Welcome to the eighth issue of Computational Culture! This issue, like many other things, has been somewhat hindered by the global pandemic and the inspiration this gave to the latent restructuring ambitions of some university managers. Given that we are currently ‘living with’ rather than fully vaccinatable against either of these problems, we are delighted to be able to have been able to build this issue to include a series of significant articles and a large number of reviews. As with all issues, we are extremely grateful to the large number of reviewers who have worked anonymously and with great care to bring this issue to fruition.
Pold and Anderson’s article develops a further argument for the idea of the metainterface, the proposition that the interface of digital technology spreads out into cities, culture and interpersonal relationships. The metainterface becomes the medium in which events happen, in the physical world, and in data, between data elements and digital processes. Thorugh an engagement with a series of projects by artists Talan Memmot, Winnie Soon and Ben Grosser, Pold and Anderson develop a number of proposals. Firstly that the user of digital media platforms is a kind of literary figure, enmeshed in and produced by the technologies concerned, with more or less actual relation to any given individual. This literary figure produced by platforms can be seen as a zombie, not only a thought experiment in cognition, but as a figure of ideology and an imaginary entity that comes to propel the actions of digital systems.
Andrew Lison provocatively links the timeline based interface of music programming software Cubase to the “End of History” thesis that preoccupied a good number of theorists in the 1990s, the period of Cubase’s greatest influence. After Cubase, launched in 1989, the timeline became a key piece of interface furniture for many applications, becoming a meta-device that moved across different multimedia forms. Lison argues that this computer interface typifies, responds to and indeed installs something idiomatic to that historical moment. But, he argues, the timeline also makes a new form of “grid” available to navigate and experience time with, something capitalised upon by electronic music such as Techno and Jungle. Theorists of this music, and the philosophers they work with, as well as media theory more broadly, are key points of reference in this article. Deploying media archaeological approaches to run different versions of Cubase in emulators, and to compare it to software of the same era, the article builds up a proposition about the software as a means for understanding and operating on complex structures that are integrated into a single sprawling system. The “flowing” system, Lison claims, disavows and effaces the dialectical mode of history only until such moments as its surface is broken.
In ‘Building, Coding, Typing‘ David Rambo examines how the programmable mechanical keyboard Planck represents a form of “technoculture”, which he understands as a group of people and their social relations that are organised around the genesis and development of a technology. Drawing from Dieter’s and Agre’s ideas on ‘critical technical practice’, Rambo actively engages in the communities of contemporary mechanical keyboards to reflect on his technical activities in terms of understanding technology as a concept. He suggests that what makes objects “technological” does not merely concern their materiality but is shaped through the transformations, practices, and culture related to them. In doing so, Rambo critically engages with Simondon’s concept of “technicity” and Wolfgang Ernst’s media archaeology which he argues do not account for the non-technical factors that constitute technical objects.
Alibaba, the Chinese cloud computing giant, recently used Github to publish datasets from its production cluster of servers grouped together by scheduling software. Luke Munn’s article uses this data as the starting point for a consideration of the notion of efficiency. Starting by using data visualisation as a method, he shows how the imaginary of the “always on” cloud has entailed expending vast amounts of electricity to keep racks of thousands of computers ready for any possible surge in demand, even if it never comes. Rendering the cloud efficient tangles with the actual pragmatics of running the service and the tensions between using humans or automated means to determine efficiencies. Efficiency is touted as ‘content agnostic’, but Munn suggests we might consider varying notions of efficiency and, without valorising, inefficiency, its obverse as somehow a natural response, develop critical accounts and practices of efficiency. First of these is to begin by asking what is something efficient for?
This wider question might also be asked in other terms. The Rowhammer bug, might be called a meta-bug in that it both indicates a specific problem with DRAM (Dynamic Random Access Memory) where the contents of a memory row can be manipulated without direct access to it, via ‘hammering’ adjacent ones with activity creating a dissipation of electrical charge, but also concerns the way in which the wider framing of bugs, security vulnerabilities and exploits in turn constitute what the bug is or could be. In his article on this topic Matt Spencer brings and number of philosophical and analytical apporaches to bear on the question, suggesting revealing approaches to security or vulnerability and the changing meaning or condition of software over time, or what Spencer calls ‘previously unanticipated functional possibilities’. The article follow the historical trajectory of knowledge of this vulnerability as a series of research groups extended an understanding of its relevance and posit repairs and also reveal expansions of the terms of the problem when different interpretative and programmatic approaches are made.
Mark C. Marino has long advanced the idea of critical code studies, that programmatic code be a subject and a vehicle for critical interpretation. Indeed, his recent book of the same title makes this case in a number of intriguing ways. Code, programming languages, the patterns they construct and the wider frameworks they enable are understood to be cultural and subject to and driven by interpretation. In turn they establish frames of reference and ways of knowing and constructing the world. This is something made very clear in Marino’s interview with Jon Corbett, a software engineer and artist who has developed a programming language based on Cree and a developer environment to support it. In turn Corbett uses the language to advance Métis cultural practices in code. Jon Corbett advances a strong argument for what he and others call Indigenous programming. Embodying indigenous perspectives in software is a way of sustaining ancient and living forms of knowledge, but also of redetermining computational cultures in new ways. This interview is an introduction to some of the powerful results that such approaches offer.
This issue continues our emphasis on long reviews of books in software studies and related fields. The sheer range of kinds and topics of the books under discussion shows the heterogenous and lively composition of the field. The transdisciplinarity we aim to foster and provide a sounding board for in this journal also finds many ways of making itself manifest in these books. The thoughtful and meticulous reviews that respond to them, and the different approaches and sensibilities of the reviewers provide an essential part of the call and response work that constitutes the commons of research that, collectively, is being built. Many thanks to all reviewers who have contributed to this issue!
As a final note, and one of great delight and celebration, we note that Anne Helmond has generously agreed to join the editorial collective from this issue onwards.