matthew fuller on Tue, 8 Jan 2002 04:31:00 +0100 (CET)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> Behind the Blip: Software as Culture

Behind the Blip:
Software as Culture

(some routes into 'software criticism', more ways out.)

Matthew Fuller

 Software Criticism?

There are two questions which I would like to begin with.

Firstly, to ask, what kind of critical and inventive thinking is
required to take the various movements in software forward into those
relatively straightforward areas which are necessary if software
oligopolies are to be undermined, to develop the capacity for
unleashing the unexpected upon software and the certainties which form

Secondly, what are the currents of software which are emerging which
demand and incorporate new ways of thinking about software?

One of the ways to think about this problem is to imagine it as a
series of articles from a new kind of computer magazine1.  What would
happen if writers about computers expanded their horizons from the
usual close focus on benchtests and bit-rates?  What would happen if we
weren't looking at endless articles detailing the functionality of this
or that new version of this or that application?  What if we could
think a little more broadly - beyond the usual instructional articles
describing how to use this filter or that port?  What for instance,
would it mean to have a fully fledged 'software criticism'?

	Firstly, let's look at what already exists. Certainly, we are not
short of examples of prior art.  In terms of the academy, Sociology for
instance offers:  Jeannette Hofmann's descriptions of the gendering of
word processor software and its patterns of use within work2; Paul N.
Edwards' history of the development of computer technologies through
the models of science promotable at the height of the early cold war3;
Michael R. Curry's formulation of a technico-aesthetic economy of
signification and ownership in Geographic Information Systems4; Donald
MacKenzie's work on the political implications of floating point unit
calculations in the design of missile guidance systems,5 the list goes
on.  Material based around philosophy and literature:  Michael Heim's,
'Electric Language'6; and the contributions of Friedrich Kittler,
despite his assertions that the object of attention here does not
exist, all provide resources. We can also look to texts which come out
of bookshops, but that don't get libraried up so much:  Howard
Rheingold's 'Tools for Thought'7 and Jay David Boulter's, 'Turing's
Man' for instance.   This list is certainly short, but it does
continue.  The creation of imaginary bookshelves is as good as way of
thinking through combination as the imaginary museum, and there are
three areas in particular which seem to offer elements recomposable
into a more thoroughgoing strand of thought about and with software.

Human Computer Interface

	Human Computer Interface (HCI) is obviously one area that should be
turned to.  This is after all the point at which the hidden
machinations of the computer are compelled to make themselves available
in some way or another to a user.  The way the computer makes available
such use, what assumptions are made about what possible interactions
might develop, are fundamentally cultural. 

Given this, HCI has an unusually narrow understanding of its scope.
Much of the rhetoric is about empowerment and the sovereignty of the
user, whose 'personality', shapes and dialogues with the machine.  It
should be asked what model of a persona, what 'human' is engineered by
HCI, and not settling for answers that stray anywhere near the
singalong themetune of 'empowerment'.  (Let us not forget that much of
the methodology of HCI is still derived from that which led B.F.
Skinner to assume that he could train pigeons - in the days before
cruise - to act as primitive guidance systems for missiles.)

	It seems clear that the vast majority of research and production in
this area is concerned with imposing functionalist models of all those
systems that cohere as the user.  Make no mistake, HCI works.  It is
productive  because it belongs to a long line of disciplinary
idealisations of the human.  When it comes to designing the most
suitable combination of ergonomics and information design to ensure
that a pilot can drop bombs or stockbrokers can move funds, in the most
efficient, information rich, yet graphically and emotionally
uncluttered manner, HCI delivers the goods.  In these cases, reaction
times; the number of interactive steps from task identification to task
execution can be measured.  The results can be tabulated against
variants of the system.  The whole can be fine-tuned, pixels shifted,
operatives retrained: the loop between stimulus and response tightened
into a noose.  This is the fatal end-point of the standard mode of HCI.
 It empowers the user, by modelling them, and in doing so effects their
disappearance, their incorporation into its models.

	There are, of course, many 'human-centred' variants on such designs.
Yet this kind of naming illustrates its fatal flaw.  There is still a
model of the human being imposed here.  Some developments in software
design have been made by acknowledging this.  Alan Cooper's8 method for
instance, works by establishing a number of stereotypical users of a
system and then reworking it, primarily in terms of interface, in order
to meet an aggregate of their needs.  The deliberate fiction of user
identities is made visible at the design stage in order to allow
greater insight into the techno-aesthetic composition of the
software.	A small, useful step would be to make these manufactured
identities and treat them as psycho-social open source9.

More broadly, much could be gained by a change in the focus of HCI.  In
its emphasis on perception, on narrowly applied psychology, it has
split the user from any context.  One thing that is interesting about
software is how it contains models of involvement with processes rather
than simply with static elements - think about groupware, or the way in
which most previously discrete applications have become part of wider
suites of processes, to say nothing about the inherently modular nature
of Unix.  What would it mean to incorporate an explicitly wider notion
of such processes into software - to reinfuse the social, the dynamic,
the networks, the political, communality (perhaps even rather, or as
well as, privacy) - into the contained model of the individualised user
that HCI has us marked down for?

Programmers' self-accounts

Another pre-existing area that offers insights for an understanding of
software as culture is the tradition of accounts of their work by
programmers. Key texts are Larry Wall's 'Perl as a Postmodern
Programming Language'10 and Ellen Ullman's 'Close to the Machine'11.
Both of these in their own ways document the interrelation of
programming with other formations, cultural, social, aesthetic.  These
are drives that are built into and compose software rather than use it
as a neutral tool.

	These accounts of programming are somewhat odds with the idealist
tendencies in computing.  In the recent film based on Robert Harris',
novel 'Enigma' one of the characters makes the claim most succinctly:
"With numbers, truth and beauty are the same thing."   Such statements
are the pop-science version of the attractions of so-called 'pure'
mathematics.  It is also the vision of numbers that most often finds
its way to the big screen (think also of the film 'Pi' where a cute
crazy loner struggles for a glimpse of the numerical meta-reality).
But more crucially, they are a direct route to the european cultural
backbone of classical idealism.  There are harmonious relations between
forms of every kind that can be understood through the relations
between numbers.  The closer they are to achieving purity of form the
more beautiful they become.  There is an end point to this passage to
beauty which is absolute beauty.  Access to and understanding of this
beauty is allowed only to those souls which are themselves beautiful.

	The consequences of such ordering are of course clear, if only in the
brutality of their collaboration with and succour for hierarchies of
every kind.  The shabby, kitschy end of this tendency is found in
computing in accounts such as 'The Aesthetics of Computing'12  But it
is far more violently enhanced by computing when it works to provide an
aesthetics of social control. There are far more opportunities offered
by constructionist and fabulatory approaches.  Numbers do not provide
big answers, but opportunities to explore further manifold and
synthetic possibilities - that is to say, that they provide access to
more figures.

Critical Theory

Under the aisle headings critical, social, political, cultural,
material, visual, aesthetic or blahblah  theory there is an warehouse
of tools available, tools which are held back from invading the
conceptual domains of software by the myth of its own neutrality as a
tool.  These rubrics themselves are only really of any use when they
are disengenuous, when they don't quite fit.  For this reason, there's
no option of chewing though the Dewey Decimal System and tabulating
them.  (The use of the term theory is here meant simply: as that which
develops a model of an approach to the material it works on as it uses
it and with which it shares an equal importance in terms of its
production. It therefore acts in relation to other such models at the
same time as  operating in the field on which it attends to.  This
might be true to some extent in terms of writings on HCI and in
programmers' self-accounts, but these are always primarily rather than
equally concerned in epistemological terms with the accomplishment of
an instrumental task.)  Here, it is only necessary to make two
suggestions, one in terms of scale, the other in terms of activity.

In general, critiques of technologies, particularly media, are made on
the basis of a category or class of objects, rather than specific
instances of that class13.  Perhaps the timescale of literary
production precludes anything else, but it is also a question of
pretensions to timelessness.  Why spend time working into a piece of
software, when it'll be reversioned in a couple of months? The kind of
material that is now gathered to beat students about the heads with as
'cyberculture' is generally exemplary in this way.  Would it not make
more of the gift of your wisdom to the human race to ponder the
verities of some enormous category that will combine shelf-longevity
and discourse redeployment potential?  It is not that such work is
strictly non-empirical, but that in being concerned with offering grand
theory-panoramas and generic summations any chance of latching into
particularities, particularly those against which such concepts can be
tested, disappears under the clouds.

	That timescale need also not be determined by corporate release
schedules in producing an analysis of software is suggested by Donald
Knuth14 when he proposes a deceptively simple task for computer
scientists:  analyse every process that your computer executes in one
second.  The number of tasks, writing at the end of the eighties, he
suggests will be around 250,000.  Perhaps this would provide sufficient
scope?  Timelessness condenses, and the researcher appears years later
having annotated an entire second's worth of hundreds of thousands of
instructions. Most of the transcript would of course consist of
repetitions of instructions carried out on minutely incremental changes
in variables.  Why not contaminate this simple telling of the story of
what goes on inside a computer with its all-too-cultural equivalent?
The transcript of the contents of a mind over one day, or of a memory
in the transit of a morsel of cake from plate to mouth, provided
opportunities for sentences in 'fiction' to slide in and out of scale,
from layer to layer, in convulsions of sprouting, connecting text.
Perhaps this can also be done at this scale? 

At another scale, one of the advantages of the work of Jakob Nielsen,
Donald Norman and others is precisely that they focus in on very
specific problems, albeit those of a narrow cast and range of
interpretation. Although they tend to deal, and Nielsen foremost, in a
somewhat over-literal application of cybernetic 'constraint' rather
than the generation of its twin, 'freedom', their focus allows them to
claim at the very least the rhetorical power of practice. Nit-picking
has the capacity to become another mode of the war of the flea. 
Theorisations of software that are able to operate on the level of a
particular version of a program, a particular file structure, protocol,
sampling algorithm, colour-scheme, public interface, request for
comments, and so on, are necessary. Further, it is essential to
understand any such element or event as only one layer or node in a
wider set of intersecting and multi-scalar formations. That is to say
that, whilst within a particular set of conditions its function might
well be to impose stasis upon another element, such an effect cannot
always be depended upon. In addition, whilst one might deal with a
particular object, it must always be understood not as something
static, although it may never change, but to be operating in
participial15 terms.

Such a focus on the unfolding of particularities, with an attention to
how they are networked out into further vectors, layers and nodes of
classes, instrumentalisations, panics, quick fixes, slow collapses, the
sheerly alien fruitfulness of digital abundance, ways in which they can
be taken up and made strange, mundane,  beautiful, will at least ensure
two things.   Firstly, that it busts the locks on the tastefully
interiored prison of stratified interdisciplinarity.  It would be a
dire fate to end up with a repetition of the infinitely recessive
corridor of depleted jargons and zombie conferencing of Film Studies.
Secondly, and in terms of activity, that an engaged processes of
writing on software might reasonably hope to avoid the fate of much
recent cultural theory, that is to say, to step outside of its
over-eager subordination to one end of the schematic of information
theory: reception.

Aversion to the electronic - a hallmark of conceptuality?

As an example of where theoretical work presents us with an opportunity
to go further I want to run through a particular example. 

In their book, 'What is Philosophy'16 Gilles Deleuze and Felix
Guattari, present a back to basics manifesto.  Philosophy has become
the domain of men whose occupation is the construction of vast hulks of
verbiage.  Immense dark ships with their single-minded captains,
vessels constructed of words, unable, unwilling even to communicate
amongst themselves and which as a result, pass each other by in the

The book is at once a rescue of philosophy from its status as doomed
elite subculture staffed by the populations of the soon-to-be closed
ghost departments of the universities of Europe, but also as a
restatement of the primary task of philosophy: the invention of
concepts.  In order to state their case for this, they need to clear
the decks of other ways in which the term is used.  One of the problems
facing their use of this term is, they see, that:

"In successive challenges, philosophy faced increasingly insolent and
calamitous rivals that Plato himself would have never imagined in his
most comic moments.  Finally the most shameful moment came when
computer science, marketing, design and advertising, all the
disciplines of communication, seized hold of the word concept itself
and said: 'This is our concern, we are the creative ones, we are the
ideas men!  we are the friends of the concept, we put it in our

As is well known, their work is a substantial resource.  However, it
appears that there is a particular blockage, much more so in the work
of Deleuze than of Guattari18, when it comes to a useable theorisation
of media.  There is a tendency here which is typical, not just of their
work, but of much theoretical work throughout that of the Twentieth
Century.  Whilst some media systems, such as books, music, painting,
film, etc. are entered into with a profound spirit of exploration and
invention, those that are electronic are treated as being fundamentally

As a result, their work, jumps in and out of various similarly short
and undifferentiated takes on electronic media.  My claim here in short
is that electronic media do participate in 'conceptuality'.  That the
conceptual personae that they so suggestively propose in 'What is
Philosophy' can be read as a proposal for an understanding of software
as a form of digital subjectivity, that software constructs sensoriums.
 That each piece of software constructs ways of seeing, knowing, and
doing in the world that at once contain a model of that part of the
world it ostensibly pertains to and that also shape it every time it is
used. (This is what Kathy Acker points to when the stolen software in
'Empire of the Senseless' appears as a live severed head.)  Further,
that each software element commonly interprets and remodulates what is
understood to be the same, or a similar, process.  For instance, the
various takes on text-processing presented by editors such as BBEdit,
VI, Word, LayTeX, etc.19

Whilst this domain of non-philosophical concepts is characterised as
shameless and inane it is unusual to find these materialists drawing
such a concrete boundary beyond which creation and an experimental
politics cannot not exist.  My impression is though, that this is the
result of a confusion, which can be read through conflicting tendencies
in their own work.  These should be read as pointers to problematics
which certainly exist in the production of a theory of software.  They
are warnings, but ones that cannot be said to provide absolute stoppage
to the inventive powers that lie in this area.

The tension between the approaches combined in their writings is clear.
 In terms of the wider field of electronic media it is perhaps best
seen in the way in which TV is described as a force that bridges the
gap between the Althusserian models of repression and ideology, by
offering simultaneous subjection and enslavement.  That is, that the
viewer recognises themselves as the subject of interpolation of the
television, but at the same time is in a state of cybernetic submission
to its sequence of switches, flashes of light and bursts of input.20

Anyone who has watched CNN during the war over the monopoly on terror
will know the moralistic slavery that is already presupposed of its
audience by these broadcasters, the 'we' that is called to order by its
clatter of statements and opinions.  What Deleuze and Guattari describe
is clearly a tendency, an attractor, within media systems, but cannot
be said to be a compelling description.  Instead such theoretical
positions need to be opened up.

Whilst they are almost useless in their direct characterisations of
electronic media, the tools to do some of this opening up can of course
be found in the same books.  In their writings on war machines -
assemblages at any scale and of any type that attack or break free of
total positioning systems - and their relationships to state
formations, they note that:

'(Doubtless) the State apparatus tends to bring uniformity to the
regimes, by disciplining its armies, by making work a fundamental unit,
in other words, by imposing its own traits.  But it is not impossible
for weapons and tools, if they are taken up by new assemblages of
metamorphosis, to enter other relations of alliance'21

Computers must be understood already as assemblages.  In his 'Lectures
on Computation', Richard Feynman notes research that specifies thirteen
levels to an operating system.  "This goes from level 1, that of
electronic circuitry - registers, gates, buses - to number 13, the
Operating System Shell, which manipulates the user programming
environment.  By a hierarchical compounding of instructions, basic
transfers of 1's and 0's on level one are transformed, by the time we
get to thirteen, into commands to land aircraft in a simulation or
check whether a forty digit number is prime."22 Since the time of his
writing, 1984, many more additional 'levels' have become involved, the
various protocols of interface, licensing, network, the ways in which
computation has been coded and styled for various markets, are only a
few examples.  What is contended here is that any one of these levels
provides an opportunity for critique, but more importantly - for forms
of theorisation and practice that break free of any preformatted
uniformity.  Since it is what they are further assembled with that
determines their metamorphosis, it is the task of such practical and
theoretical work to open these layers up to the opportunity of further

	Curiously, this is precisely the lesson that Deleuze and Guattari draw
from another form of electronic media, the synthesiser.  What is the
"thought synthesiser"23 that they suggest?  By assembling modules,
source elements, and elements for treating concepts (oscillators,
generators and transformers) by arranging microintervals, the
synthesiser makes conceptualisable the Philosophical process, the
production of that process itself, and puts us in contact with other
elements of matter.  In this machine of its materiality and force,
thought travels, becomes mobile, synthesises.

	Why in their reading of the synthesiser is there no dismay at humans
merely providing a relay system between the variable actuations of a
circuit board?  It is certainly to pay attention to the wider
assemblages which they form and are formed by.  Because to describe the
synthesiser as terminally as they do the TV would be to give up, to
stop making a machine in the machine.


Instead of criticism, software criticism per se then what I want to
suggest is that we pay attention to some practices within software
production that emerge with and through thought out of whack with its
simple reproduction.

	Criticism proper, the self-abrogated privilege of judgement, is always
predicated on finding itself absent from what it critiques.  This true
thought of the outside is that which can find no point of connection
with what it surveys, except that is in pleasure in the announcement of
its absolute corruption.  Is anyone capable of such magnificent
isolation?  And this is why it is necessary to present some models of
software production that contain engines for its theorisation.  These
are models that have arisen from work done over the last few years by a
number of groups.  No special claim is made that they exhaust any set
of possibilities, nor that any of these models excludes characteristics
given under another heading, they simply form notes on work going on.

Critical Software

One of the ways in which the currents described here first became
manifest is in the creation of pieces of software designed explicitly
to pull the rug from underneath normalised understandings of software.
In 1957 Roland Barthes prefaced 'Mythologies' his collection of essays
on the common-sensical mores of then contemporary French bourgeois life
with the phrase,  "Sarcasm is the condition of truth".  Nowadays, there
is no need to dispute sarcasm's unique access to enlightenment.  What
is redundant now is any conditionality.  Sarcasm is truth.   Critical
software is a voyage into that truth by means of its own devices.

	What are the ways in which critical software operates?  There are two
key modes.  Firstly by using the evidence presented by normalised
software to construct an arrangement of the objects, protocols,
statements, dynamics, sequences of interaction, which allow its
conditions of truth to become manifest.  This is the mode of operation
of the installation, 'A Song for Occupations' which simply maps out the
entire interface of Microsoft Word to revel the blue-grey labyrinth in
which writing is so happily lost.  Richard Wright's CD ROM 'Hello
World' also takes a similar tack in making a comparative analysis of
the interfaces and data structures - and consequent ways of knowing,
seeing and doing - of various video editing and effects packages such
as Quantel, After Effects and Flame.

The second way in which Critical Software may be said to exist  is in
the various instances of software which runs, just like a normal
application except one which has been fundamentally twisted to reveal
the underlying construction of the user, the way the program treates
data, and the transduction and coding processes of the interface.  Much
of this work has been acheived in terms of games. JODI's work on
Wolfenstein and Quake is paradigmatic here but there is a whole run of
work, using mod files and patches that can be seen in this light.
Additionally, there is a strand of work which has been cracked and
messed with, by means of programs such as ResEdit in order to gain
access to its kernel of truth.  The interfaces of standard software
packages are rewritten24.  Perhaps some of the actions defacing
web-sites can also said to belong to this current?25  What this work
does is to make apparent the processes of normalisation operating at
many scales within software, the ways in which - for instance -
millions of seperate writing  acts are dedifferentiated by the various
layers of a word-processing program.  By acting within it in a way that
is both investigative and emetic it points towards a move beyond the
boundaries observed in simple institutional critique, towards other
modes of creation.  Not only that, but it performs the necessary task
of allowing a negativistic maggot to remain in all the golden apples of
the two currents that follow, lest they be mistaken for a simply
positive contribution to the empire of happiness.

Social Software

Social Software can provisionally be said to have two strands.
Primarily it is software built by and for those of us locked out of the
narrowly engineered subjectivity of mainstream software.  It is
software which asks itself what kind of currents, what kind of machine,
numerical, social and other dynamics it feeds in and out of, and what
others can be brought into being?

	The second current is related to this.  It is software that is
directly born, changed and developed as the result of an ongoing
sociability between users and programmers in which demands are made on
the practices of coding that exceed their easy fit into standardised
social relations

	These two threads interweave in most cases.  It is how they do so, how
their multiple elements are brought into communication and influence
that determines their level of success.

	I would like to suggest that Free Software can be usefully understood
to work in these terms.  It is a socio-technical pact between users of
certain forms of license, language, and environment.  The various forms
of free or open source software are developed as part of the various
rhythms of life of software production.  In addition, new social
machines are invented to spawn the code, to diffuse and manage its

	The pace and style of life in these forms of software development and
diffusion can be understood to form their internal culture.  For many,
this is a functional utopia for coders, brought about by digital
abundance.  Much could be said about the way in which open source code
inter-relates with the world of work.  How class libraries function as
a form of solidarity between programmers in minimising labour-time, but
also, how technical obscurantism is necessitated in order to maintain
the caste privilege.

Thus, the second thread in this proposed conception of social software
is partially met by the open source movement. The ongoing sociability
between users and programmers is there precisely because the users and
programmers are one and the same.  As is commonly acknowledged, this
has provided the motivating force for the first stages of  this
movement.  Why is Apache the best web server software?  Because it is
written by those who know these systems best.

	But this has also formed a blockage to wider uptake of such systems.
Free Software is too internalist. The relation between its users and
its developers is so isomorphic that there is extreme difficulty in
breaking out of that productive, but constricted circle.  One way out
of this is seen as finding ways in which free software can bring itself
into communication with users who are not also its primary developers.
This is crucial, but it is how it is done, and how it weaves this
connection with the first thread of social software that will determine
its success.  The imaginal capacity to enter into relations of
becoming, of machine, technical, aesthetic and social dynamics - and it
is here that free software now faces its biggest problem.

Free software taps into the dynamics of mutual aid, of shared
resources, code conservation and of plagiarism to get itself made.  Now
it needs to begin to set technico-aesthetic agendas which blow open the
ways of sensing, knowing and doing built into proprietary software.
Death to bludgeoning pseudo-rationalism and the feature-breeding world
as office.  Supposedly free software projects such as K Office are
fundamentally flawed.  They may have freedom in the sense of free
speech, but this speech is not the result of free thought.  This
software is dead from the neck up.  Its composition determined entirely
by a submissive relation to the standards set by Microsoft.  This is a
deliberate abdication of the imagination in dealing with the culture
and structuration of all the kinds of work that take place in offices,
a failure to take up the possibility of the reinvention of writing that
digital technology offers.

In order to escape the impasse of open source internalism, this mode of
free software has attempted to connect to other forms of user.  But the
users they are attempting to recruit are precisely those formed and
normalised by proprietary software  (By this I mean, not the actual
users of the software, but the models of them that are put into place
by that software - and which it is therefore unable to distinguish and
learn from.)

The mobilisation of free software by corporations is not my theme here,
although what is perhaps most crucial but invisibled in software, the
model of life, the figuration of a user determined by these
organisations has yet to prove anything other than fundamentally
entropic to innovation in these areas.  The challenge to free software
is that although it has massified its user base to some extent it faces
the danger, not yet the actuality, of becoming conceptually stalled.
This kind of reinvention will be taken up by others.

One of the ways in which this is being done is via a mobilisation of
elements in the first thread of social software.  How far can the
thinking about free software be opened by viewing itself as part of
this wider tendency?  One easy answer is that it allows the possibility
of finding and communicating with users other than those modelled by
pre-existing proprietary software.  If the second thread of social
software is born out of extended negotiation between users and
developers, even to the extent that the differentiation between them is
blurred, what are the ways we can ensure that that communication does
not result in a closing back in on itself into another isomorphic
circle.  Primarily, by insisting on the inevitable disequilibrium of
relations between the user and the programmer.  This is a political
fact which cannot be avoided. Despite the fact that free software makes
public the labour which is repressed from visibility under proprietary
software, it is still the case that the 'closest to the machine' owns
the phase space of possibilities which the relations have been
established to explore.

How can this disequilibrium be tipped over into a kind of movement
other than that of absolute polar attraction by the 'expert'.  The
first thread of social software offers us some routes into this
problem.  The answer is inevitably, more careful work, more attention,
openness to more difficulty and connection.  We can only generate
social software in its full sense though fundamental research into the
machine, numerical, social and other dynamics software feeds in and out
of.  These systems however need to be understood in a sense expended
from that which software currently allows itself to know.  The problem
is not in recognising other forms of 'expertise' and finding ways of
accessing them.  (We might consider as an opposite tendency the example
of an artist collective developing a city mapping initiative in which
they are only able to communicate with other 'professionals' such as
architects, critics, theorists.  Such is the stratified poverty of
inter-disciplinarity.)  There is a far more important need to recognise
and find ways of coming into alliance with forms of intelligence that
are excluded from the depleted culture of experts.

One of these, I would like to argue is a poetics of connection.

There are ways in which technologies are taken over in ways that
surpass product specifications.  One of the most recent and notable
examples is the use of the SMS protocol on GSM mobile phones.  To
manufacturers and network operators this cranky little texting facility
was seen as a novelty, a little nothing, a gimmick.  Instead, it takes
off and becomes what is well known today.

For most ostensibly radical theorisations of technology and media this
is a problem.  Perhaps we will always return here to a
base-superstructure model.  That is, property relations ultimately
determine use.  Under this rubric, there are two problem with texting,
and with mobiles in general.  Firstly, the networks are centralised,
running on a spoke to hub basis.  They are owned by a multinational
oligarchy. Secondly, their standards are not open: they cannot be
accessed, improved or reinvented except in compliance with the needs of
these companies.  This theory is able to account for why there has been
no substantially innovative work by artists using mobile phones alone -
there is no way of messing with the architecture.  (It has to be
collaged with other media systems in order to tease out new
possibilities.26)  And for this reason it is of fundamental use.

What it cannot account for is the way that this technology has been
over-run and conceptually if not infrastructurally reinvented by hordes
of what are seen as rather insignificant non-experts.  Teenagers,
illegal workers, gossip-mongers and so on.  All of these subsist and
thrive on their powers of connection, of existing in a dimension of
relationality rather than of territoriality.  It is in their capacity
to generate a poetics of this connection that they have reinvented this
technology.  (This is now a commonplace of course, but only in
retrospect.  And as Sadie Plant notes, was not even recognised as a
potential by those charitably concerned with widening access to
networks such as the internet.27)

Such a dynamic has also formed the basis for the development of a piece
of software, Mongrel's Linker28. This software is described more fully
elsewhere, but is essentially a small application that allows the fast
authoring of multimedia collages.  The software is developed by Mongrel
to meet its needs for an application that can be introduced and used
within a day or two.  The functionality when compared with its own
authorware, Macromedia Director is massively stripped down.  Instead of
the interface being the usual grey windowed explosion of digital
abundance, you get very little.  The processing is shifted to the user.
 It relies on peoples' ability to generate narrative, political,
melancholy, rhythmic, scattershot, associations.  It relies on the
simple function of doing exactly what the name says it does - link
things.  Here, the poetics of connection forms a techno-aesthetic and
existential a priori to the construction of a piece of software.

This is a software that has built itself up on learning from and
through what occurs unofficially, the ways in which people, networks,
drives, languages coalesce to circumvent, parasite or overturn what
codes, produces and regulates them.  Such an activity should not be
understood as safely giving vent to an essential human need.  It is
pathological as much as anything else.  But it is in paying attention
to the way these dynamics work, in acknowledging the intelligence built
into them, that the potential for another form of software comes into

Poetics of connection is only one such dynamic.  There are many others
that could be worked into.  The concept of social software too,
provides only something small, a little nothing.  But, with its two
strands, in its necessarily unbalanced and mobile state it provides
another motor for creation, of the social, as well as of software.

Speculative software

The best fiction is always also attempting to deal with the crisis of
written language, in the way that it asks itself about the legacy built
into text as the result of its birth in the keeping of records, the
establishment of laws, in assembling and managing tables of records of
debt and credit.  It does this perpetually, at the same time as
reinventing and expanding upon the capacity of language to create new
things.  Speculative software fulfils something of a similar function
for digital cultures.  In  Ellen Ullman's, 'Close to the Machine' she

	"I'd like to think that computers are neutral, a tool like any other,
a hammer that can build a house or smash a skull.  But there is
something in the system itself, in the formal logic of programs and
data, that recreates the world in its own image...  ...We place this
small projection of ourselves all around us, and we make ourselves
reliant on it.  To keep information, buy gas, save money, write a
letter...  ...We conform to the range of motion the system allows. We
must be more orderly, more logical.  Answer the question, Yes or No, OK
or Cancel...  ... Then, slowly, we incorporate the whole notion of
systems: we'll link registration data to surveillance29, to contract
compliance...  ...Finally, we arrive at a tautology: the data prove the
need for more data!  We think we are creating the system, but the
system is also creating us.  We build the system, we live in its midst,
and we are changed."30

Ullman's book is the best account of the lived experience of
programming that I've read, but I'm not quite sure who this 'We' is.
Perhaps it's the same 'We' that always turns up when a voiceover speaks
slowly over a heavy concept TV documentary.  There are pictures of
traffic jams, mobile phone users, nuclear power plants, cubicled
workplaces and ATMs.  Probably filmed in black and white,
portentousness filters set to stun.  The 'we' is the 'we' as in a
tremulous, 'What have we done to ourselves?'  The 'we' is an attempt to
universalise rather than identify rather more precisely definable,
albeit massively distributed and hierarchised, sets of conflictual,
imaginal and collaborative relations.

Elsewhere speculative software has been suggested as being 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.  That is to say that when, as
Ullman suggests, the computer has 'its own place where the systems and
the logic take over"31 this is a place that can be explored, mapped and
messed with by a skewed application of those very same means.

	In Close to the Machine, the narrator worries about a new payroll
system that she's just been hired to work on:

	"I'll wonder what I'm doing helping the IRS collect taxes.  It will
bother me that so many entities - employer, software company, bank, IRS
- know so much about the simple act of someone getting paid for labour
delivered.  I'll think about the strange path of a paycheque direct
deposit, how it goes from employer to bank, company to company, while
the person being paid is just a blip, the recipient's account a
temporary way-station..."32

	Each of these entities, employer, software company, bank, IRS,
employee is composed by myriad interacting and agonistic relations.
These blips, these events in software, these processes and regimes that
data is subject to and manufactured by provide flashpoints at which
these interrelations, collaborations and conflicts can be picked out
and analysed for their valences of power, for their manifold capacities
of control and production, disturbance and invention.  It is the
assertion of speculative software that the enormous spread of
economies, systems of representation, of distribution, hiding, showing
and influence as they mesh with other systems of circulation, of life,
ecology, resources - themselves always both escaping and compelling
electronic and digital manifestation- can be intercepted, mapped and
reconfigured precisely by means of these blips.

	What are these blips?  They are interpretative and reductive
operations carried out on lived processes.  They are the statistical
residues of dynamics of association, escape, misery, acquiescence and
delight.  They are not merely signifiers of an event, but integral
parts of it.  The figures in a bank balance, the links appearing in a
web-browser are concrete arrangements, formations that determine
relative degrees of potential movement within a specified level of
analysis or use of a system.  They have an implicit politics.  Their
aesthetics can be described as the result of the range of their
potential combinatorial or isolatory capacity and its allowance of
capture, invention, interrogation or flight, the rhythms of peace or of
compulsion that they put into place.

	There are certain ways in which one is supposed to experience these
blips.  They are intended to mean that you are precisely broke at this
time of the week, or that there are so many or no related web-sites
outside of the one you are currently viewing.  Such statements of
course are dependent on particular arrangements by which they can be
made.  Your wage statement is the cryptic blip that instantiates the
enormous machine of class relations.  A list of links, the result of a
particular culture of association amongst a certain range of types of
site, of which the site you are viewing forms one instance.

	These instances, these blips, are all manifest digitally.  They can be
picked out, mapped, arranged, examined and placed in comparison with
each other.  Their modes of emergence and combination can be
ascertained along with their conditions of repetition and change.  The
capacity of computers to perform these operations is what provides the
fuel for speculative software.  That is, software which refuses to
believe the simple, innocent stories that accompany the appearance of
these blips.  Software that skews, misreads and takes them for a little
walk.  But that not only reinterprets but leaves an invention of blips
in its wake.

It is this capacity for invention and reinvention that is
characteristic of digital abundance more generally, however little it
is taken up.  What characterises speculative work in software is
firstly to operate reflexively upon itself and the condition of being
software.  To go where it is not supposed to go, to look behind the
blip.  To make visible the dynamics, structures, regimes and drives of
each of the little events which it connects to.  Secondly, it is to
subject these blips and what shapes and produces them to unnatural
forms of connection between themselves.  To make the ready ordering of
data, of categories and of subjects spasm out of control.  Thirdly, it
is to subject the consequences of these first two stages to the havoc
of invention.

1   Pit Schultz made this suggestion as part of the preparatory work on
the 'Software as Culture' Thread for 'Wizards of OS 2, open cultures
and free knowledge', Berlin, October, 2001.  A version of this text was
first prepared for this conference.  Further information at:

2 Jeannette Hofmann, 'Writers, texts and writing acts: gendered user
images in word processing software' in Donald MacKenzie and Judy
Wacjman, eds. 'The Social Shaping of Technology' 2nd Edition, Open
University Press, Buckingham, 1999, p222-243

3 Paul N. Edwards, 'The Closed World, computers and the politics of
discourse in cold war America' MIT Press, Cambridge, 1996

4 Michael R. Curry, 'Digital Places, living with geographical
information systems', Routledge, London, 1998

5   Don Mackenzie, 'Inventing Accuracy: A Historical Sociology of
Nuclear Missile Guidance' MIT Press, Cambridge , 1990.  And,  'Knowing
Machines: Essays on Technical Change', Cambridge, MIT Press, Cambridge
, 1996

6   Michael Heim, 'Electric Language: a philosophical study of word
processing', Yale University Press, New Haven, 1987

7 An HTML version of the first edition of this book is at:

8   Alan Cooper, 'The Inmates Are Running the Asylum', Sams Publishing,
Indianapolis, 1999

9   Of course, something of the sort is often done in product
marketing, where potential customers are assumed to be able to identify
with a range of typed user personalities.  Phone companies use such
approaches to sell tariffs and handsets.  Such overt user-formatting is
always responded to with the tactics of double-consciouness.

10   at

11   City Lights, San Francisco, 1997

12   David Gelerntner, 'The Aesthetics of Computing', Phoenix, London,

13   of course there are exceptions to this self generalising
statement.  One of those that shows a way in which attention to the
specificity of a particular technology with great clarity is:  Bruno
Latour, 'The Berlin Key, or how to do words with things' in 'P.M.
Graves-Brown ed. 'Matter, Materiality and Modern Culture', Routledge

14   Donald Knuth, 'Theory and Practice', address to 11th World
Computer Congress, San Francisco, 28 August 1989, archived as TeX file

Such an analysis might provide  an insight into how CPU cycle
allocation is made on the basis of hierarchies of tasks, which would
inevitably contain models of the user.  For a useful take on a related
problem, see Harwood's, 'A Manifesto for Useless Art' at

15  Elaine Scarry usefully introduces this term.  Derived from grammar,
it simply means a word that is both a verb and a noun, a thing and a
motion. 'Resisting Representation, Oxford University Press, Oxford,

16   Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, 'What is Philosophy?', trans.
Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchill, Verso, London 1994

17 'What is Philosophy?', p.10

18  What can be seen as the beginnings of a useful theorisation of
electronic media can be seen most clearly in Guattari's, 'Regimes,
Pathways, Subjects'  included in Gary Genosko ed. 'The Guattari
Reader', Blackwell, Oxford, 1996 and also in Jonathan Crary and
Stanford Kwinter eds. 'Incorporations', Zone, New York, 1992. 

Elsewhere, Guattari simply makes passing references to themes close to
Pierre Levy, but also invests in the hope of reinventing a new kind of
orality through machines, (for instance in: Nicholas Zurbrugg,
'Postmodernism and Ethical Abdication', Genosko, p115; or in
'Chaosmosis, an ethico-aesthetic paradigm' trans. Paul Bains and Julian
Pefanis, Power Publications, Sydney, 1995, p.97)  Such technology so
far has resulted in applications requiring very narrow corpuses such as
automatic telephone answering or control of subsidiary dashboard
functions in cars, but is of immense interest in terms of its potential
to, for instance, reorganize language around archivable orality.

The scope of this particular essay is not a comprehensive philological
examination of the electronic in Deleuze and Guattari, but it might be
useful to point towards the material on music, and synthesizers
compiled by Richard Pinhas at web deleuze, and also their use of an
information theory model adapted from Rosenstiehl and Petitot to
discuss technologies of social control in the 'Rhizome' section of "A
Thousand Plateaus'.

19   Thanks to Florian Cramer for a demonstration of VI which brought
this sharply into focus. See also, 'It Looks Like You're Writing a
Letter: Microsoft Word'

20   "For example, one is subjected to TV insofar as one uses and
consumes it, in the very particular situation of a subject of the
statement that more or less mistakes itself for a subject of
enunciation ('you, dear television viewers, who make TV what it
is...'); the technical machine is the medium between two subjects.  But
one is enslaved by TV as a human machine insofar as the television
viewers are no longer consumers or users, not even subjects who
supposedly "make" it, but intrinsic component pieces, "input" and
"output," feedback or recurrences that are no longer connected to the
machine in such a way as to produce or use it..  In machinic
enslavement, there is nothing but transformations and exchanges of
information, some of which are mechanical, others human." 'A Thousand
Plateaus' p.458

21 Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, 'A Thousand Plateaus' trans.
Brian Massumi, Athlone, London 1988, p.402

22 Richard P. Feynman, 'Lectures on Computation', Anthony J.G. Hey &
Robert W. Allen, eds. Penguin, London 1996, p.4  (The article he cites
is P.J. Denning & R.L.Brown, 'Operating Systems', Scientific American,
September 1984, p.96.)

23 'A Thousand Plateaus', p.343

24   (A program for the Mac with which the look of an interface, the
text of dialogue boxes, and other more intricate resource allocations
can be manipulated.) An example of this mode might be 'Heritage Gold' a
reversioning of Photoshop 1.0.  A useful site on ResEdit is

25 Two sites monitoring and documenting this form of activity are:

26   See for instance, the TextFm project to link users of SMS with a
means of generating instant audio broadcast via radio:

27   It is also clear that speculative uses of phones were being madeby
hackers and phreaks as soon as any new technologies or routes into them
became available, and for as long as they've existed in any form.  How
hacking can be understood to operate as a technico-aesthetic and
perceptual activity with important consequences for the themes of this
essay is develop amongst other places in Cornelia Sollfrank 'Liquid
Hacking' and 'Hacks' a documentary
by Christine Bader. (1997)  Info on this film at:

28 The Mongrel website is at: Linker is
available to download  at:

A new internet-based version of the software will be published in

	A consideration of social software might also be made in relation to
Piloot, a custom form of groupware whose development was led at the
Society for Old and New Media, Amsterdam

Another application that might well be understood on these terms is the
essential,constantly updated database of reusable software serial
numbers, Surfer's Serials.

29   note, the specific form of surveillance she's talking about are
workplace systems where logging on prompts keystroke counting,
recording of websites visited etc.  This form of worker surveillance
forms an inverse of the kind of study that Knuth suggests.

30   Ullman, p.89

31   Ullman, p.188

32   Ullman, p.188

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  archive: contact: