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<nettime> Endless, multilayered, super-fast and infinitely complex bored
matthew fuller on Thu, 8 Sep 2005 23:18:38 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Endless, multilayered, super-fast and infinitely complex boredom: hooray

Endless, multilayered, super-fast and infinitely complex boredom: hooray

Matthew Fuller

What makes software jump?  What words, what 
styles of thought do we need to understand 
running code and the multi-layered compositions 
it is part of, and how, if at all, does software 
establish relations with what might termed 
freedom?  Such questions, of how to act in and 
understand complex technologies and live 
situations are not unique to technology, and for 
a figure by which to understand them, it is often 
useful to start from the wrong place, not with 
software, but with a frog.  In his book Lifelines 
the biologist Steven Rose describes the way in 
which a number of his workmates might, whilst 
sitting at the edge of a pond, compete to 
describe the leap of a frog. By trade, they are a 
physiologist, an ethologist, a developmentalist, 
an evolutionist and a molecular biologist.  Each 
sets their particular disciplinary scale of 
perception against those of the others.  The 
frog, responding not to the nattering of the 
knowledge workers but to a snake spotted on a 
nearby tree splashes elegantly into the safety of 
a pond. The representatives of their disciplines 
each in turn ascribe the 'jump event' to: the 
interaction of nerves, muscles and bones 
containing and releasing structured patterns of 
energy and movement; learned or grown behavioural 
responses;  the result of the particular pattern 
of growth of the organism; the action of an 
inherited genetic imperative; or the biochemical 
properties of its muscles.

As the ripples in the pond spread and interact 
with other movements in the water,  Rose's 
argument is to encourage equally multivalent ways 
of thinking a non-reductive biology of 
life-patterns.  Whilst, in his experiments on the 
physiology of memory, there can be few people in 
the world who have scissored as many heads off 
hatchling chicks, Rose's appetite for a wet, 
complex, living biology is something from which, 
with all necessary irony,  our understanding of 
software can learn.  The trick for biology as a 
whole, he suggests, is to find a way of engaging 
both the volition to detail entrained by 
disciplinary approaches, which are in turn geared 
to particular constituent scales of reality, 
those of the gene, the molecule, the organism and 
so on, whilst at the same time recognizing the 
radical interweaving of such scales.

	If we talk about freedom in relation to 
software, and after having spat a few times to 
clear our mouths of a word so enduringly soured 
as freedom,  a word that still however makes our 
mouths water and tongues wag,  perhaps then we 
can suggest that a similar set of scales might 
pertain to software.  Imagine a group of people 
watching a computer.  One holds that what it does 
is determined by the hardware, that the mineral 
architecture of computing is that which sets what 
is possible.  Another looks to the history of 
languages.  They say that software is determined 
by the kinds of syntaxes buildable,  by logical 
structures that are available in each different 
environment.  The third works through a critique 
of the political economy of software and suggests 
that what is possible in software is engineered 
by the relations of property embedded in and 
circulating through it.  This person might 
emphasize the insights of the Free Software 
movement.  Lastly, the fourth figure suggests 
that software can only be understood by an 
analysis of the user interface, by an 
ethnographic querying of the signifying processes 
of the machine and of its uses.  What people do 
with it is what establishes its quality of 
freedom.  Whilst these figures do not exist in 
any 'clean' sense, they do represent existing 
tendencies in the understanding of software and 
also divisions of labour in its production.

In an aside in a classic essay in the 
Actor-Network tradition, a current in sociology 
emphasizing the interaction of elements in 
socio-technical assemblages, Madeleine Akrich 
describes the possibilities for developing an 
analysis of the car.  She suggests that such a 
study has its natural scale. "Doubtless it could 
be satisfying to paint on a broad canvas, 
starting with nuts and bolts, pistons and cracks, 
cogs and fan belts, and moving on to voting 
systems, the strategies of large industrial 
groups, the definition of the family, and the 
physics of solids...  ...On what grounds would 
the analyst stop - apart from the arbitrary one 
of lassitude?  Quite apart from the indefinite 
amount of time such a study would take, there is 
also the question as to whether it would be 
interesting." Mapping the way in which every part 
of such a complex technical object simultaneously 
embodies and measures relations amongst 
'heterogeneous elements' might be even more 
draining in the case of software.

Do we need to make this voyage through boredom? 
What would it involve?  A phrase which has passed 
into the everyday understanding of computing, 
'the combinatorial explosion' was coined in the 
1973 Lighthill report into artificial 
intelligence.  It describes a situation where 
each element in a logical puzzle needs testing 
against every other part.  As the number of 
elements increases, the number of such 
combinations rises exponentially.  The problem 
gets too big.  This was seen to set a natural 
limit to the scale of the then current programme 
of artificial intelligence and the report was 
used to legitimize the drastic cutting of the 
number of centres involved in such research in 
the UK.  Such seemingly natural scales to both 
understanding and 'intelligence' set thresholds 
of complexity beyond which it is difficult, if 
not arduously boring to go beyond.  The situation 
is complicated further because, as Edsgar 
Dijkstra notes,  "In computer programming our 
basic building block, the instruction,  takes 
less than a microsecond, but our program may 
require hours  of computation time. I do not know 
of any other technology than  programming that is 
invited to cover a grain ratio of 10^10 or  more. 
The automatic computer, by virtue of its 
fantastic speed,  was the first to provide an 
environment with enough 'room' for  highly 
hierarchical artifacts. And in this respect, the 
challenge  of the programming task is without 

To map out the elements of software, at any one 
of the scales embodied in our four watching 
figures is therefore complicated by the question 
of time.  Rose sees history, the movement of an 
organism in time through and as the interplay of 
these relatively self-determining layers, as a 
means of understanding biology without falling in 
to the trap of a fetishised, eventually 
dysfunctional, reductivism.  A life is enacted 
not in conditions of the organism's own making, 
but each life generates it own combinatorial 
If we were to be unwise, to obstinately disregard 
Akrich's indubitably correct warning and to try 
and map out every possible element of the 
catalytic web of a piece of software, at every 
one of its scalar articulations, and both at the 
stretches of speed appropriate to the rate of 
calculation of its hardware (in its every actual 
configuration) and for all the social, semiotic 
and experiential combinations within which it 
inheres, what might result?  One can imagine 
endless drifts of finely sociological boredom 
being endured in the study of software. Should we 
launch global and trans-generational research 
institutes for the study of every instance of 
some minor phone-game or for all calculations 
made in Lotus 1-2-3 or the Sasser virus? Perhaps 
such studies are already underway, their results 
remaining as yet stupifyingly incommunicable. 
What then should we watch out for and what kind 
of instruments would be used?  Will there be some 
ideal moment of alignment between the four or 
more scales at which a particular rupture or 
collapse makes itself manifest?

Perhaps here there is something equivalent to the 
immense mapping of interactions of the assemblage 
of a car.  Complex artifacts, with multiple and 
parallel combination of micrometer fine parts 
moving at speed can suddenly - when particular 
frequencies are hit, when certain combinations of 
noise, alignment, heat or other factors coincide 
- mean a breakdown or worse.  A cylinder 
manufactured to slightly dud specifications hits 
a pitch of work and it cracks: the physics of 
solids align abruptly with the history of the 
car's users.  In software, bugs, crashes and 
errors particularly in those kinds of software 
interacting with those versions of the user known 
as the consumer represent some of the same kinds 
of interactions.

Multi-scalar alignments can also have different 
kinds of results.  In living systems such changes 
in state and in the rate and intensity of 
interaction between parts can mean the transition 
to a different metabolic condition, population 
changes such as speciation or extinction, or the 
specialization of cells.  In terms that are 
understood as political, and at scales that are 
both social and inter-personal, combinations of 
elements may go to such highly visible boiling 
points.  But the way in which they also 
negotiate, competitively or collaboratively 
engage to sustain, lock, shift, change or break 
these inter-relations between elements without 
crossing such thresholds are also significant.

One such example which, of course involves the 
all-too-heterogeneous car,  is the imperative to 
imagine feedback between the state of the 
planet's ecology and the economic and technical 
forms of the species that currently dominates it. 
We need a better practical vocabulary than that 
of reform or revolution to describe the kinds of 
changes that our current ecological condition 
requires, but such forms of feedback need not 
only to be imagined, but to be acted upon and 
made.   Software seems to be an interesting place 
to begin.  Not only does it constitute the domain 
in which the work of modeling, gathering and 
number-crunching has been and can be done to 
intensify time in the right direction, to speed 
virtual futures up before they happen,  to enable 
us to act on their implications, it also provides 
part of the domain which can perhaps 
'out-heterogenise' capitalism and its preferred, 
ownable, sources of energy.

Traveling through the immense multi-scalar fields 
of lassitude that are promised for the feckless 
by Akrich one notices that here and there, there 
are wrinkles between the scales.  one form of 
knowledge demanding another to makes sense of 
itself.  Amidst the vast terrains of blankness 
and repetition, the opportunity to find weird 
little clots of association, parts biting into 
each other, amidst an immense bland mapping of 
uncountably similar parts a thousand elements 
simultaneously freezing, crashing or engorging, 
generating fissures that open up onto new 
terrains, new figures of thought, and that compel 
new scales and conjugations of understanding.
There is no 'natural scale' to software.  Each of 
the four, inevitably more, figures must 
collaborate, work on itself and in liaison with 
the others, recognize its occurrence within live 
history.  The challenge that such an 
understanding of software makes is multifarious 
and simply linking layers is not enough.  In 
certain kinds of metabolic web, previously 
discrete elements network together so strongly 
that they crystallize: effectively becoming one 
component.  Multidisciplinary models of work, 
linking these scales and connecting hardware 
designers, programmers,  lawyers, economists, 
user interface designers, sociologists and 
marketeers certainly exist, they call them 
corporations.  But even in and between such 
entities, styles of knowledge and forms of work 
are hard to make monolithic.  The scalar 
solidarity of programmers within Free/Libre and 
Open Source Software movement has spelled out one 
set of ways to speak of freedom in relation to 
software.  At the same time, it alerts us to 
other uses of the soured word: the search for 
crash-proof killing machines has spurred the 
partial incorporation of Linux development by the 
US military; but who better, one argument goes, 
to subsidize the communism of ideas?  The four 
scales of software sketched above suggest that 
freedom must be made at other levels too.

In our travels through the endless fields of 
boredom how can we tell whether we are at the 
edge of some particularly interesting fold or 
intensification?  How can we smell out a 
potential alignment of elements within scales 
that promise a potential figure of freedom?  What 
instruments exist to decipher whether or not we 
are at the edge of a moment at which everything, 
at every scale, becomes crystalline and rancidly 
clear, or, as figured in the debates about the 
militarization of Linux, whether domination is 
possibly over-stretching itself, becomes its 
other in order to race fast enough against 
history to keep everything the same?  A similar 
question could be posed about moves to apply 
unsuitable patent laws to software.  Is there an 
algorithm by which one might calculate the 
potential interactions within these four scales 
of software?

First, such an algorithm would have to constitute 
itself through paradox, involve a recursive 
disassembly and reconstitution of the notion of 
freedom itself, and an equal dose of laughter at 
the notion of transcendental rules.  Its tongue 
in cheek rules of thumb might draw upon 'Do What 
You Will', Rabelais' minimal rule-set for the 
utopia Th?leme, or the libertarian's handy 
slide-rule 'It is Forbidden to Forbid' and of 
course there are countless others.  But maxims 
are not enough.  Both freedom and software 
require a certain lightness coupled with an 
obdurate recognition that it is possible to make 
something happen, that it is possible to make 
leaps, at any scale.  Such algorithms would be 
capable of working in, amongst, and beyond, the 
four scales sketched earlier, sucking their 
constituent elements into unimagined conjunctions 
with elements traversing other realities into 
quick condensations of processing.  Irreducable 
to themselves,  and thus also impossible to 
configure as software only, perhaps we can find 
those affirmative and convulsive elements and 
conjunctions busying themselves or waiting in the 
strange knits between layers of reality.  Working 
relations of capacities and energies over time, 
software's structural and constitutive interplay 
of constraints, affordances and invention, mean 
that the figures of freedom we will require in 
order to navigate boredom will have to be enacted 
as much as encoded.


Madeleine Akrich, 'The De-scription of Technical 
Objects', in Wiebe Bijker and John Law eds. 
Shaping Technology Building Society, MIT Press, 

Edsger Wybe Dijkstra, A Discipline of Programming, Prentice-Hall, 1976

James Lighthill, 'Artificial Intelligence: A 
General Survey', in  Artificial Intelligence: a 
paper symposium, Science Research Council, 1973

Steven Rose, Lifelines, biology beyond 
determinism, Oxford University Press, 1997

(Text Originally for Ars Electronica catalogue 
2005, www.aec.at  With thanks to Elisabeth 
Sachsenhofer and Ingrid Fischer-Schreiber)

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