available through the Google Drive) and sites like Wikipedia (and the horde of smaller wikis that are cropping up, like this one on New Media). Manovich also explores Ted Nelson’s (paralleled with Engelbart’s) designing of a way to link documents together in what is now known as hyperlinking, though Manovich points out that the hyperlinks we use today are just one of the options Nelson pointed out in his theoretical works.

Despite Turing, Engelbart, and Nelson being super stars in the computer world, Manovich spends much of his time centered on Alan Kay and his “universal media machine” (with the name being a play off of the Univeral Turing Machine): “Kay wanted to turn computers into a ‘personal dynamic media’ which could be used for learning, discovery, and artistic creation. His group achieved this by systematically simulating most existing media within a computer while simultaneously adding many new properties to these media” (Kindle Locations 1196-1198). In essence, Kay and his Learning Research Group at Xerox Parc set about to simulate existing media (such as print, film, and sound) within a single machine (rather than watching a movie on your TV, using a typewriter, or turning on a radio, and so on) while also adding new dimensions of what could be done with each of these mediums, for “while visually, computational media may closely mimic other media, these media now function inf different ways” (Kindle Locations 1206-1207). But what does this mean? How can existing media now have different functions than before they were accessible on a computer?

Alan Kay, one of the masterminds who worked towards creating what Manovich terms “personal dynamic media” (Kindle Location 1202). Image hosted on Cyborg Anthropology.

Alan Kay, one of the masterminds who worked towards creating what Manovich terms “personal dynamic media”
(Kindle Location 1202). Image hosted on Cyborg Anthropology.

Let’s work through an example Manovich brings up: word processor. Because my computer is such a prevalent part of my life and my work (especially as a grad student), I take using Microsoft Word for granted. The software will never do ALL of the things I want it to, but it functions and I know how to use most of its features. So why is a word processor on a computer something to take notice of? Well, think about your relationship with your writing when you write with a pen/pencil and paper compared to when you compose on a computer screen. Both have limitations and affordances that the other may share, but not always. Personally, writing by hand is my preference because I can move the papers every which way I want without being constrained by screen size and I have as many pages as I want scattered about me without needing one to overlap another. On the other side, though, composing on a computer allows me to copy and paste without extra effort on my part (clicking a few buttons vs. rewriting entire sections). And then there comes issues with distribution. Yes, I could physically hand over a copy of my handwritten work to a professor or colleague or whoever else would see my work, but a computer that has access to the interwebs allows me to email work, upload documents to learning sites, share work through this blog, and so on instantaneously (in most cases, though not always). Composing on the computer also feels less permanent in the way that pushing delete a few times will erase what I had previously written without leaving a visible mark (we’ll leave that thought here because that would be one hell of a rabbit hole to fall through), but there is also a deeper sense of permanency because what going into the interwebs and now the Cloud is archived so long as there is an archive.

Whew, that was quite a tangent, and that was only looking at a few aspects of word processing software that many of us use but don’t always take the time to thoroughly consider. And this is exactly Manovich’s point in this first section of the book. Much of our Web culture is founded on software that is invisible to us so long as it is functioning. Once something breaks down–such as a site not working, a blog entry not saving, a browser freezing up, a digital game glitching — we start to take notice of the software running our work, hobbies, shopping experiences, and information gathering.

Collaborative writing is another space where the developments in this “secret history of software” makes looking at the current Web’s affordances interesting. Manovich talks about collaborative writing/editing spaces on the Web (spaces that include pictures, video, sound files, and text), which have altered approaches to information: “By harvesting the small amounts of labor and expertise contributed by a large number of volunteers , social software projects— most famously, Wikipedia— created vast and dynamically updatable pools of knowledge which would be impossible to create in traditional ways . (In a less visible way, every time we do a search on the Web and then click on some of the results, we also contribute to a knowledge-set used by everybody else. In deciding in which sequence to present the results of a particular search, Google’s algorithms take into account which among the results of previous searches for the same words people found most useful)” (Kindle Locations 1317-1321). These sites (or search engines) are not static texts waiting for the next edition. They are constantly being updated, reviewed, changed, expanded, and deleted as people access them as readers, writers, and editors. And anyone who has access to the Interwebs can potentially access these sites and become writers/editors (though there are practices in place where the sites’ moderators attempt to review information for accuracy). We are consumers and producers in the information age.

Here’s a terrible example of collaboration, but an example nonetheless. Do love watching Stephen Colbert, though, that crazy man.

Is the Web a truly democratic space? Yes and no. Manovich states that, “at least in Kay’s and Nelson’s vision, the task of defining new information structures and media manipulation techniques— and, in fact, new media as a whole —was given to the user, rather than being the sole province of the designers. This decision had far-reaching consequences for shaping contemporary culture. Once computers and programming were democratized enough, many creative people started to focus on creating these new structures and techniques rather than using the existing ones to make ‘content'” (Kindle Locations 1484-1488). There may have been some democratization of computers and programming, but there are still obstacles to learning the binary code underlying software: financial ability to purchase the hardware, time to learn to code, access to any external resources (guide books, forums, wikis), mental capability/interest, and (at times) familial/societal/cultural expectations on whether such a thing is a worthy pursuit (or waste of time). There is a definite learning curve in regards to attempts with programming. If you are like me, all of the zeroes and ones make my brain swirly and I scurry back to the comfort of letters.

An attempt at democratizing computers. Image hosted on Amazon.

An attempt at democratizing computers. Image hosted on Amazon.

Citation

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

Shipping the Arrow and His IT Lady Love


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