Review: Programmed Visions: Software and Memory

Article Information

  • Author(s): Jentery Sayers
  • Affiliation(s): University of Victoria
  • Publication Date: November 2011
  • Issue: 1
  • Citation: Jentery Sayers. “Review: Programmed Visions: Software and Memory.” Computational Culture 1 (November 2011).


Review of Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Programmed Visions: Software and Memory, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2011. ISBN-10: 0-262-01542-0. 224 pages.

Immateriality earned its scare quotes in media studies. Consider Geert Lovink’s (2004) critique of vapor theory, Lisa Nakamura’s (2008) work on digital racial formations, Matthew Kirschenbaum’s (2008) notion of a medial ideology, Alexander Galloway’s (2004) emphasis on the material substrate of new media, and Katherine Hayles’s (2005) entanglement of electronic texts with subjectivity. The list goes on, with most scholars now quite convinced that the reduction of e-text to evanescence, bodies to avatars, hardware to the cloud, and software to symbols collapses complex techno-social processes into fleeting representations displayed on flat screens. In the specific case of software, Matthew Fuller (2008) renders “‘immateriality’ trivializing and debilitating” (4). Not only is software a thing; it is also ubiquitous—everywhere, even though it is rarely interrogated far beyond tutorials found in, say, a beginner’s guide to Python or Java. As such, the intersections between software’s physical composition and its cultural relevance warrant more research. Enter software studies.

With this context in mind, Wendy Hui Kyong Chun’s Programmed Visions: Software and Memory (2011)—a new volume in the Software Studies series by The MIT Press—is curious because it resists a wholesale abandonment of the immaterial. Or more precisely: it demonstrates how immateriality is the labor program of new media. Across four chapters and a few interludes, Chun explains quite compellingly how software’s ghostly, ephemeral appearance is essential to its reproduction and proliferation (21). But she does so without ever ignoring the stuff of software. Included in the book are digs through FORTRAN, C++, SAGE, and UNIX, and each dig balances the specificities of computation with its radical ambiguity (11). For instance, software is at once knowable (e.g., through programming languages) and not at all (e.g., computer performance exceeds human perception). Code is simultaneously accessible (e.g., “view source”) and nebulous (e.g., subject to an array of both machine and human interpretations). Media represent both permanence (e.g., they can always be upgraded) and decay (e.g., they always have to be upgraded). Yet most importantly for Chun, these ambiguities imply that “a rigorous engagement with software makes new media studies more, rather than less, vapory” (21). Any neat demarcations between the process and the product, or the ghost and the machine, become convenient at best.

The study of new media’s materiality, then, is not only a matter of demonstrating how information leaves a forensic trace, how interfaces relate recursively with biopolitical conditions, or how digital objects act independently of human input. It is also a matter of unpacking how the cultural production of vapory media entails a tremendous amount of work, which is “glossed over if we just accept the digital as operating through 1s and 0s” (139). Programmed Visions may be understood as a detailed account of such work. It examines what, exactly, has been involved in making the ephemeral endure, the digital discrete, and software axiomatic.

That account is anchored in Foucault’s notion of governmentality, where—according to Chun—software is embedded in computing’s historical function as “a neoliberal governmental technology” (6). While computing is not the state, it is certainly an instrument that shapes relations between subjects and objects. At the same time, software allows people to autonomously steer, manipulate, or otherwise control information through inviting interfaces (6-9). Chun suggests that such forms of user empowerment are necessarily accompanied by an ignorance of the totality (9). We can neither perceive the complex processes of a computer nor grasp the extent of capitalism. Still, the drive to know persists. And it persists because the alluring architectures of software facilitate it. They augment our intelligence. They allow us to create our own content for a personalized, global network. Meanwhile, our embodied interactions with screens are habituated (e.g., through interface design), and “our computers execute in unforeseen ways” (9). The visible and invisible coalesce at our fingertips, and whatever is on display is always elsewhere—read here, written there.

This approach to materiality is where Chun’s work is especially important for software studies. Treating software as an enduring ephemeral, she underscores the ways in which human access to the world is insufficient when talking about the emergence of neoliberalism and governmental technologies. If immateriality is the labor program of new media, and if it takes a lot of work to make information routinely de- and re-generate, then our cultural histories must also account for the fact that software does much of this work for us. Put this way, neoliberalism is not only about the production of “‘self-organized’ and ‘self-controlling’” subjects who both own their labor and act voluntarily (8). It is also about the production of computational objects, which have the capacity to appease and astonish us through seemingly immaterial relationships (e.g., navigating a digital map). Given now commonplace rhetorics of user-friendly tech, today we are no doubt familiar with intuitive software that appeases, or with interfaces that suck our time and attention. However, Programmed Visions demonstrates how these interfaces cannot be treated simply as the inventions of “an all-powerful programmer, a sovereign neoliberal subject who magically transforms words into things” (19). Alternatively, the book frequently combines fantasies of romantic invention with moments where programmers feel estranged from the very things they are making. Software is never the immediate result of easy-to-execute instructions or human intent. That is, if the materialist turn in media studies began in part as a response to overly constructivist treatments of technology, then Chun shows us why that turn cannot merely one-eighty into knowing some source code. She writes: “Software as thing can help us link together machinations and larger flows of power, but only if we respect its ability to surprise and to move” (20). With such surprises and moves at the fore, Programmed Visions follows the material peculiarities of vapory software all the way through to the specters and speculations they foster.

The first chapter, “On Sourcery and Source Codes,” explores the notion of source code as logos, or “code as source, code as true representation of action, indeed code as conflated with, and substituting for, action” (19). This concept is crucial to the balance of the book, and central to Chun’s inquiry is the myth of that all-powerful programmer, who magically translates language into behaviors (19). As but one example, recall Fisher Stevens in Hackers. These fantasies are generally subtended by the assumption that software is its source code and that source code automatically does what it says (24). To get directly to the source—and, better yet, to author or manipulate it—is to structure the root of information and all related actions. The thing is, execution is a complex, platform-dependent process. For one, compilers often (but not always) intervene in the translation of one code into another (e.g., source code into object code). Or, as Chun argues: “our belief that compilers simply expand higher-level commands—rather than alter or insert other behaviors—is simply that, a belief, one of the many that sustain computing as such” (24). In this sense, Programmed Visions resonates with Jonathan Sterne’s The Audible Past (2003). Much like the voice becomes synonymous with presence after it is inscribed on tinfoil, code becomes the fetishized DNA of digital culture only after its execution. Through such source code ideology, instructions are conflated with results (29), and “the intangible and implicit drives the explicit” (19). Any of the subjects or objects (e.g., compilers) actively involved in the execution process is necessarily overlooked.

Chapter 1 is rife with instances of this conflation and overlooking. In fact, there are so many instances that they cannot be adequately addressed here. Nevertheless, one of the most compelling is Chun’s consideration of software’s gendered history, especially her account of “the women of the ENIAC” (the Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer, which was the first functional electronic digital computer). When the ENIAC was being developed during the 1940s, male analysts would speak commands at female operators, who would then translate those commands into input for the “Giant Brain.” In this real-time interaction between man, woman, and machine, women can be read more or less as software. They directly executed commands before there was a command line or a graphical user interface (30). However, this reading fails to mark the operators’ embodied influence on the ENIAC’s development and performance. Chun persuasively suggests that “the ‘women of the ENIAC’ . . . played an important role in converting the ENIAC into a stored-program computer and in determining the trade-off between storing values and instructions: they did not simply operate the machine, they helped shape it and make it functional” (31). They helped shape the ENIAC and make it functional not only because its hardware was temperamental and needed some human assistance. They also had to frame analog problems through digital logics (i.e., yes-or-no questions) before they could feed the ENIAC input (32). To be sure, this conversion was a lot of work; and for reasons such as these, “the women of the ENAIC” have been celebrated as the first computer programmers. Yet it is important to remember that they (unlike mathematicians such as Grace Murray Hopper) were the base of the mid-century programming hierarchy. Ultimately, their labor was automated, with the 1940s direct programmer integrated—ghost-like and anonymous—into the machine (34).

The next chapter, “Daemonic Interfaces, Empowering Obfuscations,” focuses on the emergence of graphic user interfaces (GUIs) after direct programming and the ENIAC. Early in the chapter, Chun claims that the development of GUIs “coincides with neoliberal management techniques that have made workers both flexible and insecure, both empowered and wanting (e.g., always in need of training)” (59). While some may claim that the power enabled by such interfaces is really a form of false consciousness, Chun’s argument is more complex. Again, through a variety of examples too numerous to be accounted for here, she shows how the coalescence of the visible with the invisible makes human-computer interaction so attractive. She adds: “Interfaces have become functional analogs to ideology and its critique—from ideology as false consciousness to ideology as fetishistic logic, interfaces seem to concretize our relation to invisible (or barely visible) ‘sources’ and substructures” (59). Subjects who are at once in control and vulnerable are produced through these relationships, and a GUI is “daemonic” because of its spectral character (60). Haunted by ephemeral-yet-persistent computational processes (e.g., compiling) and histories (e.g., gendered biopolitics), the allure of screen-based interfaces raises questions about how to actualize freedom and persist in an age of software.

Related to this point about interfaces, Chun’s reading of various “mapping” projects in Chapter 2 is one of the highlights of Programmed Visions. She examines the increasing popularity of personalized visualizations (e.g., Google Earth,, and TouchGraph) in contemporary culture and traces that popularity through Jameson’s notion of cognitive mapping. First, she provocatively argues that: “instead of a situation in which the production of cognitive maps is impossible, we are locked in a situation in which we produce them . . . all the time, in which the founding gesture of ideology critique is simulated by something that also pleasurably mimics ideology” (71). She then states that such quotidian visualizations of a subject’s relations to the totality are enticing because they lay bare otherwise invisible cultural forces. The interface magically makes the opaque transparent, and it repeatedly situates—or individuates—users in a network (74). What’s more, the pleasure of seeing and navigating the whole (e.g., from a bird’s eye view) is no doubt seductive. For Chun, the questions thus become: “how can we have a form of cognitive mapping that does not engage in nostalgia for sovereign power, for the subject (now multiplied everywhere) who knows? And: how necessary is cognitive mapping?” (75). For the balance of Chapter 2, some of her answers include brushing against tendencies to represent the totality through homogenous space as well as experimenting with speculative temporalities, which resist the WYSIWG-ing of radical ambiguity. Each of these answers requires working through the intricacies of software and interfaces instead of dismissing their apparent immateriality as a betrayal of actual relations.

Chapter 3, “Order from Order, or Life According to Software,” marks a shift in Programmed Visions, from an emphasis on technology studies to an emphasis on science studies. It also marks what appears to be a relatively new direction for Chun’s scholarship, especially when the approach and content of Chapter 3 are compared with her previous long-form, Control and Freedom. In the chapter, Chun articulates a history of software through a history of Mendelian genetics, “biopolitical programmability,” and Erwin Schrödinger’s What Is Life? (103). Contrary to assumptions that biology adopted the concept of “programs” from computer science, she asks: “what happens if we take seriously [the] claim that Schrödinger’s idea of heredity coincides with computer memory, years before such memory was developed? In other words, what if the text lauded as launching modern genetics . . . also inadvertently ‘launched’ modern stored-program computers?” (107). Her answer is that we have a compelling historical example for better understanding the enduring ephemerality of digital culture and the biopolitics of neoliberal technologies. Chun’s focus is primarily early eugenics, which—when interpreted through the lens of Foucauldian biopower—simultaneously linked genetics to sexuality and the individual body to the general population (123). Sex included, a person’s actions by necessity influenced an entire society, and “good breeding” (as well as condemning the Other to sterilization and death) was declared the most effective way to improve that society (124-126). According to this racist and reductionist logic, over time eugenics essentially results in a pure genetic pool, or a set of intangible instructions that effects and sustains a “stable” biofuture—a programmable vision, indeed. Rather than relying on social welfare programs (e.g., universal healthcare and education) to better address social inequities, the eugenics movement sought to limit them, insisting instead on breeding, individual decision-making, and, by extension, a “dream of permanence, of something to be transferred in tact from generation to generation” (126, 128). Much like source code, here eugenics becomes logos; human genes are believed to do what they say. Meanwhile, “the human body becomes an archive” (10), and heredity corresponds with data storage, adding a new layer of complexity to recent observations such as, “You are your C:” (Zanni 2000; Kirschenbaum 2008).

The final chapter of Programmed Visions, “Always Already There, or Software as Memory,” functions persuasively as a refining gesture, elaborating on a trope running throughout the book, namely that memory is not the same as storage. This distinction is important to Chun because “memory is not a static but rather an active process. A memory must be held in order to keep it from moving or fading” (167). While readers may wonder if the same is not true of storage (i.e., that it is an active process), Chun’s point is that embodied human-computer interactions should be not reduced to an inscription on a hard drive (133). We might say that something is never remembered the same way twice, that “[t]he experiences of using—the exact paths of execution—are ephemeral” (133). However, popular representations of digital computing as a discrete, noise-free, and universal system of 1s and 0s smooth over the complexities of these embodied processes and their biopolitical conditions, not to mention the historical relationships between things digital and things analog. Early in the chapter, Chun makes an intriguing argument that, rather than being the antithesis of digital computing, analog computing is its ground (139). Through some detailed analyses of John von Neumann’s work on digital machines and automata, she explains how digital computing is premised on “an analogy to an analogy” (139). Whereas analog computers depend on quantities instead of numbers and on similarities between mechanical and electronic systems, digital computers “simulate other computing machines using numerical methods, rather than recreating specific mechanical/physical situations. . . . They move us from solving a problem by defining its parameters to solving it by laying out a procedure to be followed step by step” (143, 151). Put pithily: analog machines simulate, digital machines are simulacra, and both work through analogical models (143). For Chun, the implications of these observations are that we need to focus less on the speedy, seemingly labor-free transmission of ostensibly immaterial data and instead interrogate the desire for neoliberal technologies that store everything discretely and act as universal archives. The fetish for the former eclipses the ways in which the latter is really about “the undead of information”—its persistent de- and regeneration, its repeated resuscitation, and its simultaneous presence and absence (172, 177). Compellingly, Chun concludes the chapter with sentences such as this one: “Just because images flash up all of a sudden does not mean that response or responsibility is impossible, or that scholarly analysis is no longer relevant” (172-73). It just means that we need new ways to interpret software.

In terms of both content and approaches, the scope of Programmed Visions is tremendous. Aside from media and software studies, it will appeal to readers who are interested in speculative realism, science studies, platform studies, critical race theory, and gender and sexuality studies. For many readers, especially those who are unfamiliar with the histories of computing and software, it may be an overwhelming read. For instance, each chapter could easily be extended into an entire book. Nonetheless, the scope is precisely what makes Chun’s work so central to the trajectories of software studies. Programmed Visions suggests what else needs to be done in the field, including more work on the intersections of biopolitics and computing, race and code, and digital memory and social justice. In fact, as the years progress, it is difficult to imagine a scenario where Programmed Visions does not become a reference point for such work. In the meantime, we might ask how we could provide contexts that lend themselves to the interpretations Chun recommends. For instance, how exactly do we develop interfaces that are more productively spectral? How and for whom do we create software that is inclined to surprise? What are some existing examples, and how would learning from them affect coding, designing, and architecting practices? In short, how do we analyze, organize, and build with the undead?

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