This latest, somewhat overdue, issue of Computational Culture addresses draws together several different areas of research.
The bulk of the articles in this issue of Computational Culture address apps and appification. Whilst the discussions by the seven contributions to this section of the issue are wide-ranging and testify to the plurality of ways of addressing this most ubiquitous of computational phenomena, they are drawn together by a concern to demonstrate the value of a study of apps for broader processes, computational or otherwise. In some ways the proliferation of angles of address here should not be surprising. It’s possible that there are some researchers today who labour under the assumption that a unified “science” for the study of computation is both possible and desireable, but as the work published in Computational Culture more generally indicates, computational phenomena become most interesting where and when they are interrogated with a view to the aberrant movements that formal-material technological apparatuses generate, where the highly specified formality of code becomes a factor in operations that are less easily rendered explicit.
The proximity of appification to infrastructure here is an issue of specific interest to Carolin Gerlitz, Anne Helmond, David Nieborg and Fernando van der Vlist, who edited the articles for this section of the issue and did much to bring this issue of the journal into being. As their discussion of what they call the app/infrastructure stack suggests, the empirical field of study of apps has the potential to be enormously fruitful. Research on apps and research on infrastructures have the potential to be mutually beneficial and, in the overlaps between their respective concerns, enormously important for understanding some of the crucial strategic drivers in computational technological development today. Here, balancing the precision that can be achieved with the development of a potential specialism with the necessity of transdisciplinary research is artfully achieved by the maintenance of an open field of research in relation to the specific problematic of apps. As one of the most culturally visible forms of software in the present, it is high time they attracted sustained analytical attention and we are delighted that such work is brought into focus in this special issue.
In the form of a special section on ‘Critical Approaches to Computational Law’, numerous questions arising from the complex relationship between computation and law are investigated. Lawrence Lessig’s claim that “code is law” will be a familiar one to anybody who has considered the growing body of legally informed research on computing, but the relations between law and computation are more complicated than a simplistic appraisal of the regulatory capacities of code in “cyberspace” might suggest.1 Lessig’s essay points up the more or less tacit, regulatory work of software in online code architectures but not without raising more questions (about code and about law) than he answers. As Simon Yuill – who we thank here for bringing together the articles in this section – points out in his comprehensive introductory essay, the complexities of the law-computation relationship call into question the well-established tendency in commentary on computation to reify “the” algorithm as the universal bad guy of new forms of power and control. If code seems now to have become indiscernible from law in some situations, this is in part because of a much longer historical relationship between law and technology. It is not so much, Yuill argues, that “code becomes law or law becomes code (although both translations may take place in ways that are more subtle than we realise) but rather that numerous different standardisations and formulations are quietly laid down as the background architecture of decision-making structures that shape seemingly autonomous, personal choices.”
This issue of Computational Culture also includes two other articles. Whilst the editorials introducing the particular articles of the special issue and the special section cover the articles concerned in more detail these two general articles deserve some individual comment.
In her essay ‘Throbber: executing temporal micro-streams’, Winnie Soon addresses questions of the construction of temporality within software. Considered in relationship to the phenomenal disjunction between the technical operations of and experiential engagement with software, she argues for an understanding of the operational logic of throbbers in terms of a notion of “discontinuous micro-temporality” building on the work of Wolfgang Ernst. Throbbers, as Soon explains, are those symbols and icons used to show that a process is underway in software. There is no necessary end to the process indicated, but it is happening. Soon describes the development of an artwork, The Spinning Wheel of Life, that links the movement of a throbber to the actual computational work underway. This uncannily direct linkage shifts the generic display to something carrying more information. Rather than regularity, a certain indeterminacy based in the specific conjuncture of the processes underway becomes palpable. Following this, Soon assembles a short archaeology of the form of the throbber and reflects on the nature of buffering and temporality, including that of perceived and relative delay in the formation of internet-based software and in the relation of the processing undertaken by computers, individually and as part of networks such as TCP/IP and its display to users. Alongside delay is the condition of actual or expected flow that is often said to characterise electronic media. The shifting in and out of different scales of resolution and technique of flow or of delay structure the mode of analysis of this article, and its suggestion that contemporary life consists in part of the aggregation of such processes.
In their essay ‘The Socio-Technical Background of an Unconventional Software Architecture in OpenStreetMap,’ Matthias Plennert, Georges Glasze and Christopher Schlieder address questions about the embedding of software in broader sets of socio-technical relations. They consider in particular the role played by folksonomy in the workings of the OSM geodata project. Developing an archaeological analysis of the project, focusing in particular on its mailing list, they consider the different ways in which participation was facilitated through systems for attributing semantic information to geospatial data. Further, the ‘do-ocratic’ structure of the OSM project is shown to characterise aspects of the software development process as well as the way that the geographic data is gathered. The paper proposes a reading of the way in which a technical system is developed through the social process established to do so, remarking on the implicit and explicit assumptions about, and imperatives of, the project. One of the numerous advantages of Free and Open Source software, it turns out, is the abundance of secondary documentation that is available as an archive for researchers.
To complete this editorial note, we are very pleased to announce that Warren Sack has joined the editorial group of this journal.
We are also pleased to acknowledge the sustained work on the development of the WordPress install on which the Computational Culture site runs that has been carried out by Anne Helmond and Fernando van der Vlist. We are enormously grateful for their generosity and expertise.
Further, we note that in the coming period there are a number of new issues in development and we warmly encourage further proposals and submissions of articles, reviews and other texts.
- Lawrence Lessig Code Version 2.0 (New York: Basic, 2006) chapter 1. ↩