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.