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<nettime> Notes on the Politics of Software Culture
Andreas Broeckmann on Thu, 4 Sep 2003 16:48:57 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> Notes on the Politics of Software Culture



[the essay below was written for the upcoming Next5Minutes4 reader; 
as it scans the field that will also be the topic of the ars 
electronica starting on saturday, i thought it might be timely to 
post it here; -ab]


Notes on the Politics of Software Culture

Andreas Broeckmann

Software has, over the last few years, increasingly come into view as 
a cultural technique whose social and political impact ought to be 
studied carefully. To the extent that social processes rely on 
software for their execution - from systems of e-government and 
net-based education, online banking and shopping, to the organisation 
of social groups and movements -, it is necessary to understand the 
procedural specificities of the computer programmes employed, and the 
cultural and political 'rules' coded into them. The 'killer apps' of 
tomorrow may, as Howard Rheingold claims, not be 'hardware devices or 
software programs but social practices'. Yet, these social practices 
will increasingly be determined by software configurations of the 
available infrastructure and the degrees and types of latitude that 
they offer.

Aspects of software culture - a terrain that encompasses software 
development as well as the wide and multi-facetted field of software 
application - are being articulated by speculative and artistic 
software projects which this text will try to cover in a necessarily 
cursory, introductory fashion.
The term 'social software' has been used by Matthew Fuller, Graham 
Harwood, and others, to describe a type of software that consciously 
engages the social aspects of its application. Whereas a programme 
like MS Word, which Fuller has carefully disected in an extensive 
analysis, tends to conceal the rules and assumptions that served to 
constitute its structure, social software addresses the more or less 
specific social context of its application, whether in the form of 
the Linker software by Mongrel that offers an easy-to-use 
functionality for multimedia production, or in the online 
communication platforms that support, for instance, collaborative 
software and media development and that can easily be tweaked to meet 
the requirements of a certain co-producer community.

For almost a decade, the Nettime mailing list has been an active, 
international forum for the discussion of software-related cultural 
and political issues. In a seminal essay posted on Nettime, Behind 
the Blip, Fuller talks about key aspects of social software and also 
refers to the Californian researcher Ellen Ullman who has worked on 
software development as a distinctly social practice for several 
years. Important practical and theoretical work in this field has 
also been done by the Amsterdam-based Society for Old and New Media, 
De Waag, whose software development projects have engaged the needs 
and possibilities of different user groups by way of models for a 
'participatory software design'. In cooperation with De Waag, the New 
Delhi-based media and communication centre Sarai has also worked on 
both the practical issues of social software development, and on the 
critical reflection of software culture on their online Reader-List 
and in the Reader print publications. While Nettime has often carried 
postings articulating differences between European and US media 
cultures, Sarai has, importantly, helped to raise awareness for the 
differences in software cultures, esp. with regard to developments in 
South Asia.

In his essay, Behind the Blip, Fuller distinguishes social software 
from 'critical' and 'speculative' software, critical software being 
'software designed explicitly to pull the rug from underneath 
normalised understandings of software'. It critically engages with 
existing software programmes and mutates or critically analyses them. 
In contrast, 'speculative software' comes closest to what can be 
understood as an artistic approach to software: it is, as Fuller 
writes, 'software that explores the potentiality of all possible 
programming. It creates transversal connections between data, 
machines and networks. Software, part of whose work is to reflexively 
investigate itself as software. Software as science fiction, as 
mutant epistemology. Speculative software can be understood as 
opening up a space for the reinvention of software by its own means.'

The notion of 'software art' has recently made the rounds. It is an 
attempt to describe a practice that is artistic, non-functionalist, 
reflexive and speculative about the aesthetics and politics of 
software, and that takes computer programming as the material proper 
of the artistic practice. The Berlin-based media art festival 
transmediale has been holding an annual competition for software art 
since 2001, looking especially at works of generative art whose main 
artistic material is program code, or which deal with the cultural 
understanding of software. Thus, software is not understood as a 
functional tool serving the 'real' artistic work, but as a generative 
means for the creation of machinic and social processes. Software 
art, in the understanding of researcher, software activist and 
co-editor of the Nettime Unstable Digest, Florian Cramer, can be the 
result of an autonomous and formal creative practice, but it can also 
refer the cultural and social meaning of software, or reflect on 
existing software through strategies like collage or critique.

Like transmediale, other exhibition and curatorial projects 
(Generator in the UK, Kontrollfelder in Dortmund/D, the ars 
electronica's CODE festival, the exhibition 'I Love You' on computer 
viruses, a.o.) have sought to circumscribe a field of artistic work 
that deals with the aesthetic potential of software. Most notably, 
the festival Read_Me (Moscow and Helsinki) has been exclusively 
devoted to software art and has led to the establishment of the 
Runme.Org collaborative online database for software art projects. 
The CODeDOC project has presented software developed by artists and 
has included comments and documentation of the programming process 
and has thus attempted to introduce an aspect of transparency and the 
idea of Open Sources into the discourse on software by and for 
artists, an issue which is also being addressed in discussions about 
'open content' and the 'creative commons' licenses for artistic 
productions. In contrast, Free Software developers like Jaromil, who 
is pursuing a.o. the MuSE project for a free audio streaming 
software, insist on the necessity to resist proprietary licensing 
models altogether.

It is worth noticing that the Free Software and open source models 
have increasingly also influenced art-related software productions in 
independent labs like the V2_Lab, the Ars Electronica Center or the 
MIT Media Lab. The copyright issue, which Georg Greve, president of 
the Free Software Foundation Europe, suggests should not be referred 
to as 'Intellectual Property Rights' but as 'the question of 
industrial control of information' will become crucial for the 
information and knowledge society and must be addressed 
experimentally in the arts and culture sector, like in the recent 
exhibition Illegal Art which presented some of the ridiculous results 
of tight copyright laws.
The issues of interface design and interaction have been among the 
prime concerns of digital art production, yet, while software has 
mostly been treated as a tool towards realism in virtual 
environments, software art projects like I/O/D's Webstalker, Jodi's 
Wrong Browers or Joan Leandre's retroYou R/C have offered irritating 
and enlightening insights into the construction of digital realism by 
means of software.

The Internet, while accelerating the demise of utopian hopes once 
invested in its liberatory potential, has also become the site of a 
multiplicity of collaborative forums, whether on mailing lists, 
Wikis, in weblog communities, etc. For the Net in general, software 
developments around Java, the Linux system, and online publishing 
forums like Slashdot or Freshmeat, have all had shares in a complex 
and vibrant cultural development. For software art in particular, 
a.o., the eu-gene and linart mailing lists, are continuing to play an 
important role. The social and theoretical implications of these 
kinds of online cooperation have been investigated by projects of the 
interdisciplinary artists group Knowbotic Research for over ten 
years, most notably in the IO_dencies series in the mid-90s, but also 
in the more recent collaborative hacking projects. Similarly, the 
Italian EpidemiC collective explores new forms of software based 
online activism in their Anti-Mafia project.

Collaborative and activist projects like these frequently also 
involve debates about network security, ironically referenced by 
Technology To The People's Phoney(TM), and about privacy issues which 
were tackled by LAN's Tracenoizer project and, more recently, by 
Franz Alken's Machines Will Eat Itself, both of which instigate a 
deliberate erosion of relations between human individuals and their 
online data bodies.

If anything, software art projects like these should indicate the 
necessity to delve more deeply into the cultural specificities of 
software development and application. Software needs to be understood 
as a set of digital media which need to be explored regarding their 
specificity, their political and cultural dimensions. An immense 
amount of knowhow already exists in the open source and free software 
development communities, as well as in hacker and art coder circles. 
It will be crucial to devise ways how this knowhow can be interwoven, 
at times pooled, and exploded across the entire field of software 
development and usage. Finally, a 'planetary' project worth 
recommending!


Note: For reasons of brevity, there are hardly any references in this 
text; most things can easily be found through Internet search 
engines. Otherwise, I'm happy to help in locating sources: 
ab {AT} transmediale.de. (Berlin, 22 Aug 2003)

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