Notes on the Politics of Software Culture

Software has, over the last few years, increasingly come into view as a cultural technique whose social and political impact ought to be studied carefully. To the extent that social processes rely on software for their execution - from systems of e-government and net-based education, online banking and shopping, to the organisation of social groups and movements -, it is necessary to understand the procedural specificities of the computer programmes employed, and the cultural and political 'rules' coded into them.

The ?killer apps? of tomorrow may, as Howard Rheingold claims, not be 'hardware devices or software programs but social practices'. Yet, these social practices will increasingly be determined by software configurations of the available infrastructure and the degrees and types of latitude that they offer. Aspects of software culture - a terrain that encompasses software development as well as the wide and multi-facetted field of software application - are being articulated by speculative and artistic software projects which this text will try to cover in a necessarily cursory, introductory fashion.
The term 'social software' has been used by Matthew Fuller, Graham Harwood, and others, to describe a type of software that consciously engages the social aspects of its application. Whereas a programme like MS Word, which Fuller has carefully dissected in an extensive analysis, tends to conceal the rules and assumptions that served to constitute its structure, social software addresses the more or less specific social context of its application, whether in the form of the Linker software by Mongrel that offers an easy-to-use functionality for multimedia production, or in the online communication platforms that support, for instance, collaborative software and media development and that can easily be tweaked to meet the requirements of a certain co-producer community.

For almost a decade, the Nettime mailing list has been an active, international forum for the discussion of software-related cultural and political issues. In a seminal essay posted on Nettime, Behind the Blip, Fuller talks about key aspects of social software and also refers to the Californian researcher Ellen Ullman who has worked on software development as a distinctly social practice for several years. Important practical and theoretical work in this field has also been done by the Amsterdam-based Society for Old and New Media, De Waag, whose software development projects have engaged the needs and possibilities of different user groups by way of models for a 'participatory software design'. In cooperation with De Waag, the New Delhi-based media and communication centre Sarai has also worked on both the practical issues of social software development, and on the critical reflection of software culture on their online Reader-List and in the Reader print publications. While Nettime has often carried postings articulating differences between European and US media cultures, Sarai has, importantly, helped to raise awareness for the differences in software cultures, esp. with regard to developments in South Asia.
In his essay, Behind the Blip, Fuller distinguishes social software from 'critical' and 'speculative' software, critical software being 'software designed explicitly to pull the rug from underneath normalised understandings of software'. It critically engages with existing software programmes and mutates or critically analyses them. In contrast, 'speculative software' comes closest to what can be understood as an artistic approach to software: it is, as Fuller writes, 'software that explores the potentiality of all possible programming. It creates transversal connections between data, machines and networks. Software, part of whose work is to reflexively investigate itself as software. Software as science fiction, as mutant epistemology. Speculative software can be understood as opening up a space for the reinvention of software by its own means.'

The notion of 'software art' has recently made the rounds. It is an attempt to describe a practice that is artistic, non-functionalist, reflexive and speculative about the aesthetics and politics of software, and that takes computer programming as the material proper of the artistic practice. The Berlin-based media art festival transmediale has been holding an annual competition for software art since 2001, looking especially at works of generative art whose main artistic material is program code, or which deal with the cultural understanding of software. Thus, software is not understood as a functional tool serving the 'real' artistic work, but as a generative means for the creation of machinic and social processes. Software art, in the understanding of researcher, software activist and co-editor of the Nettime Unstable Digest, Florian Cramer, can be the result of an autonomous and formal creative practice, but it can also refer the cultural and social meaning of software, or reflect on existing software through strategies like collage or critique.Like transmediale, other exhibition and curatorial projects (Generator in the UK, Kontrollfelder in Dortmund/D, the Ars Electronica's CODE festival, the exhibition 'I Love You' on computer viruses, a.o.) have sought to circumscribe a field of artistic work that deals with the aesthetic potential of software. Most notably, the festival Read_Me (Moscow and Helsinki) has been exclusively devoted to software art and has led to the establishment of the Runme.Org collaborative online database for software art projects. The CODeDOC project has presented software developed by artists and has included comments and documentation of the programming process and has thus attempted to introduce an aspect of transparency and the idea of Open Sources into the discourse on software by and for artists, an issue which is also being addressed in discussions about 'open content' and the 'creative commons' licenses for artistic productions. In contrast, Free Software developers like Jaromil, who is pursuing a.o. the MuSE project for a free audio streaming software, insist on the necessity to resist proprietary licensing models altogether.

It is worth noticing that the Free Software and open source models have increasingly also influenced art-related software productions in independent labs like the V2_Lab, the ArsElectronica Center or the MIT Media Lab. The copyright issue, which Georg Greve, president of the Free Software Foundation Europe, suggests should not be referred to as 'Intellectual Property Rights' but as 'the question of industrial control of information' will become crucial for the information and knowledge society and must be addressed experimentally in the arts and culture sector, like in the recent exhibition Illegal Art which presented some of the ridiculous results of tight copyright laws.
The issues of interface design and interaction have been among the prime concerns of digital art production, yet, while software has mostly been treated as a tool towards realism in virtual environments, software art projects like I/O/D's Webstalker, Jodi's Wrong Browers or Joan Leandre's retroYou R/C have offered irritating and enlightening insights into the construction of digital realism by means of software.
The Internet, while accelerating the demise of utopian hopes once invested in its liberatory potential, has also become the site of a multiplicity of collaborative forums, whether on mailing lists, Wikis, in weblog communities, etc. For the Net in general, software developments around Java, the Linux system, and online publishing forums like Slashdot or Freshmeat, have all had shares in a complex and vibrant cultural development. For software art in particular, a.o., the eu-gene and linart mailing lists, are continuing to play an important role. The social and theoretical implications of these kinds of online cooperation have been investigated by projects of the interdisciplinary artists group Knowbotic Research for over ten years, most notably in the IO_dencies series in the mid-90s, but also in the more recent collaborative hacking projects.

Similarly, the Italian EpidemiC collective explores new forms of software based online activism in their Anti-Mafia project.Collaborative and activist projects like these frequently also involve debates about network security, ironically referenced by Technology To The People's Phoney(TM), and about privacy issues which were tackled by LAN's Tracenoizer project and, more recently, by Franz Alken's Machines Will Eat Itself, both of which instigate a deliberate erosion of relations between human individuals and their online data bodies.

If anything, software art projects like these should indicate the necessity to delve more deeply into the cultural specificities of software development and application. Software needs to be understood as a set of digital media which need to be explored regarding their specificity, their political and cultural dimensions. An immense amount of know-how already exists in the open source and free software development communities, as well as in hacker and art coder circles. It will be crucial to devise ways how this know-how can be interwoven, at times pooled, and exploded across the entire field of software development and usage. Finally, a 'planetary' project worth recommending!

Note: For reasons of brevity, there are hardly any references in this text; most things can easily be found through Internet search engines. Otherwise, I'm happy to help in locating sources: