Software is changing culture and society

On my last post I discussed the importance of hardware following the reading of Kirschenbaum‘s Mechanism. New Media and the Forensic Imagination, and I wondered if it is truly necessary for mainstream users to know how their material, physical computer works. This week I move on to ask myself: do we need to know how to program? And that takes me to the software realm, the non-physical part of technology that plays, in my opinion, a bigger role in the change of analog to digital culture. A digital culture that has been constructed with new media, and not upon an imitation of the traditional media. This week’s reading sheds some light on the issue of the new media being the leading force on that change and construction of a different society.

Lev Manovich poses four main questions in his introduction to Software Takes Command (2013) (you can read it online):  1) “What happens to the idea of a “medium” after previously media-specific tools have been simulated and extended in software?” 2) “Is it still meaningful to talk about different mediums at all?” 3) “Or do we now find ourselves in a new brave world of one single mono medium, or a metamedium?” 4) What is “media” after software?” (4). We have to ask these questions in order to understand the need for a new discipline, Software Studies, as “to investigate the role of software in contemporary culture, and the cultural and social forces that are shaping the development of software itself” (10). This is, software and culture interact with each other in a circular  way – which we can connect to McLuhan’s ideas as well. Manovich is going to focus on mainstream applications, rather than those used by programmers, because he understands that those practices are the ones that are shaping society, the software used by most people is changing cultural identity.

Being familiar with the many example he provides (social media, iOS, Photoshop, etc) my attention has focused on the history of the development of the computer as a tool for learning, discovering and creation by Alan Kay and his team at PARC. Their aim at developing a new tool was to provide the user with an already built-in software environment in which he/she could create new software. His was a metamedium; he transformed Alan Turing’s Universal Machine into a Universal Media Machine. They didn’t want to just mimic the old media, paper, writing, image, but to change them in order to create new forms. Ted Nelson developed the hypertext in 1965 to interconnect material in a complex way never available before; Douglas Engelbart, three years later, presented the “view control” system – which later on advanced into the GUI following Bruner‘s ideas of inactive, iconic and symbolic learning.

The consequence of their detachment from the academia I think is pretty clear: commercial use; the fight between different companies to get as many buyers of their software as possible. User interface was soon popular due to the straightforward, easy way to use by anyone. The team ascribed to the industry. And in order to make it really easy to use, they used a whole range metaphors that anyone could understand: save your text in a file/document that you then classify on different folders.

Manovich, nonetheless, attributes this use of metaphors of the traditional media into the new one to the lack of a history of software. According to him, the GUI and other software has certainly make learning and creation on computers something almost natural to humans – specially for digital natives. Experts even view a different future since “children who were born into and raised in the digital world – are coming of age, and soon our world will be reshaped in their image” (Born Digital). Both the invisibility of software and the development of a new media has to do with the metaphors – or so I understood in the reading- and the quality of computer media to expand in infinite new forms.

It is as though we are asked to remember and cherish the older media – and erase it at the same time (101)

This is only possible to the fact that software builds itself by sums and accumulation of previous languages, creating new ones on the process and, thus, following what the author calls media hybridization. I believe here is where DH comes to be related. Following Manovich notions, are DH projects multimedia or hybrids? Do we want to assemble different media in a setting without mixing them?; or are we to create new media from those different materials already on hand?

By joining two or more mediums, their languages are going to interchange their properties and create new structures. These are going to be unknown to us till the time they are created. At the same time, culture and society is going to be re-structured, luckily not immediately. And I wonder, is this why so many people are grumpy about the metamedium, the bonding of the odds and sods of the digital and the analog, of  the digital and the Humanities? A fear of those new unknown forms being born? I should cocoa! However, I would say that the software itself is harmless. It is guiding the development of technology in terms of what we are able to create. We should fear the industry, not the medium.

 Work cited:

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

Dándole la vuelta a la tortilla

First, let me apologise for using a Spanish expression in the title, but it is the best one I could think of to describe my feeling about the reading for this week. In English, it would translate to “changing the subject”- though it literally means “turning the omelette over.” What subject did The Universal Computer by Davis change, then?

I am happy with telling people that I chose to study English because I could not compute complex equations. I just can’t hack them! And this week I felt the same way. Just as I flipped through the digital pages of the digital book, the terror I stopped feeling six years ago came back. As such, at some point through the reading I was struggling to understand all the mathematics, logics, symbols and fractions involved in it.  I even thought that I mistakenly must have entered a world I would never come to make sense of. So, I told myself: “stop trying to make sense of the formulas and pay attention to the narrative.” It worked. I realised that I could read the book from a different point of view: Humanities.

This is the wall I picture in my head for those who don't want to embrace the digital, whatever that might entail.

This is the wall I picture in my head for those who don’t want to embrace the digital, whatever that might entail: ebooks, digital tools, data-mining, DH, etc.

Usually, humanists have found computers to be extraterrestrial artifacts that must remain out of their kingdom; the machine is the enemy, some might think. Somehow, a wall has been built between both of them. The way I see this fear is that while an engine works mechanically, with a definite set of units, human(ist)s have been studying works on an interpretative or speculative manner, many times without a particular and limited result. How many times has Shakespeare been analysed? Right. His corpus continues to be studied whether for literary, linguistic, historic purposes. Cantor, one of the men Davis writes about, studied the playwright to prove that Francis Bacon was the real author of plays. And this could be a present-day example: What Shakespeare Plays Originally Sounded Like. Though DH is enhancing the possibilities of study, some humanists still think that the cold-hearted robot is not able to help, or that it is going to limit chances to speculate, or worse, contribute to nothing new.

Davis, nonetheless, demonstrates that the creation of an “all-purpose machine/computer/artifact” was nothing but a big contribution to human knowledge. Therefore, I believe, we are facing a humanist development. The abstract concept took form only when one man followed the discoveries of another, adding to it more ideas, and finally achieving Leibniz biggest dream:

He dreamed of machines capable of carrying out calculations, freeing the mind for creative thought (3).

Ha! So as early as by the last years of the 17th century, someone was thinking logically about a means of obtaining data so that we could then creatively play with it. Clearly, he was not able to create that perfect calculator, but sow the seeds for it. Little by little, Leibniz himself, Boole, Frege, Bertrand, Cantor, Hilbert, Gödel and others, set the basis for Alan Turing.

While his predecessors had, in 1930s Turing attention did not focus on the set of rules that lets a person compute an algorithm. Instead, he paid attention to what the person did when computing on a tape. This way, he found a mathematical model that was able to replace the person for a machine that could perform any algorithmic process. Turing machine would use a strip of tape and a table of rules in order to manipulate symbols.

With his work, he set forth the limits of the mechanical computation for those who would develop computers years later. Then, it could be said that humans have been the ones to be inventive enough as to create an “all-purpose computer” that can carry out an unlimited number of tasks which we no longer have to spend time in. Why are we afraid of it then? The optimism posed by Leibniz is obscured by the constant fear of humanists to include the digital realm on their labor. It is necessary to understand how machines can help us.

In sum, that is what I meant by “dándole la vuelta a la tortilla:” being able to recognise the humanist work of mathematicians, or logicians, or engineers in the past, at least. This way it would be easier, possibly, to accept the fact that Digital Humanities is a convergence of two traditionally separated fields that will help us, time-limited humans, process knowledge quickly and give us time to think more about it. Since some information is just a click away, why not take advantage on something as data-mining to explore new questions of research instead of spending 3/4 of the time in just searching for what we think is on a giving text.

Likewise, I may have used the expression because I really miss my dad’s heavenly “tortilla de patata.”