Book Review: “Software Studies: a Lexicon”

On: September 15, 2008
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About Marijn de Vries Hoogerwerff
Marijn de Vries Hoogerwerff is a New Media theorist, Web researcher and Internet entrepreneur. In 1999 he started working as IT professional at the broadband Internet Service Provider @home (a franchise of the ISP and search engine company Excite@Home). After working here for over eight years he decided to pursue a study in New Media at the University of Amsterdam. During this study he has been an active member of the Digital Methods Initiative (DMI) research group, working together in a strong team of designers, programmers and theorists to develop new Web-specific methods and tools for doing online research and has written in depth about Internet censorship research, code consciousness and cyber-cosmopolitanism. Next to several stand-alone projects he also started up CYBERLIFE, focusing on building Web-applications, sites and tools, Web hosting and doing Web research. After receiving his Master degree in New Media he continued his contributions to the DMI, has helped organize the Society of the Query conference for the Institute of Network Cultures and has been a thesis supervisor at the University of Applied Sciences (HvA) for Interactive Media. His current company, nochii BV, focusses on utilizing theoretical knowledge and practical experience to help companies get a better understanding about the Web, their network and the space they occupy and its relation to the offline. He holds the strong believe that the Web, both as infrastructure and as concept, can aid in dealing with the increasing complexity of the world (both online as offline) and the relating problematics.


In June this year MIT Press released ‘Software Studies: a lexicon’, edited by Matthew Fuller and consisting of 38 contributors (couting by texts) ranging from ‘computer scientists, artists, designers, cultural theorists, programmers, and others from a range of disciplines each take on a key topic in the understanding of software and the work that surrounds it’.

The book starts of with and introduction of Matthew Fuller, explaining and justifying the motivation in creating the book and the format it is in, the lexicon. This is not an unnecessary luxury; Fullers’ introduction helps to get rid of some possible misconception about the goals and ambitions of Software Studies and the book. It provides handles for reading to get the most out of the book; it’s diverse angles and the way the things connect to each other. For those hoping for a handbook for studying software, Software Studies will probably not be completely satisfactory as it has other ambitions. Although sometime the histories and descriptions of the different software attributes and applications can be quite technical, it will not, by itself, provide the reader with enough the tools and handles to really comprehend the complex workings of software, it will however open up new way of thinking about it and how fields and topics relate.

The chosen format of the lexicon seems like a good way to begin establishing a new field of study. Fuller explains that ‘a lexicon can establish alliances between words, texts, and ideas without necessarily agglutinating them as a whole, thus effacing a more complex reality’. One of the contributors, Warren Sack, who I have had the privilege of doing a project with at the jubilee this year, has put this in a clear way. In an email conversation with him on the 12th of September, in which I asked him about his view on the book, the format and the ambitions of the book he pointed out that:

“The lexicon format of the Software Studies book is, as Matthew points out in his introduction, a tried and successful one for media and culture studies. Raymond Williams’ “Keywords” Roland Barthes’ “Mythologies” and Marshall McLuhan’s “Understanding Media” are all more-or-less in this format and have all inspired new work by other scholars. The ambition of software studies is to articulate a new field either between, or integrating, media studies, cultural studies, and science and technology studies. I hope it will also have direct implications for the related fields of software art, software design, and software engineering”

Thinking inspiration does not follow a specific order, I’ve chosen to read the book non-chronological and start with those “chapters”, which I thought to be good topics to enter the new field of software studies. However one wished to enter this book, I believe the key is to keep an open mind, the alliances Fuller talks about will open up as one progresses into the readings.

For me the lexicon reads at first as a surrealistic narrative through the different layers of the extensive reach of software, in the digital realm and its crossovers to the analogue. Diving into histories and logic of distinct attributes like source code, variables and databases. Leaping into sideways of glitch esthetics and strange esoteric (programming) languages. Some parts might already be part of the readers’ interest and will fit nicely into their expectations. Some parts will ask for an open mind and may seem stretching the limits of your imagination. Reading through the complete work can however spur all sorts of associations and it gradually started making connections. The surrealism experienced during the reading slowly fades away and makes way for insights and creativity, texts and words seem to have affiliations on a higher level which I believe is prove of the power of the lexicon format. To clarify my experience, let me try and describe one of my associative paths while I was reading (leaving out all the unnecessary or embarrassing association).

In “Source Code”, Joasia Krysa and Grzesiek Sedek give a clear and compact introduction to source code, how different styles such as open source, closed source and free software (also know as FLOSS) came to be and relate to each other. Their (from Donald Knuthh’s ‘The Art of Computer Programming’ borrowed) comparison of code as recipe in a cookbook is used as entrance to look at the ‘preparation, execution and consumption of the (software) work’.

This topic is addressed on a more esthetic/resistance level in Michael Mateas’ “Weird Languages” in which he visits esoteric programming languages, programming languages, which ‘are not designed for any real-world applications or normal educational use; rather, they are intended to test the boundaries of programming language design itself’.  His description of Chef is an example where code actually is written as a cookbook recipe and can lead to what he calls triple-coding; ‘the executable machine meaning of the code, the human meaning of the code as a literary artifact, and the executable human meaning of code as steps that can be carried out to produce food’.  In the most basic sense of it, one might call these types of programming languages playing around with variables and coding conventions.

Derek Robinsons’ contribution called “Variable” explains a variable as ‘a name standing for a number that is interpreted as an address that indexes a memory location where a program is directed to read or write a sequence of bits’. Understanding the variable, influences the concept of esoteric coding languages (from the previous reading) and vise versa. To understand from Robinson that ‘what software does is to make sure that what one expects to find when one asks for something, and what one finds in fact, are all and the same’[8] is to have an opening into glitch art and data bending who are turning things upside-down and are ‘interested into how interestingly wrong things can go’, where ‘deliberately or accidentally incurred and induced violations are collected and swapped’.

Reading “Glitch” from Olga Goriumnova and Alexei Shulgin takes you deeper into this realm of the glitch and things that can go wrong. The Software Studies book makes an opening to start of in functional code and end up in the glitch which is like an alternate universe as it is described in this text as, ‘a singular dysfunctional event that allows insight beyond the customary, omnipresent and alien computer aesthetics. A glitch is a mess that is a moment, a possibility to glance at software’s inner structure, whether it is a mechanism of data compression or HTML code. Whereas a glitch does not reveal the true functionality of the computer, it shows the ghostly conventionality of the forms by which digital spaces are organized’.

This example of my reading process shows some resemblance to a hypertextual experience, continuously opening up different pathways of thinking. And as with a hypertext, its power is at the same time its weakness as the mind drifts from one association to the other, maybe loosing track of the main idea of the text. It is however I think, meant this way, and as many readers will be hypertextual literates they will have no problem leaving the paved tracks of the individual authors.

Reading the Software Studies Initiative blog I learned that in august, MIT press approved the Software Studies book series with Matthew Fuller, Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Lev Manovich as editors. I’m looking forward to reading more volumes in the spirit of Software Studies and to see how this introduction may already have shaped the field of Software Studies.

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