Behind the Blip: Software as Culture
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There are two questions which I would like to begin with.
Firstly, to ask, what kind of critical and inventive thinking is required to take the various movements in software forward into those relatively straightforward areas which are necessary if software oligopolies are to be undermined, to develop the capacity for unleashing the unexpected upon software and the certainties which form it.
Secondly, what are the currents of software which are emerging which demand and incorporate new ways of thinking about software?
One of the ways to think about this problem is to imagine it as a series of articles from a new kind of computer magazine (1). What would happen if writers about computers expanded their horizons from the usual close focus on benchtests and bit-rates? What would happen if we weren't looking at endless articles detailing the functionality of this or that new version of this or that application? What if we could think a little more broadly - beyond the usual instructional articles describing how to use this filter or that port? What for instance, would it mean to have a fully fledged 'software criticism'?
Firstly, let's look at what already exists. Certainly, we are not short of examples of prior art. In terms of the academy, Sociology for instance offers: Jeannette Hofmann's descriptions of the gendering of word processor software and its patterns of use within work (2); Paul N. Edwards' history of the development of computer technologies through the models of science promotable at the height of the early cold war (3); Michael R. Curry's formulation of a technico-aesthetic economy of signification and ownership in Geographic Information Systems (4); Donald MacKenzie's work on the political implications of floating point unit calculations in the design of missile guidance systems, (5) the list goes on. Material based around philosophy and literature: Michael Heim's, Electric Language (6); and the contributions of Friedrich Kittler, despite his assertions that the object of attention here does not exist, all provide resources. We can also look to texts which come out of bookshops, but that don't get libraried up so much: Howard Rheingold's Tools for Thought (7) and Jay David Boulter's, 'Turing's Man' for instance. This list is certainly short, but it does continue. The creation of imaginary bookshelves is as good as way of thinking through combination as the imaginary museum, and there are three areas in particular which seem to offer elements recomposable into a more thoroughgoing strand of thought about and with software.
Human Computer Interface
Human Computer Interface (HCI) is obviously one area that should be turned to. This is after all the point at which the hidden machinations of the computer are compelled to make themselves available in some way or another to a user. The way the computer makes available such use, what assumptions are made about what possible interactions might develop, are fundamentally cultural.
Given this, HCI has an unusually narrow understanding of its scope. Much of the rhetoric is about empowerment and the sovereignty of the user, whose 'personality', shapes and dialogues with the machine. It should be asked what model of a persona, what 'human' is engineered by HCI, and not settling for answers that stray anywhere near the singalong themetune of 'empowerment'. (Let us not forget that much of the methodology of HCI is still derived from that which led B.F. Skinner to assume that he could train pigeons - in the days before cruise - to act as primitive guidance systems for missiles.)
It seems clear that the vast majority of research and production in this area is concerned with imposing functionalist models of all those systems that cohere as the user. Make no mistake, HCI works. It is productive because it belongs to a long line of disciplinary idealisations of the human. When it comes to designing the most suitable combination of ergonomics and information design to ensure that a pilot can drop bombs or stockbrokers can move funds, in the most efficient, information rich, yet graphically and emotionally uncluttered manner, HCI delivers the goods. In these cases, reaction times; the number of interactive steps from task identification to task execution can be measured. The results can be tabulated against variants of the system. The whole can be fine-tuned, pixels shifted, operatives retrained: the loop between stimulus and response tightened into a noose. This is the fatal end-point of the standard mode of HCI. It empowers the user, by modelling them, and in doing so effects their disappearance, their incorporation into its models.
There are, of course, many 'human-centred' variants on such designs. Yet this kind of naming illustrates its fatal flaw. There is still a model of the human being imposed here. Some developments in software design have been made by acknowledging this. Alan Cooper's (8) method for instance, works by establishing a number of stereotypical users of a system and then reworking it, primarily in terms of interface, in order to meet an aggregate of their needs. The deliberate fiction of user identities is made visible at the design stage in order to allow greater insight into the techno-aesthetic composition of the software. A small, useful step would be to make these manufactured identities and treat them as psycho-social open source (9).
More broadly, much could be gained by a change in the focus of HCI. In its emphasis on perception, on narrowly applied psychology, it has split the user from any context. One thing that is interesting about software is how it contains models of involvement with processes rather than simply with static elements - think about groupware, or the way in which most previously discrete applications have become part of wider suites of processes, to say nothing about the inherently modular nature of Unix. What would it mean to incorporate an explicitly wider notion of such processes into software - to reinfuse the social, the dynamic, the networks, the political, communality (perhaps even rather, or as well as, privacy) - into the contained model of the individualised user that HCI has us marked down for?
Another pre-existing area that offers insights for an understanding of software as culture is the tradition of accounts of their work by programmers. Key texts are Larry Wall's Perl as a Postmodern Programming Language (10) and Ellen Ullman's Close to the Machine (11). Both of these in their own ways document the interrelation of programming with other formations, cultural, social, aesthetic. These are drives that are built into and compose software rather than use it as a neutral tool.
These accounts of programming are somewhat odds with the idealist tendencies in computing. In the recent film based on Robert Harris' novel Enigma one of the characters makes the claim most succinctly: "With numbers, truth and beauty are the same thing." Such statements are the pop-science version of the attractions of so-called 'pure' mathematics. It is also the vision of numbers that most often finds its way to the big screen (think also of the film Pi where a cute crazy loner struggles for a glimpse of the numerical meta-reality). But more crucially, they are a direct route to the european cultural backbone of classical idealism. There are harmonious relations between forms of every kind that can be understood through the relations between numbers. The closer they are to achieving purity of form the more beautiful they become. There is an end point to this passage to beauty which is absolute beauty. Access to and understanding of this beauty is allowed only to those souls which are themselves beautiful.
The consequences of such ordering are of course clear, if only in the brutality of their collaboration with and succour for hierarchies of every kind. The shabby, kitschy end of this tendency is found in computing in accounts such as The Aesthetics of Computing (12). But it is far more violently enhanced by computing when it works to provide an aesthetics of social control. There are far more opportunities offered by constructionist and fabulatory approaches. Numbers do not provide big answers, but opportunities to explore further manifold and synthetic possibilities - that is to say, that they provide access to more figures.
Under the aisle headings critical, social, political, cultural, material, visual, aesthetic or blahblah theory there is an warehouse of tools available, tools which are held back from invading the conceptual domains of software by the myth of its own neutrality as a tool. These rubrics themselves are only really of any use when they are disengenuous, when they don't quite fit. For this reason, there's no option of chewing though the Dewey Decimal System and tabulating them. (The use of the term theory is here meant simply: as that which develops a model of an approach to the material it works on as it uses it and with which it shares an equal importance in terms of its production. It therefore acts in relation to other such models at the same time as operating in the field on which it attends to. This might be true to some extent in terms of writings on HCI and in programmers' self-accounts, but these are always primarily rather than equally concerned in epistemological terms with the accomplishment of an instrumental task.) Here, it is only necessary to make two suggestions, one in terms of scale, the other in terms of activity.
In general, critiques of technologies, particularly media, are made on the basis of a category or class of objects, rather than specific instances of that class (13). Perhaps the timescale of literary production precludes anything else, but it is also a question of pretensions to timelessness. Why spend time working into a piece of software, when it'll be reversioned in a couple of months? The kind of material that is now gathered to beat students about the heads with as 'cyberculture' is generally exemplary in this way. Would it not make more of the gift of your wisdom to the human race to ponder the verities of some enormous category that will combine shelf-longevity and discourse redeployment potential? It is not that such work is strictly non-empirical, but that in being concerned with offering grand theory-panoramas and generic summations any chance of latching into particularities, particularly those against which such concepts can be tested, disappears under the clouds.
That timescale need also not be determined by corporate release schedules in producing an analysis of software is suggested by Donald Knuth (14) when he proposes a deceptively simple task for computer scientists: analyse every process that your computer executes in one second. The number of tasks, writing at the end of the eighties, he suggests will be around 250,000. Perhaps this would provide sufficient scope? Timelessness condenses, and the researcher appears years later having annotated an entire second's worth of hundreds of thousands of instructions. Most of the transcript would of course consist of repetitions of instructions carried out on minutely incremental changes in variables. Why not contaminate this simple telling of the story of what goes on inside a computer with its all-too-cultural equivalent? The transcript of the contents of a mind over one day, or of a memory in the transit of a morsel of cake from plate to mouth, provided opportunities for sentences in 'fiction' to slide in and out of scale, from layer to layer, in convulsions of sprouting, connecting text. Perhaps this can also be done at this scale?
At another scale, one of the advantages of the work of Jakob Nielsen, Donald Norman and others is precisely that they focus in on very specific problems, albeit those of a narrow cast and range of interpretation. Although they tend to deal, and Nielsen foremost, in a somewhat over-literal application of cybernetic 'constraint' rather than the generation of its twin, 'freedom', their focus allows them to claim at the very least the rhetorical power of practice. Nit-picking has the capacity to become another mode of the war of the flea. Theorisations of software that are able to operate on the level of a particular version of a program, a particular file structure, protocol, sampling algorithm, colour-scheme, public interface, request for comments, and so on, are necessary. Further, it is essential to understand any such element or event as only one layer or node in a wider set of intersecting and multi-scalar formations. That is to say that, whilst within a particular set of conditions its function might well be to impose stasis upon another element, such an effect cannot always be depended upon. In addition, whilst one might deal with a particular object, it must always be understood not as something static, although it may never change, but to be operating in participial (15) terms.
Such a focus on the unfolding of particularities, with an attention to how they are networked out into further vectors, layers and nodes of classes, instrumentalisations, panics, quick fixes, slow collapses, the sheerly alien fruitfulness of digital abundance, ways in which they can be taken up and made strange, mundane, beautiful, will at least ensure two things. Firstly, that it busts the locks on the tastefully interiored prison of stratified interdisciplinarity. It would be a dire fate to end up with a repetition of the infinitely recessive corridor of depleted jargons and zombie conferencing of Film Studies. Secondly, and in terms of activity, that an engaged processes of writing on software might reasonably hope to avoid the fate of much recent cultural theory, that is to say, to step outside of its over-eager subordination to one end of the schematic of information theory: reception.
Aversion to the electronic - a hallmark of conceptuality?
As an example of where theoretical work presents us with an opportunity to go further I want to run through a particular example.
In their book, What is Philosophy (16) Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, present a back to basics manifesto. Philosophy has become the domain of men whose occupation is the construction of vast hulks of verbiage. Immense dark ships with their single-minded captains, vessels constructed of words, unable, unwilling even to communicate amongst themselves and which as a result, pass each other by in the night.
The book is at once a rescue of philosophy from its status as doomed elite subculture staffed by the populations of the soon-to-be closed ghost departments of the universities of Europe, but also as a restatement of the primary task of philosophy: the invention of concepts. In order to state their case for this, they need to clear the decks of other ways in which the term is used. One of the problems facing their use of this term is, they see, that:
"In successive challenges, philosophy faced increasingly insolent and calamitous rivals that Plato himself would have never imagined in his most comic moments. Finally the most shameful moment came when computer science, marketing, design and advertising, all the disciplines of communication, seized hold of the word concept itself and said: 'This is our concern, we are the creative ones, we are the ideas men! we are the friends of the concept, we put it in our computers."' (17)
As is well known, their work is a substantial resource. However, it appears that there is a particular blockage, much more so in the work of Deleuze than of Guattari (18), when it comes to a useable theorisation of media. There is a tendency here which is typical, not just of their work, but of much theoretical work throughout that of the Twentieth Century. Whilst some media systems, such as books, music, painting, film, etc. are entered into with a profound spirit of exploration and invention, those that are electronic are treated as being fundamentally suspicious.
As a result, their work, jumps in and out of various similarly short and undifferentiated takes on electronic media. My claim here in short is that electronic media do participate in 'conceptuality'. That the conceptual personae that they so suggestively propose in What is Philosophy can be read as a proposal for an understanding of software as a form of digital subjectivity, that software constructs sensoriums. That each piece of software constructs ways of seeing, knowing, and doing in the world that at once contain a model of that part of the world it ostensibly pertains to and that also shape it every time it is used. (This is what Kathy Acker points to when the stolen software in Empire of the Senseles appears as a live severed head.) Further, that each software element commonly interprets and remodulates what is understood to be the same, or a similar, process. For instance, the various takes on text-processing presented by editors such as BBEdit, VI, Word, LayTeX, etc. (19)
Whilst this domain of non-philosophical concepts is characterised as shameless and inane it is unusual to find these materialists drawing such a concrete boundary beyond which creation and an experimental politics cannot not exist. My impression is though, that this is the result of a confusion, which can be read through conflicting tendencies in their own work. These should be read as pointers to problematics which certainly exist in the production of a theory of software. They are warnings, but ones that cannot be said to provide absolute stoppage to the inventive powers that lie in this area.
The tension between the approaches combined in their writings is clear. In terms of the wider field of electronic media it is perhaps best seen in the way in which TV is described as a force that bridges the gap between the Althusserian models of repression and ideology, by offering simultaneous subjection and enslavement. That is, that the viewer recognises themselves as the subject of interpolation of the television, but at the same time is in a state of cybernetic submission to its sequence of switches, flashes of light and bursts of input. (20)
Anyone who has watched CNN during the war over the monopoly on terror will know the moralistic slavery that is already presupposed of its audience by these broadcasters, the 'we' that is called to order by its clatter of statements and opinions. What Deleuze and Guattari describe is clearly a tendency, an attractor, within media systems, but cannot be said to be a compelling description. Instead such theoretical positions need to be opened up.
Whilst they are almost useless in their direct characterisations of electronic media, the tools to do some of this opening up can of course be found in the same books. In their writings on war machines - assemblages at any scale and of any type that attack or break free of total positioning systems - and their relationships to state formations, they note that:
'(Doubtless) the State apparatus tends to bring uniformity to the regimes, by disciplining its armies, by making work a fundamental unit, in other words, by imposing its own traits. But it is not impossible for weapons and tools, if they are taken up by new assemblages of metamorphosis, to enter other relations of alliance' (21)
Computers must be understood already as assemblages. In his 'Lectures on Computation', Richard Feynman notes research that specifies thirteen levels to an operating system. "This goes from level 1, that of electronic circuitry - registers, gates, buses - to number 13, the Operating System Shell, which manipulates the user programming environment. By a hierarchical compounding of instructions, basic transfers of 1's and 0's on level one are transformed, by the time we get to thirteen, into commands to land aircraft in a simulation or check whether a forty digit number is prime." (22) Since the time of his writing, 1984, many more additional 'levels' have become involved, the various protocols of interface, licensing, network, the ways in which computation has been coded and styled for various markets, are only a few examples. What is contended here is that any one of these levels provides an opportunity for critique, but more importantly - for forms of theorisation and practice that break free of any preformatted uniformity. Since it is what they are further assembled with that determines their metamorphosis, it is the task of such practical and theoretical work to open these layers up to the opportunity of further assemblage.
Curiously, this is precisely the lesson that Deleuze and Guattari draw from another form of electronic media, the synthesiser. What is the "thought synthesiser" (23) that they suggest? By assembling modules, source elements, and elements for treating concepts (oscillators, generators and transformers) by arranging microintervals, the synthesiser makes conceptualisable the Philosophical process, the production of that process itself, and puts us in contact with other elements of matter. In this machine of its materiality and force, thought travels, becomes mobile, synthesises.
Why in their reading of the synthesiser is there no dismay at humans merely providing a relay system between the variable actuations of a circuit board? It is certainly to pay attention to the wider assemblages which they form and are formed by. Because to describe the synthesiser as terminally as they do the TV would be to give up, to stop making a machine in the machine.
Instead of criticism, software criticism per se then what I want to suggest is that we pay attention to some practices within software production that emerge with and through thought out of whack with its simple reproduction.
Criticism proper, the self-abrogated privilege of judgement, is always predicated on finding itself absent from what it critiques. This true thought of the outside is that which can find no point of connection with what it surveys, except that is in pleasure in the announcement of its absolute corruption. Is anyone capable of such magnificent isolation? And this is why it is necessary to present some models of software production that contain engines for its theorisation. These are models that have arisen from work done over the last few years by a number of groups. No special claim is made that they exhaust any set of possibilities, nor that any of these models excludes characteristics given under another heading, they simply form notes on work going on.
One of the ways in which the currents described here first became manifest is in the creation of pieces of software designed explicitly to pull the rug from underneath normalised understandings of software. In 1957 Roland Barthes prefaced Mythologies his collection of essays on the common-sensical mores of then contemporary French bourgeois life with the phrase, "Sarcasm is the condition of truth". Nowadays, there is no need to dispute sarcasm's unique access to enlightenment. What is redundant now is any conditionality. Sarcasm is truth. Critical software is a voyage into that truth by means of its own devices.
What are the ways in which critical software operates? There are two key modes. Firstly by using the evidence presented by normalised software to construct an arrangement of the objects, protocols, statements, dynamics, sequences of interaction, which allow its conditions of truth to become manifest. This is the mode of operation of the installation, 'A Song for Occupations' which simply maps out the entire interface of Microsoft Word to revel the blue-grey labyrinth in which writing is so happily lost. Richard Wright's CD ROM Hello World also takes a similar tack in making a comparative analysis of the interfaces and data structures - and consequent ways of knowing, seeing and doing - of various video editing and effects packages such as Quantel, After Effects and Flame.
The second way in which Critical Software may be said to exist is in the various instances of software which runs, just like a normal application except one which has been fundamentally twisted to reveal the underlying construction of the user, the way the program treates data, and the transduction and coding processes of the interface. Much of this work has been acheived in terms of games. JODI's work on Wolfenstein and Quake is paradigmatic here but there is a whole run of work, using mod files and patches that can be seen in this light. Additionally, there is a strand of work which has been cracked and messed with, by means of programs such as ResEdit in order to gain access to its kernel of truth. The interfaces of standard software packages are rewritten (24). Perhaps some of the actions defacing web-sites can also said to belong to this current? (25) What this work does is to make apparent the processes of normalisation operating at many scales within software, the ways in which - for instance - millions of seperate writing acts are dedifferentiated by the various layers of a word-processing program. By acting within it in a way that is both investigative and emetic it points towards a move beyond the boundaries observed in simple institutional critique, towards other modes of creation. Not only that, but it performs the necessary task of allowing a negativistic maggot to remain in all the golden apples of the two currents that follow, lest they be mistaken for a simply positive contribution to the empire of happiness.
Social Software can provisionally be said to have two strands. Primarily it is software built by and for those of us locked out of the narrowly engineered subjectivity of mainstream software. It is software which asks itself what kind of currents, what kind of machine, numerical, social and other dynamics it feeds in and out of, and what others can be brought into being?
The second current is related to this. It is software that is directly born, changed and developed as the result of an ongoing sociability between users and programmers in which demands are made on the practices of coding that exceed their easy fit into standardised social relations
These two threads interweave in most cases. It is how they do so, how their multiple elements are brought into communication and influence that determines their level of success.
I would like to suggest that Free Software can be usefully understood to work in these terms. It is a socio-technical pact between users of certain forms of license, language, and environment. The various forms of free or open source software are developed as part of the various rhythms of life of software production. In addition, new social machines are invented to spawn the code, to diffuse and manage its development.
The pace and style of life in these forms of software development and diffusion can be understood to form their internal culture. For many, this is a functional utopia for coders, brought about by digital abundance. Much could be said about the way in which open source code inter-relates with the world of work. How class libraries function as a form of solidarity between programmers in minimising labour-time, but also, how technical obscurantism is necessitated in order to maintain the caste privilege.
Thus, the second thread in this proposed conception of social software is partially met by the open source movement. The ongoing sociability between users and programmers is there precisely because the users and programmers are one and the same. As is commonly acknowledged, this has provided the motivating force for the first stages of this movement. Why is Apache the best web server software? Because it is written by those who know these systems best.
But this has also formed a blockage to wider uptake of such systems. Free Software is too internalist. The relation between its users and its developers is so isomorphic that there is extreme difficulty in breaking out of that productive, but constricted circle. One way out of this is seen as finding ways in which free software can bring itself into communication with users who are not also its primary developers. This is crucial, but it is how it is done, and how it weaves this connection with the first thread of social software that will determine its success. The imaginal capacity to enter into relations of becoming, of machine, technical, aesthetic and social dynamics - and it is here that free software now faces its biggest problem.
Free software taps into the dynamics of mutual aid, of shared resources, code conservation and of plagiarism to get itself made. Now it needs to begin to set technico-aesthetic agendas which blow open the ways of sensing, knowing and doing built into proprietary software. Death to bludgeoning pseudo-rationalism and the feature-breeding world as office. Supposedly free software projects such as K Office are fundamentally flawed. They may have freedom in the sense of free speech, but this speech is not the result of free thought. This software is dead from the neck up. Its composition determined entirely by a submissive relation to the standards set by Microsoft. This is a deliberate abdication of the imagination in dealing with the culture and structuration of all the kinds of work that take place in offices, a failure to take up the possibility of the reinvention of writing that digital technology offers.
In order to escape the impasse of open source internalism, this mode of free software has attempted to connect to other forms of user. But the users they are attempting to recruit are precisely those formed and normalised by proprietary software (By this I mean, not the actual users of the software, but the models of them that are put into place by that software - and which it is therefore unable to distinguish and learn from.)
The mobilisation of free software by corporations is not my theme here, although what is perhaps most crucial but invisibled in software, the model of life, the figuration of a user determined by these organisations has yet to prove anything other than fundamentally entropic to innovation in these areas. The challenge to free software is that although it has massified its user base to some extent it faces the danger, not yet the actuality, of becoming conceptually stalled. This kind of reinvention will be taken up by others.
One of the ways in which this is being done is via a mobilisation of elements in the first thread of social software. How far can the thinking about free software be opened by viewing itself as part of this wider tendency? One easy answer is that it allows the possibility of finding and communicating with users other than those modelled by pre-existing proprietary software. If the second thread of social software is born out of extended negotiation between users and developers, even to the extent that the differentiation between them is blurred, what are the ways we can ensure that that communication does not result in a closing back in on itself into another isomorphic circle. Primarily, by insisting on the inevitable disequilibrium of relations between the user and the programmer. This is a political fact which cannot be avoided. Despite the fact that free software makes public the labour which is repressed from visibility under proprietary software, it is still the case that the 'closest to the machine' owns the phase space of possibilities which the relations have been established to explore.
How can this disequilibrium be tipped over into a kind of movement other than that of absolute polar attraction by the 'expert'. The first thread of social software offers us some routes into this problem. The answer is inevitably, more careful work, more attention, openness to more difficulty and connection. We can only generate social software in its full sense though fundamental research into the machine, numerical, social and other dynamics software feeds in and out of. These systems however need to be understood in a sense expended from that which software currently allows itself to know. The problem is not in recognising other forms of 'expertise' and finding ways of accessing them. (We might consider as an opposite tendency the example of an artist collective developing a city mapping initiative in which they are only able to communicate with other 'professionals' such as architects, critics, theorists. Such is the stratified poverty of inter-disciplinarity.) There is a far more important need to recognise and find ways of coming into alliance with forms of intelligence that are excluded from the depleted culture of experts.
One of these, I would like to argue is a poetics of connection.
There are ways in which technologies are taken over in ways that surpass product specifications. One of the most recent and notable examples is the use of the SMS protocol on GSM mobile phones. To manufacturers and network operators this cranky little texting facility was seen as a novelty, a little nothing, a gimmick. Instead, it takes off and becomes what is well known today.
For most ostensibly radical theorisations of technology and media this is a problem. Perhaps we will always return here to a base-superstructure model. That is, property relations ultimately determine use. Under this rubric, there are two problem with texting, and with mobiles in general. Firstly, the networks are centralised, running on a spoke to hub basis. They are owned by a multinational oligarchy. Secondly, their standards are not open: they cannot be accessed, improved or reinvented except in compliance with the needs of these companies. This theory is able to account for why there has been no substantially innovative work by artists using mobile phones alone - there is no way of messing with the architecture. [It has to be collaged with other media systems in order to tease out new possibilities. (26)] And for this reason it is of fundamental use.
What it cannot account for is the way that this technology has been over-run and conceptually if not infrastructurally reinvented by hordes of what are seen as rather insignificant non-experts. Teenagers, illegal workers, gossip-mongers and so on. All of these subsist and thrive on their powers of connection, of existing in a dimension of relationality rather than of territoriality. It is in their capacity to generate a poetics of this connection that they have reinvented this technology. [This is now a commonplace of course, but only in retrospect. And as Sadie Plant notes, was not even recognised as a potential by those charitably concerned with widening access to networks such as the internet. (27)]
Such a dynamic has also formed the basis for the development of a piece of software, Mongrel's Linker (28). This software is described more fully elsewhere, but is essentially a small application that allows the fast authoring of multimedia collages. The software is developed by Mongrel to meet its needs for an application that can be introduced and used within a day or two. The functionality when compared with its own authorware, Macromedia Director is massively stripped down. Instead of the interface being the usual grey windowed explosion of digital abundance, you get very little. The processing is shifted to the user. It relies on peoples' ability to generate narrative, political, melancholy, rhythmic, scattershot, associations. It relies on the simple function of doing exactly what the name says it does - link things. Here, the poetics of connection forms a techno-aesthetic and existential a priori to the construction of a piece of software.
This is a software that has built itself up on learning from and through what occurs unofficially, the ways in which people, networks, drives, languages coalesce to circumvent, parasite or overturn what codes, produces and regulates them. Such an activity should not be understood as safely giving vent to an essential human need. It is pathological as much as anything else. But it is in paying attention to the way these dynamics work, in acknowledging the intelligence built into them, that the potential for another form of software comes into view.
Poetics of connection is only one such dynamic. There are many others that could be worked into. The concept of social software too, provides only something small, a little nothing. But, with its two strands, in its necessarily unbalanced and mobile state it provides another motor for creation, of the social, as well as of software.
The best fiction is always also attempting to deal with the crisis of written language, in the way that it asks itself about the legacy built into text as the result of its birth in the keeping of records, the establishment of laws, in assembling and managing tables of records of debt and credit. It does this perpetually, at the same time as reinventing and expanding upon the capacity of language to create new things. Speculative software fulfils something of a similar function for digital cultures. In Ellen Ullman's, Close to the Machine she states,
"I'd like to think that computers are neutral, a tool like any other, a hammer that can build a house or smash a skull. But there is something in the system itself, in the formal logic of programs and data, that recreates the world in its own image [...] We place this small projection of ourselves all around us, and we make ourselves reliant on it. To keep information, buy gas, save money, write a letter [...] We conform to the range of motion the system allows. We must be more orderly, more logical. Answer the question, Yes or No, OK or Cancel [...] Then, slowly, we incorporate the whole notion of systems: we'll link registration data to surveillance (29), to contract compliance [...] Finally, we arrive at a tautology: the data prove the need for more data! We think we are creating the system, but the system is also creating us. We build the system, we live in its midst, and we are changed." (30)
Ullman's book is the best account of the lived experience of programming that I've read, but I'm not quite sure who this 'We' is. Perhaps it's the same 'We' that always turns up when a voiceover speaks slowly over a heavy concept TV documentary. There are pictures of traffic jams, mobile phone users, nuclear power plants, cubicled workplaces and ATMs. Probably filmed in black and white, portentousness filters set to stun. The 'we' is the 'we' as in a tremulous, 'What have we done to ourselves?' The 'we' is an attempt to universalise rather than identify rather more precisely definable, albeit massively distributed and hierarchised, sets of conflictual, imaginal and collaborative relations.
Elsewhere speculative software has been suggested as being software that, explores the potentiality of all possible programming. It creates transversal connections between data, machines and networks. Software, part of whose work is to reflexively investigate itself as software. Software as science fiction, as mutant epistemology.
Speculative software can be understood as opening up a space for the reinvention of software by its own means. That is to say that when, as Ullman suggests, the computer has "its own place where the systems and the logic take over" (31) this is a place that can be explored, mapped and messed with by a skewed application of those very same means.
In Close to the Machine, the narrator worries about a new payroll system that she's just been hired to work on:
"I'll wonder what I'm doing helping the IRS collect taxes. It will bother me that so many entities - employer, software company, bank, IRS - know so much about the simple act of someone getting paid for labour delivered. I'll think about the strange path of a paycheque direct deposit, how it goes from employer to bank, company to company, while the person being paid is just a blip, the recipient's account a temporary way-station..." (32)
Each of these entities, employer, software company, bank, IRS, employee is composed by myriad interacting and agonistic relations. These blips, these events in software, these processes and regimes that data is subject to and manufactured by provide flashpoints at which these interrelations, collaborations and conflicts can be picked out and analysed for their valences of power, for their manifold capacities of control and production, disturbance and invention. It is the assertion of speculative software that the enormous spread of economies, systems of representation, of distribution, hiding, showing and influence as they mesh with other systems of circulation, of life, ecology, resources - themselves always both escaping and compelling electronic and digital manifestation- can be intercepted, mapped and reconfigured precisely by means of these blips.
What are these blips? They are interpretative and reductive operations carried out on lived processes. They are the statistical residues of dynamics of association, escape, misery, acquiescence and delight. They are not merely signifiers of an event, but integral parts of it. The figures in a bank balance, the links appearing in a web-browser are concrete arrangements, formations that determine relative degrees of potential movement within a specified level of analysis or use of a system. They have an implicit politics. Their aesthetics can be described as the result of the range of their potential combinatorial or isolatory capacity and its allowance of capture, invention, interrogation or flight, the rhythms of peace or of compulsion that they put into place.
There are certain ways in which one is supposed to experience these blips. They are intended to mean that you are precisely broke at this time of the week, or that there are so many or no related web-sites outside of the one you are currently viewing. Such statements of course are dependent on particular arrangements by which they can be made. Your wage statement is the cryptic blip that instantiates the enormous machine of class relations. A list of links, the result of a particular culture of association amongst a certain range of types of site, of which the site you are viewing forms one instance.
These instances, these blips, are all manifest digitally. They can be picked out, mapped, arranged, examined and placed in comparison with each other. Their modes of emergence and combination can be ascertained along with their conditions of repetition and change. The capacity of computers to perform these operations is what provides the fuel for speculative software. That is, software which refuses to believe the simple, innocent stories that accompany the appearance of these blips. Software that skews, misreads and takes them for a little walk. But that not only reinterprets but leaves an invention of blips in its wake.
It is this capacity for invention and reinvention that is characteristic of digital abundance more generally, however little it is taken up. What characterises speculative work in software is firstly to operate reflexively upon itself and the condition of being software. To go where it is not supposed to go, to look behind the blip. To make visible the dynamics, structures, regimes and drives of each of the little events which it connects to. Secondly, it is to subject these blips and what shapes and produces them to unnatural forms of connection between themselves. To make the ready ordering of data, of categories and of subjects spasm out of control. Thirdly, it is to subject the consequences of these first two stages to the havoc of invention.