Computational Culture

a journal of software studies

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Editorial, Issue Six

Welcome to issue six of Computational Culture.

We offer this issue at what is in some ways a particularly lively moment. The discussion of certain large scale software systems and the effects, in political and psycho-social terms, of the detail and scale of their design has become a matter for public concern. Facebook, Twitter and Google have come in for particular attention as platforms. At the same time, the implications of machine learning, often shortened to the generic term “algorithms” has become a matter for debate in terms of its economic implications, if not of its epistemic dimensions. This attention is welcome, but wider and more sustained work is required. The grounds for critical reflection on these and other systems have tended to focus on a small set of effects. More fundamental forms of question are required.

If software studies has become a space in which to explore and to research the overlapping domains of social and cultural theory and of computing, the very complexity of these imbrications should be our editorial guide. A “classical” mode of the field is to discuss a computational object, say a particular application, or computational structure, in terms that develop from the tools and methods built up over the years to understand and to analyse cultural entities such as novels, films, form of governance or of architecture. This is still very much an essential way of working, and one that continues to develop and to yield exciting results.

There are numerous ways in which computational methods themselves also form part of the field in the present day. Analysis of computational systems and processes by computational means that attempt to extract information on their underlying modelling of reality have become crucial in extracting some kind of sense of the ethical and political apparatuses that have more recently become grounds for certain kinds of public attention. Equally, making direct interventions in order to reorganise flows of power and to enquire into their results, is a crucial.

Related to these to other approaches are both ethnographic and anthropological modes of enquiry into the full constitution of cultures and life processes as they are woven into computational and networked systems.
Alongside these are philosophically grounded enquiries into the underlying ways in which metaphysical, epistemic and experiential, as well as political conditions are involved at every layer of computational systems.

This issue contains elements of many of these approaches and others combining them with urgent empirical and theoretical questions. There are two special sections, each of which is introduced by the section editors in detail, so we only offer broad notes on these here.

Computing the Corporeal edited by Scott deLahunta and Nicolas Salazar Sutil
Dance and programmatic machines have a strong correlation, some, like the jig, even sharing a name. The computing the corporeal takes such things as one kind of starting point In her fiction-essay “Madame Realism in Freud’s Dreamland” drawn from her larger Madame Realism Complex, the novelist Lynne Tillman notes that, amongst its delirious attractions, the Coney Island resort near New York had a fair-ride machine called the Tango, where “one rode in cars that moved as if they were tangoing”.1 The translation of such a movement to a machine shows that dance always has an aspect in which it operates as an abstract machine that can be transferred across contexts and media. Indeed, dance notation also has a history of correspondence and difference from programming that eases and complexifies such translations. In this special section, Scott delaHunta and Nicolas Salazar Sutil assemble a concise set of resources to build the enquiry into these correlations. As with the geography section, an extended editorial introduces the themes and articles comprehensively. Alongside the question of abstraction from bodies to machines, there is that of things made in the middle of and in between them. Computing the corporeal also implies the computational powers of bodies more broadly. Such things are taken up in epistemic terms and in the socio-technical ensembles of which they are part. To compute the corporeal may mean, as John Stell notes in suggesting the development of mereotopology as a means of logical description adequate to working with certain aspects of movement, to rethink the mathematical resources with which to do so. As Stamatia Portanova proposes, it means engaging in a critical and speculative way with the political forces that are engaged in calculating and evaluating bodies – including their induction into racial categories. Computing the Corporeal also includes a survey editorial by Nicolas Salazar Sutil that provides an overview of the complexes of thinking and practices and forms of knowing that are entailed in thinking through this conjunction. In a further pair of comment texts, grouped together until the title, Dance Becoming Data, Scott delaHunta firstly maps some of the results of the Motion Bank research project that uses computational means to archive, record, preserve and to provoke dance and choreographic methods. In the second Dance Becoming Data text, Scott delaHunta and Anton Koch discuss computational processes, resources and practices of work are rethought in relation to the kinds of question raised by dance. Computing, always already quite polymorphous in its own terms, in turn changes in relation to such developing terrains,

Geographies of Software edited by Nick Lally and Ryan Burns
One area of research in which computing has been difficult to ignore is geography. One aspect of the polymorphous nature of computing has to do with its peculiar scalar pliability and the complexity of its relationship with space and with the processes of production of space. The latter has been a topic of interest for critical geographers in particular now for some years and whilst the history of computing in geography is complicated by the strong flavour across the latter of a positivist emulation of the natural sciences, numerous researchers in recent years, in human geography, have embraced a relational understanding of space to address the processes and practices through which geographies are produced, inflected, and transformed. In their introduction to this special section, Nick Lally and Ryan Burns offer a comprehensive overview of some of the key features of the geographical exploration of computing, of the growing interest in software studies-type approaches to its spatial implications, and consider several possible theoretical stances of value for its future development. It is interesting to note that two of the three contributors to this section flag up transformations of language as a key development in this regard. As language becomes indifferently thing and sign, semantic, semiotic and material object all at once, subject to the formalistic logics of data processing, new geographies of linguistic space open up with considerable ramifications for the constitution of society and culture more broadly. For both Warren Sack and Pip Thornton, understanding the contemporary restructuring of language in the materiality of its enunciation, and in particular its role within the expanded economy of data, requires a getting to grips with the peculiar new spaces that computational practices create for it. Here, as too in a very different way for Will Payne, in his discussion of segregation in geospatial software, it is the complex dynamics generated in the overlap between computational and non-computational spaces and their production that becomes a matter of concern and for analysis.

There are of course much broader questions raised by the kinds of conjunctions being explored in the work in this special section and as is so often the case, this work compels once again consideration of the kinds of tensions that operate as the permanent accompaniment of computing as it extends ever further, every deeper into culture. Unresolved epistemic issues, deeply cherished assumptions about the human and the technological, and so on, pervade debates about computing and the issues addressed by our contributors come up against some of the limits of a long standing set of concerns about science, technology, the humanities and so on.

It is important that these debates take place, but they should not do so simplistically. There have been calls for a re-consideration of CP Snow’s Two Cultures argument, that warned against a separation of the humanities and sciences. Software Studies and related fields should be part of such a move, but we should really have been a long way beyond the insights of the late twentieth century, and there is a kind of inertia in the figuration of the problematic that is remarkably persistent. There are perhaps other structures at play that are coefficient with such separation. Another way of tracing the tension produced in this division is through the practices that attempt to mediate and overcome it. The history of ideas of literacy in coding or programing, as a history of the idea of citizenship and of ideas of participation in society, as developed in Annette Vee’s recent book 2 on the topic is crucial here. Reading, writing and understanding are coupled with various models of what agency is in software and its numerous manifestations. It is hoped that the two sections presented here, in addition to the extensive reviews that this issue includes, go some way to moving this debate forward, in several directions at once.

 

Notes

  1. Lynne Tillman, The Madame Realism Complex, (New York: Semiotext(e), 1992) p.120
  2. Annette Vee, Coding Literacy: How Computer Programming is Changing Writing (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2017)
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