Clouded Software or Software in the Clouds

By: Jan Bajec
On: October 15, 2009
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About Jan Bajec
Visual thinking has always been the way I responded to my environment. It engaged my interest in arts and eventually led to my enrollment in Visual Arts and Graphic Design studies. From 2001-2002, I had an unique opportunity to be a part of a creative team at S Team Advertising in Belgrade associated with SAATCHI&SAATCHI. From 2002-2003, I worked as a Graphic Designer at Ovation – BBDO. In 2003, wanting to pursue my studies further and get away from advertising I enrolled in Design Art program at Concordia University in Montreal. After graduation I decided to stay in Montreal and work as a full-time freelance graphic designer and web design consultant. I favor an exploratory, investigative approach to design. As I have been in the situation to design for specific cultural environments, I have felt how much of a social construction design really is and how cultural values, tools and technologies specific to each social milieu are reflected in it. This kind of experience demanded broader research ‘routine’ and triggered my interest in many other subjects: sociology, psychology, pop-culture, television, politics, new media. As I was switching my area of interest from print to web design I became more involved in this new platform for visual communication…


The Cloud is all in one; storage of data, software as a service, Web 2.0, and so much more. It is the network of computers that distribute processing power, applications, and large systems among many machines (we already use some cloud-based applications like YouTube or Amazon’s cloud). It is bigger than the sum of its pieces. “Users and vendors will shop a multi-layered cloud for infrastructure, business processes, for the world’s information.” (Linda Tucci, Cloud computing companies offer new services, architecture) The cloud will change our perception of the use of software. We will not be enforced to buy separate packages of software, install and licence them, maintain and upgrade them. The software will be housed in a dynamic, expanding, powerful cloud that will provide users with the almost any service that they might need.  

It is interesting to analyse the Friedrich Kittler’s worries about digital technology having in mind the possibilities promised by the Internet cloud.  Software, at a fundamental level, does not exist, he argues. There is no software – all code operations are expression of voltage differences. Software is invisible to everyone and can only be ideologically separated from hardware, not physically. For the end user of the Internet cloud, it will also be physically separated.

Friedrich Kittler is a media and literary theorist focusing his research on what technology imprints on people and how people become reflections of their information systems. Kittler is following the work of Marshall McLuhan, but sees autonomy in technology and does not see media as extension of our bodies, but our bodies as becoming modified and transformed by technology. He argues that the effect of digital technologies that is “bringing back together the data flows of optics, acoustics, and writing” (that were separated with the inventions of typewriter, photography, and gramophone) and giving them autonomy, will be erasing the notion of a medium, but maybe also of the body and its extensions (such as language). Calculation, through digitalization of information, allows the translation of one medium into another. Text, image, movement, and sound are converted into numbers (binary code) and become the interface for the computer user. Kittler sees a complete continuation in writing literature, in writing programmes and in burning (“writing”) structures into silicon chips.

Kittler, states that it is the economical and cultural environment that creates software. His focus is on the software as a phenomenon that simulates ideology. Software offer us an imaginary relationship to our hardware and instead of representing the motherboard or other electronic devices and processes, it represents desktops, bins, files, folders, brushes, scissors, erasers. Without operating systems there would be no access to hardware and no user. Software produces users, and the goal of every programmer is just that, to create an addictive product that users will massively buy (become dependent of). Ideology operates through the ‘using,’ the constant practicing, “this externalization of our beliefs onto objects that act for us”. It is a conscious attempt by the ‘computer community’ to systematically conceal hardware with software, electronic impulses with ‘perfect’ graphic user interfaces. The using of programming code is almost prohibited. Software does not exist on its own, apart from the machine, but as a commercial medium (one that a billion dollar industry is based on) it has to insist on its status as property.

It is the fact. But if we contemplate the possibilities of the cloud and new Web-based operating systems that software companies are working on, it seems that the digital divide could be over. “Built to work like a whole computer in the cloud and aimed at a wider audience, these browser-based services could help those who can’t afford their own computer.” (Erica Naone, Computer in the Cloud, Online desktop systems could bridge the digital divide)

That means that ‘software takes command’ as Manovich would say, and on a grand scale too. It is true that we live in the software society, but if software is to be a decisive factor in defining our lives, we could well expect the most from it, to be developed, to be open, to be accessible and to respond to our needs. It is interesting to contrast/compare Kittler’s views with those of Lev Manovich. Manovich argues that “if we don’t address software itself, we are in danger of always dealing only with its effects rather than the causes: the output that appears on a computer screen rather than the programs and social cultures that produce these outputs.” He considers software as “a layer that spreads through all areas of contemporary societies.” Therefore, without including this ‘software layer’ in our studies of contemporary society, the analysis will not be complete.

There are many questions that need to be answered. Will the cloud be robust and reliable? Will it be accessible enough? What about the privacy issues? The researchers state that the cloud computing, which will collect and combine applications, will enable the access to users that are not familiar with the use of individual web applications. That is a great promise for new users and new tasks. But isn’t all that making technology even harder to comprehend, and isn’t that widening the gap between scientists/programmers and users? Since “the dominant information technologies of the day control all understanding and its illusions” (Kittler, 1999, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.), will we be able to understand the meaning of this new technological advancement and analyze the social and cultural consequences?

Kittler compares the inaccessibility of the computer’s operating system with the bureaucratic social structures that form the environment in which it was created. Today, the gap is bigger than ever before, between scientists/technicians, who know the technology’s role in the construction of our sense perception, and the users/consumers who are pushed further away from understanding by ‘user-friendly’ instruments and ‘For Dummies’ manuals, but who are becoming increasingly dependent on it. This logic of separation, Kittler says, is reflected from the military-industrial complex, and it is the same logic of separation that blocks access to (political) power. As subjects of a piece of software, we become conditioned by its operations – we take on its commands, and assume its limits. The chip is becoming increasingly inaccessible, but we have to investigate/understand the technology itself – “the equations, blueprints, diagrams of circuits” in order to discover “what mechanisms set the limits of our bodies, our subjectivities, our discourse.” It is certainly true. It can be expected that for future users of the cloud it wouldn’t really matter what technology supports the applications of the cloud and if it is reliable and economical. But the emergence of the cloud will certainly pose a number of interesting questions for the technology and media researchers.  

It is important to note the argument that technology itself prevents any experience of its own essence. Heidegger said that we have difficulties in understanding media because the process is blocked by our communication technologies. They have “control over all understanding and evoke its illusion”. That is why Kittler argued that we need to focus on the “essence” of computer – which for him meant mathematical and logical foundations of modern computer and its early history (which, it seems, he better understands – or explains, than today’s developments in media convergence). He suggested that the students should learn at least two software languages in order to understand something about contemporary culture. Therefore, instead of concentrating on the message/content, we should focus on the medium (the chip) and its circuit arrangements. Computer science might be the key factor in the understanding of the logic of new media, together with cultural, social, and economic studies.

Hackers (and not only them) declare that information, which is technically a measure of the degree of freedom within a system, should be free. Software (any kind except open source) is a barrier that prevents this freedom. Would cloud computing, as centrally controlled system, bring the power question on the higher level? Kittler is probably right in addressing underlying authoritarianism in the computer technology development, and in the example of cloud computing we will be even more unaware of the programs and processes that are hidden in it. Available software now will not even be recognizable, and although we might think that the cloud is open and ‘friendly’, who knows what power structures can/will control the system and place restrictions on what the user may or may not do.

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