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"On Software"

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Wendy Hui Kyong ChunEdit

Wendy Chun is a Professor of Modern Media and Culture at Brown University. Chun has studied both Systems Design Engineering and English Literature, which she combines and mutates in her current work on digital media. She is author of Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics (MIT, 2006), Programmed Visions: Software and Memory (forthcoming MIT 2010), and co-editor (with Thomas Keenan) of New Media, Old Media: A History and Theory Reader (Routledge, 2005). She has been a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard and a Wriston Fellow at Brown, as well as a visiting associate professor in the History of Science Department at Harvard. She is currently working on a monograph entitled Imagined Networks.

On Software, or the Persistence of Visual Knowledge [2004]Edit

In this essay 2004 Grey Room, Chun address a variety of concerns she has regarding how software is discussed in historical and theoretical discourse, and how software shifts our relationship to “seeing is knowing”. Key to her claims is the notion that software is a functional analog to ideology, a claim Galloway responds to in the journal of visual culture. Chun's most succinct thesis appears to be: “Software, through programming language that stem from a gendered system of command and control, disciplines its programmers and users, creating an invisible system of visibility” (27-8). In order for new media to address software, it must critically examine the limitations of “transcoding” (Lev Manovich’s notion) and software’s status as “common sense”.

Women and ComputingEdit

Chun begins with the problem of defining software, addressing its current “common sense” definition from computer science as “a set of instructions that direct a computer to do a specific task”. But this is not really a material set of instructions, and software and hardware cannot be separated. This allows Chun to open up the article into a history of women and computing. She notes, extensively, the transition from a woman being commanded to input codes, to the computer taking part in its own programming through automatic programming. It is important to her that there was a moment when software became iterable (30), and this is part of the relationship between software, professionalism, personal coding, and mastery. The history of female involvement in computer history evaporates once “programming sought to become an engineering and academic field in its own right” (32). This is one of several instances in which Chun grants technology an odd autonomy (programming in and of itself doesn’t seek anything) and another moment where her attempt at a feminist history seems to dislocate itself from its very actors. She verges on a very engaging argument regarding women and computation (command girl to command line), but turns course before it is flushed out.

Software and PleasureEdit

From there she goes on to the origins of structured programming that hides the machine and accomplishes the goal to “shorten the conceptual gap between static program and dynamic process, to make the correspondence between the program (spread out in text space) and the process (spread out in time) as trivial as possible” (37). The then moves into a discussion of casual pleasure in programming, but pleasure here is not explored in a psychoanalytic vein; rather, pleasure is presumably found in an ability to create things. This explains development of GUIs and user interactivity, which becomes conflated with user freedom (here, we might pose some questions--how? through what means? what historical specifics?). Users, who are constructed by software, engage software pleasurably through direct manipulation, direct engagement, and user amplification (Manovich’s Mario argument).

Software and IdeologyEdit

At the end of her essay, Chun explores her claim of software as ideology. This argument is based on relationships she draws between Marxist notions to ideology and the obfuscation of software/hardware: “Software and ideology fit each other perfectly because both try to map the material effects of the immaterial and to posit the immaterial through visible cues. Through this process the immaterial emerges as a commodity [...] what is software if not the very effort of making something explicit, or making something intangible visible, while at the same time rendering the visible (such as the machine) invisible” (44). The OS is one of the primary contributers to the "ideology effect" of software, as it produces the users (an analog to capitalism producing consumers) “Software, or perhaps more precisely operating systems, offer us an imaginary relationship to our hardware: they do not represent transistors but rather desktops and recycling bins. Software produces ‘users’” (43). Software, on all levels, makes the invisible visible--it translated between computer readable code and human readable language. Manovich calls this transcoding, but Chun argues that this treats computation as mere translation, whereas programmability mean a computer acts in ways beyond one’s control. Software allows computers to partake in other invisible readings (the Microsoft Media Player example).

“one obeys the law to the extent that it is incomprehensible. Is this not computation?” (44).

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