Computational Culture

a journal of software studies

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    9th November 2014

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Editorial Issue Four

This fourth issue of Computational Culture is, in the lingo of academic journals, an ‘open’ issue. It wasn’t edited together with a view to following a single matter of concern, or even with a view to underlying ‘disciplinary’ coherence – indeed, as work that situates itself in the loose constellation of analytic concerns represented by software studies becomes more widely known, it is not surprising to see, as we do here, some more critical engagement with claims that work in the field makes. Is ‘software studies’ as such a field or a sub-discipline, or a theoretical approach? Nothing is less sure, but the articles collected together in this issue demonstrate the ongoing importance of exploring the kinds of issues that lurk within the interstices of better respected, more academically recognised fields of study.

Despite the multiform matters of concern for the articles gathered together in this issue, addressing the ways in which computational processes, practices, techniques and devices impact on social and cultural practices (and rigorously speaking, are there, or can there be said to be, any other?) is clearly the overriding interest of all the work published here. And how could it be any other way? If reflecting on the potentialities of software, implies by default that things could be otherwise, it is not difficult to deduce that the restrictively constraining nature of contemporary computational infrastructures, enclosed within a small number of oligopolistically formatted platforms (whose names are so familiar as to need no mention) gives the analytic questions addressed here their problematic context. Overcoding analysis with explicit denunciation is hardly necessary. Having said that, what marks much of the work presented in this issue of Computational Culture is its endeavour to pay more analytically precise attention to socio-technical formatting of the present, based on a common assumption that the specificities of computational forms are fundamentally constitutive of that present.

In his article, ‘NoSQL: The Shifting Materialities of Database Technology’ Paul Dourish brings us back to the focus of several papers in Issue Three of the journal, and develops a closely reasoned exploration of the materiality of the database. Setting up his exploration of database technologies in relation to Manovich’s well-known paper on the database as symbolic form, Dourish takes issue with the relatively uninterrogated status of ‘database’ in Manovich’s paper and argues for the importance of addressing the specificities of database technologies themselves for any discussion about their possible cultural impact. He points out a number of issues that arise in this regard and questions the tacit reliance of much work on the assumption of the practically exclusive primacy of the relational model. What is required, he suggests, is a historical analysis capable not just of addressing the heterogeneous assemblage that make up database systems, but also the scales at which such technologies operate. A prime concern for Dourish is to address the materiality of database technologies – indeed of all information practices – as a pre-requisite to informed understanding of the co-constitutive relationship between computational technologies and cultural practices. The particularities of NoSQL databases that the article focuses on, are, in the ‘present’ mentioned above, of significant interest.

Whilst manifestly addressing a different set of concerns, Irina Kaldrack and Theo Rohle’s detailed and thorough analysis of Facebook’s Open Graph protocol develops an argument that links technical infrastructure to social and cultural formations that is congruent with Dourish’s analysis. Kaldrack and Rohle set themselves the ambitious task of understanding the way in which, considered as a medium, Facebook is in a co-constitutive relationship with its users, understood as masses. Asking whether Facebook can be understood as a mass medium is not a negligible question, not least given widespread opinion that the era of mass media is over. Needless to say, “mass” for Kaldrack and Rohle acquires a subtly different sense to that which older analogue media such as television and film once possessed. Arguing for the central role of Open Graph in shaping the possibilities that inhere in Facebook’s technical infrastructure, Kaldrack and Rohle turn in the later parts of their paper to a consideration of the different epistemic traditions embodied in thinking about statistics, and connect these to their correlative forms of social control.

If Dourish, Kaldrack and Rohle display an analytic sensitivity to the relationship between technical and social-cultural form, Ben Grosser’s article on Facebook’s metrics and his art work Facebook Demetricator adopts a somewhat different stance, offering a critical enquiry and an artistic engagement with the calculative condition, addressing the ways in which sociality is subjected to the operations of listing, measuring, comparing, displaying. When sociality is measured, the metrics are further employed to govern algorithmically rendered sociality. Characterised in terms of an unassuageable “need for more”, Grosser posits the existence in all this of a specific form of self-audit, the “Graphopticon”. The importance of Grosser’s paper lies the capacity for action it discusses in relation to his work of software art, a browser plug-in that removes any metrics from the way Facebook is rendered to screen. Practical and aesthetic engagement with such technology enriches speculative analysis with material tinkering that is both full of enquiry at the same time as it is a form of direct action.

For Dennis Tenen and Maxwell Foxman, it is the archive, and its particular form in the library as a collection of books, that is in question. With file-sharing and piracy booming, despite the vindictive imprisonment of groups such as the Pirate Bay, and the moves towards increased filtering out of anomalous information flows, an analysis of specific long-term book piracy sites seems of particular interest. Starting with a historical overview of book piracy online, and moving to focus on a Russian site, initially based around the sharing of scientific publications, this article establishes a nuanced account of the ways in which different file-sharing formats have strategic significance. Choosing to structure such a resource in a way that makes it easily duplicable serves to enhance its potential longevity. Here, the interesting politics of distributed hash tables plays a significant role, but one not unlinked to the question of the library, and of library-formation, as a social good. Thinking through this conjunction in relation to global asymmetries of access forms the core of this significant account.

Adopting a somewhat different tone and shifting their enquiry into the complex entanglements between biology and computation, Alex Taylor, Jasmin Fisher, Byron Cook and Samin Ishtiaq are interested in what happens when computation is used to represent and to intervene in biology. Taking issue with the prophetic claim that computation is replacing science as we know it (and one could fill volumes alone with the prophetic claims of the apologists for Silicon Valley about the innovative virtues of software…) they offer a detailed account of the development of the ‘Bio-Model Analyzer’, a program used in the exploration of complex gene regulatory networks. And whilst the specific focus on the epistemic shape of biology might appear to somewhat to one side of the broader interest in this issue of Computational Culture in software that is more obviously tied in to present social and cultural concerns, the way that their article addresses the complex intersections between versions of biological knowledge and computational design practice is clearly of much broader import. If, in Taylor, Fisher, Cook and Ishtiaq’s words, it becomes difficult, with the Bio-Model Analyzer to see where a computational view of biology-as-states end and a scientific view of biology-as-a-temporal-sequence begins, then the more directly science studies approach that they adopt in their analysis here nonetheless has interesting implications for addressing the confused claims and the vapourware promises that assail organisations, practices and individuals on all sides in the present.

The Comments section, which includes non-peer-reviewed texts of a wider range of format ,takes, in this issue, the form of a scene report and an interview. The latter, with cultural theorist and historian Jonathan Sterne in conversation with the Amsterdam-based media theorist Geert Lovink, develops an exchange on the wider contexts of a file format and codec, MP3, and on the particular methods useful to integrate an engagement with technical objects and processes into a wider culture historical account. Equally, the interview examines how such things cut into and shape the contexts they move into. Here, the analysis and tracing of computational forms of life weaves through numerous other scales of culture and experience, but also provides some of their determining features.

The scene report is from Critical Code Studies, an area devoted to analyses of code in its many forms. A crucial aspect of software studies is this precise attention to the specificities of programming languages and the way in which particular programs, objects or systems are articulated by the way they are written as a whole, or in the particularities of their composition. Mark Marino, Director of the Humanities and Critical Code Studies Lab at University of Southern California, assays the current state of the field. In both of these texts there is a sense of the richness of the dynamic range available for critical analyses of computational systems and their wider entanglements. The diversity of ways of getting into such material, and the means by which these different kinds of precision can in turn come into conversation with each other is of keen interest to this journal.

This issue contains a number of book reviews that typify the diversity of materials we are interested in bringing together here, with reviews of books written in the context of philosophy, social science, art and the humanities more broadly. The question of the effects and significance of computational artefacts, processes and understanding of contemporary life continues to produce an extraordinarily challenging and interesting set of results, demanding that we in turn are always open to revise the scope of the field, rendering it functionally in permanent Beta.

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