Foreword (to Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Programmed Visions)
Foreword to Wendy Chun’s excellent, Programmed Visions, http://mitpress.mit.edu/catalog/item/default.asp?ttype=2&tid=12570
Software studies aims to find ways of expanding and intensifying reflection on software and computational culture in general. The problems it works on are rather unavoidable since software and the underlying ideas and techniques that it embodies is a crucial, if underacknowledged, element of everyday life. Few parts of human culture remain untouched by software, but there are relatively fewer means by which to evaluate it. The software studies book series aims to contribute towards a certain balancing out of this ratio.
The ability to understand its preconditions and basal factors is in turn essential for any field of endeavour to prosper and to renew itself. To ally such an understanding with a synthetic approach, which brings together some of the iterations of a foundational set of ideas as they move through different fields and are changed by them as they in turn change the those that they provide new insights to, is crucial. As this book shows, the idea of codes and of programmability underlies software. In turn, they form a set of idioms and techniques to shape and make possible other areas of life,
Whilst Programmed Visions operates as a sustained introduction to the ideas of software, code, and programmability as they work in relation to computation, the book is also a meditation on how this model proliferates, by various means, into systems such as living materials which are in turn understood to be bearers of a form of code that instructs their growth and which can, by further convolution, be read as a print out of the truth of an organism. Indeed, Chun’s book shows how, in nuanced and intriguing ways, the idea of code in biology anticipates that in computing. Thus, the idea of programmability proliferates into other pasts.
That computing is something that has a history is, three generations on now from the first electronic computers, relatively well established. The study of that history itself has grown from a focus on canonical surveys and detailed and vivid oral histories to a very fruitful proliferation of focuses, problematics and methodological scope. Programmed Visions places the field of software studies in direct dialogue with that of computing history, but it also suggests that in order to work through history, we need to be able to bring other scales into account, from feelings to geopolitics and the conceptual and ideological orderings that are operative in them.
One of the operations evaluated here is the idea that one thing can stand in for, or be seen as equivalent to, another. This is the essential idea of a code. Systems of equivalence and codification such as capitalism, the universal Turing machine, management, structuralism, each have their idiosyncracies, and each, as constructive systems, have their own capacities for invention. Chun’s claim, in an interlude text in this book, is that the computer, and software in particular, has gone one step further, becoming a metaphor for metaphor, a means by which other metaphors are filtered and arranged, becoming in turn a system of universal experiential machining. This is one reason why the computer cannot be written off, nor lauded, as a simply crazily rationalist machine. There is a velocity, idiosyncracy and thickness to the changes wrought by software that makes it a fundamentally tricky phenomena, potentially rich rather than inherently reductive, but not automatically so.
One other set of phenomena that these qualities couple with are the means of assigning value to things. The degradation experienced in the neoliberal moment is partly in the abstractions it operates by: that relations, singular qualities of inherence in the world, are exchanged for equivalences; that money becomes the secret means by which a table may be transmogrified into a meal and a house may be turned into a debt. In the secret ironic engine undergirding economics, equivalences are exchanged for sames. These sames may be goods, the same dull coffee places in cities across the overdeveloped world, the same infrastructure of contracts, law and possession, and the same operating systems, that accompany them.
The ability of numbers, statements, currencies or other signs to stand in for all kinds of things gives systems of abstraction and generalization immense power, especially when they can be made to line up into larger scale structures, producing veritable machines. Programmed Visions gives us a means of understanding such processes, but also importantly of how software is the code that works to disintermediate these systems. Thus, to understand the contemporary situation, it is not enough solely to recognize the operations of the economy, nor even to be able to interrogate the morphological expressivity of a genetic array, but also to understand the very mechanisms that conjoin them. And here, software’s capacity to handle relations, equivalences and sames is also something that, as well as bearing the capacity for indefensible reductions, also makes it deeply productive. Software, in its relations with other things, brings a capacity of synthesis to multiple scales of reality, acting as a condition of thought, of imagination, investing them with multiple kinds of motility and conjunction. In turn, one of the imaginaries that invests this synthetic domain is a technocratic dreamwork of understanding, interpretability, of ambivalent optimisation, but also of instrumentalisation and restructuration running in a recursive mode which reinforces systems of sames.
This is a necessarily complicated, highly intriguing, series of transitions and the elegance with which Chun marks these moments of the waxing and waning of integrations and encodings is testament both to the expressivity of the systems that she interprets and to the skill with which her analyses are assembled. The very dynamic range of the materials that the book discusses indeed compels what the book both celebrates and exemplifies, a means of thinking, “in the middle of things”. This feel for both immanence and abstraction drives Programmed Visions in its figuring out of the relations between the different loci that it inhabits and it is one that is marked by multiple resonances of vicissitude and pleasure. It is in these transitions too that the book engenders its relation to memory, that regenerative capacity needed when one does not have an absolute overview. Memory allows us to see patterns, to unlock codes, even in a world of ongoing change. Programmed Visions sets such a capacity in contrast to the figure of memory as simple storage, ‘hardened’ information, and offers a new reading of the relationship between them. In broader terms, the book commends us to keep looking at what becomes soft, that which ossifies or proliferates by staying the same, what multiplies and what grows anew. With an urgency that cannot be rushed, we are here presented with the materials to carry out such work.