Reading #6

Software Takes Command
by Lev Manovich

What motivated developers in the 1960s and 1970s to create the concepts and techniques that now underlie contemporary applications like Photoshop, Illustrator, and Final Cut? How do these tools shape the visual aesthetics of contemporary media and design? What happens to the idea of a “medium” after previously media-specific tools have been simulated and extended into software?

Read the introductory chapter.

Use the tag “R6” when you post your assessment of the readings and the questions raised.

What was interesting about this reading was that it was written a while back but still very relatable to the present time. “[S]oftware has become our interface with the world.” With this, Manovich highlights software’s history, importance, and development over time. He addresses these themes within the introductory chapter as a “Why this matters to everyone” frame.

Most of our everyday tasks will revolve around computer interfaces. He begins by mentioning the history of software’s and pinpoints those who have had an impact on our lives. He compels his readers to reconsider the history by including the history of software as well. It is not a means to record history but in fact a part of it. It controls most of the global economy (then) and now control most of the lives of the individuals in that economy. He mentions how we should have more “Software Studies” to broaden our general understanding of this subject.

When he mentions (multi)media interfaces, it was a direct link to what I am currently studying. UX/UI Design involves the user and provides a level of information that is more than just graphics. The history of this field is based off the software culture that he has focused on.

He goes on to explain how there is a rise of people who want to code and understand the software (just like me) and that they need to decrease the gap between the two. I found this part interesting because years later we still have the common “Should designers code?” debate when in reality it should be “Should people code?” If the public adopt software and the language it was written in, then maybe we can develop as a group. He optimistically compares it to photography and how that realm was quickly adopted by the public. I personally disagree. I think that people have been detached for so long that it has become more alienated and difficult to even understand. Again, this brings back his main point of how software has become an “added dimension” to our lives and how we have largely overlooked and continue to overlook.

Since I posted my response after the (short) feedback session, I would like to add my extended thoughts on Manovich’s introductory chapter. I wanted to focus on the aspect that this medium is not static but constantly moving, changing, updating or even breaking. We will live in collection of screenshots lost or found. Even during Doug’s presentation, he had to dig up old screenshots just to carry out a conversation regarding Many Eyes. Even the screenshots themselves cannot represent the true experience of this program. For example, when Doug showed the landing page and another, I thought about the transition between the two pages. Did it fade in, swipe (I doubt), simply appear, parts appeared based on hierarchy of information? It made me think of the documentation process of software. How can we properly document it, the experience so that we can begin to frame it as an object of study. Photography is easily documented with the size, color, photographer name, lens, film, etc. But how can we begin to think of the borders in order to document these experiences? I think that is the reason for why software has been neglected. We couldn’t really figure out how to take screenshots that truly represent the software itself.

This was quite an intriguing read for me. I enjoy every perspective distinguishing media studies as a technologically-supported artistic craft of its own distinct nature and evolution.

A couple questions right after reading the introduction I had were:
• What did he mean in the passage referencing "meta-mediums?"
• Along with the comment regarding "casual" vs. "pro" version of media software walking a thin line, how do software studies see (if any) a hierarchy of media quality, even introducing democratization of media along with perhaps given criteria of aesthetics, accuracy?
• What does a proliferation of half-finished beta works do for the general information consciousness of the WWW we draw from?

Overall, I thought the focus on the combinatory nature of media development catalyzed by software - from authorship, editing, sharing and distribution - articulated quite well the phenomenon we are riding as a society I often take for granted.

It truly is amazing how the business of information, manifested through Google's primary mission, has catapulted to the foremost of valued production in our society.

In the introductory chapter of his book Software Takes Command, Lev Manovich posits that “software has become our interface with the world” (2). He points out that virtually all intellectual and creative production has become mediated through computer interfaces, and by extension, the software that provides and runs them. Given this context, he seeks to create a history and theory of software—in particular, the types of “media software” that he sees as specifically grounding visual and cultural production in the early 21st century.

Manovich makes a compelling argument that while many facets of digital culture and cultural production have been investigated by other scholars (and his list of “brief” citations is quite thorough for his purposes), software itself has been neglected as an object of study. He argues that in fact software should be elevated in its historical estimation to match the emphasis placed on the combustion engine and electricity as drivers of the industrial revolution of the 19th century (8). While this assertion could be seen as hyperbolic, it is a fair point: software now drives most aspects of the global economy, from the way in which it is bought and sold as consumer products (or leveraged for user data to be sold to advertisers), to the manner in which it now governs most “manual” labor processes in an era of ever-increasing automation.

His assertion that, as a new subject of study and academic discipline, “we need new methodologies” (15) is less clearly articulated. What would these new methodologies be? Certainly, the format of his book and the intellectual underpinnings of this chapter seem rooted in fairly standard contemporary academic analysis and cultural criticism.

One section stands out as particularly compelling. Under the heading of “Media Applications,” Manovich proceeds to lay out a set of distinctions between types of software that could lay the ground work for the “new discipline” he seeks to establish. He creates two major distinctions between “media development software” and “content access software” — only to then acknowledge that this distinction is increasingly blurry in an era of feature-rich applications and “platforms” created by companies eager to keep users within their own ecosystem as often as possible. He shifts the frame of consideration in interesting and compelling ways: starting with individual applications, then moving to the interface itself — folders, sounds, animation, and forms of feedback – as objects for consideration and analysis. Ultimately, his categorizations are by necessity incomplete, but leave the reader with newly open eyes toward the digital environment they inhabit daily.

A lot of interesting points surrounding media authorship through software brought up by the author. One that I've long thought about is the consolidation of media creation tools. Especially in the video production world, the Adobe Creative Cloud software suite, Adobe Premiere in particular has grown to become the standard in recent years for prosumers, boutique design studios and productions companies and in some cases extending its use to major movie picture studios. Since 2008 the proliferation of HDSLRs, handheld cameras typically used for high end photography that recently have implemented cinema quality video features, have dominated the low to medium level video production world and again influencing the high end major movie studio productions as well.

These two technologies have dropped in price drastically in the last 10 years, in concert with online communities mostly in agreement of the best tools for the majority of users has led to an army of video producers using very similar tools for the job. This uniformity in tools across the video production landscape is fundamentally defining the aesthetic of media in this day and age. As technology and the market evolve, new cameras and iterations of software will replace the current wave but as it stands now the majority of motion graphics being produced are being made in Adobe After Effects. As extensible and powerful Adobe After Effects is, what does it mean to the media landscape if every video uses the same formula to generate motion blur? I believe the defining aesthetics of this era will become more apparent with time but are rooted heavily in the uniformity and overlooked constraints of modern software and hardware.

In the introductory chapter of his book, Lev Manovich discusses the presence, importance and multiplication of software in our societies.

By giving a substantial list of examples across the chapter, Manovich pushes forward the idea that software has become our main medium.

He argues that, even though the majority of the objects that are being created these days use software in some capacity, there is the need to engage in what he describes as "software studies".

The author established the point that we need to approach this domain in a critical way that studies software as a cultural medium, rather than a technical way centered in computer science.

He also mentions and increasing curiosity to learn how to engage with software by pointing towards the rise in numbers of people who are learning how to code and understand how our world has being transformed. It is important to mention that he believes there is still a gap between those who feel confident programming and those who are entering this world, but he foresees a future when this knowledge will become more accesible (he reinforces this belief by comparing the evolution in photographic techniques across time).

The most important aspect of this chapter, for me, is the idea of the active relationship between the user and the software technologies that we have (and will have) and how we, as users, transform, complement and interact with these cultural objects.

This introduction discusses the permeating presence of software in our society today, stressing that, as a result of this presence, modern culture cannot be understood without admitting and critically analyzing the role of software in its creation. It begins by describing how software has subsumed most other forms of media, showing that in recent times, most created objects, at some level, involve software in their making. It demonstrates how this is reflected in a shift over time of the most popular brands — from those concerned with physical goods to those concerned with software goods. It notes, however, that academics have not yet explicitly engaged with “software studies” as a discipline, but that they should. In an effort to explain what this field might consist of, it lists numerous theorists who have written works that could fit under the umbrella, mentioning that the overall goal is to engage with software not from a technical, engineering perspective (as is most frequently done toady) but from a critical perspective that acknowledges that software is the primary medium in which we all think and generate work.

Mentioning that software and coding grew out of technical disciplines, the introduction explains how these origins prevent competent theorists from fully engaging with an analysis of the social effects of software. It notes a gap between those who are comfortable programming and those that are not, but provides an optimistic vision that software is becoming so pervasive that programming in the future will be seen as simple as is taking a photograph today, which, during the initial development of photography, was a skill possessed only by a technically-minded few.

The introduction finishes by enumerating categories of specific ways that software contributes to the creation of culture, later expanding on each. Notably, it mentions the advent of media today and its relation to software, saying that what we call “graphical user interfaces” today are actually (multi)media interfaces, that incorporate far more than just graphics. Towards this end, they create immersive experiences, which has interesting applications when we consider that work (intellectual or artistic, etc.) is often both created and experienced through software today. This highlights that while we may say we create “documents” of intellectual work, these documents are actually “performances;” they are not static — the message they impart is constructed by a combination of the document, the reader, and the software used to display the document (a pdf reader for a written work, for example). Furthermore, when the “document” is a live file (like Google Maps), the information imparted is constantly changing as users add and remove information — substantially different than the prior accepted conception of “static” intellectual work.

In the introduction to "Software Takes Command" Manovich constructs the argument that over the past several decades a variety of media which at one time occupied their own knowledge domains have increasingly consolidated and, in fact, can be framed via the rubric of "software". This software, which (at least for the time being) simulates the idiosyncrasies of the media from which it was historically derived. The repercussions of this are manifold. Most notably, software is far more fluid and dynamic than previous physical instantiations of media. Likewise, the cultural goals in semiotics of New Media are a moving target for those areas of the humanities who wish to study them.
To this point, Manovich continues, that even though software has become the single gatekeeper to intelligibility and, in fact, frames all new manifestations of old media, there has been a pronounced lack of research into what he terms "software culture" relative to similar domains within the humanities. In other words, any study into software and its effect has been relegated to engineers and coders (who have a decidedly different focus) as opposed to experts in the humanities even though as Manovich claims, "all intellectual work is today software study". Software must be established as its own theoretical category so as to be studied and its effects not rendered invisible.
So what are the ramifications of this? Of course, all software reflects the biases of its programmers. Furthermore, software and its interfaces are co-constitutive. What then does the software and its interfaces say about the information we value? How does it suggest we interpret certain phenomenon? I am reminded here of a former student who used emotion recognizing code for her project. Long story short, the software only worked well for white people. It worked marginally well for her (Hispanic) and almost not at all for her friend (Black). She labored to fix this problem for days never once imagining that the software could be the issue. Its very manifestation and implicit biases had been rendered invisible to her and she was shocked to consider that it might be the culprit.
This phenomena has only been exacerbated by the changing demographic of software creators. In the past decade or so these problems have entered ever more into the mainstream it because of the democratization of these tools. The ability to participate in the cultural manifestation of software is functionally guaranteed today since the barriers of high priced tools and required expertise have been reduced considerably.
Beyond this, Manovich outlines key areas of focus which will frame later arguments by enumerating various ways that culture creation and propagation is modulated through software. Ways which, he admits, are not so clearly delineated anymore since the rise of social media and the pursuant hybridization of these categories. By way of final summation he ends with the assertion that "humanity has added a new dimension on to everything which counts as our culture". Given the nature of our interactions with these dynamically constructed objects all theory which depends upon it manifesting as static in nature is no longer fully applicable. The humanities will have to take on the work of re-framing and developing a new vocabulary for this omnipresent phenomena since it is so new as to render all past methods, at best, incomplete.

In his introductory chapter to Software Takes Command, Manovich covers the ubiquity of software in modern society and culture, specifically highlighting how software has become an added dimension to our culture and how we have largely overlooked studying and examining the history of its development from a non-technical lens. Software is not only deeply involved with media that we interact with on a daily basis, it has fundamentally shaped the creation and consumption of this media in our society and culture.

Manovich also aptly highlights that the rapid proliferation of such cultural software (largely meaning software that has not coincided with an increased understanding of how software works among its users. This concept reminded me of an episode of the 99% Invisible podcast, The Age of the Algorithm. This episode highlights how the algorithms that dictate decision-making in many systems that directly affect us on a daily basis are obfuscated. The episode explores what algorithms are and how organizations may use them to make a range of decisions, from what new music we might like to how likely a convict is to break the law again (directly affecting the length of any prison sentences). Manovich's discussion around the lack of broader understanding of software is a bit concerning to me in this regard - without a broader understanding of how and why software shapes the media and culture in our modern society, it's hard to formulate informed perspectives on whether this software is being employed in ways that are constructive to broader society. Tools like Python and Processing have made coding and programming more efficient and accessible however, which can open the door to more non-technical people exploring software, just Manovich equates to the point-and-shoot digital camera making photography more accessible.

Manovich's exploration of the different ways how software has shaped and influenced culture (and vice versa) incredibly compelling. Specifically interesting to me is the idea that the message a user receives by content is now actively constructed and managed by the user of this content. They can play one specific track of an album, read specific chapters of a book, and navigate through content as they wish. This is an incredibly important point to consider as we design new ways to analyze and communicate complex information.

Finally, Manovich highlights the lack of "a systematic examination of the connections between the workings of contemporary media software and the new communication languages in design and media," while setting the stage for this book to tease out how these connections can be made and how software dynamically redefined culture.