Eric Berthelette on 15 Jan 2001 22:17:26 -0000

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Re: <nettime> Code as (literary) text

Soeren, perhaps this takes your point too far afield, but I wonder if we
could usefully take the literary metaphor a step further. You distinguish
between a literary approach and (I think) a commodity production approach to
software development.  Presumably, this involves significant changes in the
way software is made and how it may be used.  For example, open source is
constantly "in production" as code writers can work collectively,
asynchronously, and sometimes collaboratively.  Within this open source
ideal, the "product" is not fixed by legal fiat, ascribed ownership, or
similar limitations (often through implied threats of state violence) on
production, distribution, and such.  Literature certainly has commodity
forms, but as you imply, it also has noncommodity forms that may be
analogous to open source.

But I wonder if we couldn't push the analogy beyond what we typically think
of as "expression" or meaning somehow absent its social relations and
materiality. The topic of software, it seems to me, makes this distinction
between meaning and sociology (and "hard" and "soft") all the more
problematic.  Software is not an immaterial expression of the particular
ideas of its creators.  At the very least, software increasingly behaves
like what we typically think of as hardware.  Software determines access and
makes particular demands that are as limiting and determining as any other
material technology (i.e. hardware). Perhaps, at least in an open source
environment, there is a greater fluidity to the digital material that must
be manipulated, while some aspects of the hardware require far greater
efforts to effect our intentions.  But both are produced through human
intention using material media (Raymond Williams seems to make a similar
argument about literature, as well).  Moreover, I think there is a tendency
to overstate the fluidity of digital production as evidenced by the
persistance of the Y2K bug, requiring millions of hours of effort by
personal users and professionals alike.  Even if the dangers of Y2K were
mostly perceived, the problem of "fixing" it was no less intractable and no
less consuming than if we thought our telephone lines suddenly needed
widespread repair.

Open source is an attempt to remove some of the structures that make
software rigid, static, and part of the reproduction of hierarchical social
relations.  But perhaps the success of these attempts hinge upon removing
the structures that effect similar rigidities in all forms of production,
praxis, and expression.  If literature and software cannot transcend social
relations, perhaps we should cease to think of the open source movement as
strictly a matter of software and free speech via computer networks.  Even
if the proponents of open source do not always make these connections, it
would seem to be our responsibility as intellectuals to do so.

I'd be interested in others' views on the potential problems with my line of
argument, as I am just beginnning to think about these issues as they relate
to my research interests and eventual dissertation.


Eric Berthelette
Ph.D. Candidate--Media Studies
University of Colorado, USA

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