Book review: Programmed Visions by Wendy Hui Kyong Chun

On: September 26, 2011
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About Eelke Hermens
Hacker and cultural critic, passionate about information theory and semantics. Fed up with cyber utopians.

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Wendy Chun’s Programmed Visions book is the third published in a software studies book series initiated by Matthew Fuller. Software studies is a relatively young discipine in digital humanities. Yet, it’s an emerging field, gaining momentum from the overall intrusion of software in our public spaces. As Fuller observes; “few parts of human culture remain untouched by software”, as code and interfaces are extensively woven in our everyday lives. This calls for a special interdisciplinary interest in the evaluation of software, which culminated in Software Studies.

Programmed Visions is a meditation on software (in the broadest sense of the word) as a “thing”, and by “thing” the author means: “it reconceptualizes bodies, society and memory” in relation to the subject, that is, man.
Fuller, in his introduction, calls this meditation a way of thinking in “the middle of things”, between the hard and the soft, between algorithm and interface and remarkably in the middle of preceding popular readings of software. She focuses her effort primarily on the period after WOII, which coincides with the rise of neoliberalism as political framework. In software, in a bold political sidestep, she envisions the embodiment of the neoliberal ideology, as a response to and a product of that ideology.

As Chun almost apologetically introduces, software is a “notoriously difficult” concept. Indeed, as software studies tries to capture the “magical source”, it has to reach beyond the metaphors in an effort to make the invisible, visible. In the first part of the book Chun concentrates her effort on the paradox of software as being invisibly visible and visibly invisible, that is, the notion of the computer as advocate of transparency is flawed.

“Our machines increasingly write without us. (…) As our machines disappear, getting flatter and flatter, the density and opacity of their computation increases”

This renders the computer as a powerful metaphor for everything that is invisible yet generates visible effects, like genetics, ideology and culture. In this paradox lies also the powerful appeal of computing, it offers a certain empowerment to its programmers and users who are in control of something opaque they cannot fully grasp, yet the effects are visible and satisfying. This “causal pleasure”, as Chun dubs this sense of empowerment, is key to understanding the seperation between hardware and software.

As already mentioned, a good part of the book covers the origins of software as an entity on its own. It traces the roots of code as “logos” or code as law, of software as axiom. First, software is, surprisingly, gendered according to Chun. One of the hardware engineers for the ENIAC claimed that software is “the daughter of Frankenstein” (hardware being the son). The first operators (preceding programmers) that interacted directly with the computing machines were in fact women. Second, because the first complex computational machines were developed during WWII, military code and command structure had a profound impact on the instructional nature of software. As Chun exemplifies this parallel:

In the military there is supposed to be no difference between a command given and a command completed

This underlines the, so to speak, nature of code. Programming is and was a hierarchal affair. Wendy Chun’s following effort to localize software as a “thing”, in history and in common sense is a careful deconstruction of what software has become to be as a metaphor.

Computers have become metaphors for the mind, for culture, for society, for the body, affecting the ways in which we experience and conceive the “real” space.

The computer is not just a metaphor, it is a “metaphor machine”. As she argues, software is an axiom, the meaning is in itself and is not necessarily proven. What is this meaning exactly and how did it become illusionary embedded in it self? These are some of the more urging questions she is addressing. This game of metaphors is the most prominent in biology and more specifically in the field of eugenics. The belief was that DNA could be coded, which stems from the idea of eugenics. Chun’s main argument here is that it not just the cybernetic school of thought that was heavily influenced by machinery and computing, that influenced biology. The idea of the programability of life is not solely to be found in that discourse, it has much deeper roots that are largely ignored in the popular beliefs of cybernetics.

The concluding part of the book is dedicated to the “undead of information”, by which she means that information is neither alive nor dead. Also, more importantly, she argues that information is always embodied. In relation to memory, information embedded in memory makes it possible to link the past and the future. By storing data, computers make the future predictable.

Although, Chun’s position is always “in the middle”, thus not condemning nor celebrating software and computing,  she also calls this into question. This memory, or hyperbolic “archive of knowledge” would also promise destruction and forgetfulness. As she put it:

Intead of being enlightened and free, we seem to be caught in a certain madness: constantly acting without knowing, moving from crisis to crisis

Chun’s work is simply stunning in its scope. At the least Programmed Visions is a comprehensive introduction in the analytic discourse of software, code and programmability. But even more so, it is a bold theoretical framework which situates itself at the intersection of various academic disciplines and opens up the study of code and software to multiple methodologies. Programmed Visions is as compelling in its detailed chronology of how software became to be as it is in lifting the lid of jar and taking a closer look at the power structures and meanings in play. Highly recommanded for anyone willing to engage in Software Studies.

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