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:
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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.
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. Lets 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 operators 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?