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Coding Places: Software Practice in a South American City by Yuri Takhteyev (review)

From: Technology and Culture
Volume 55, Number 2, April 2014
pp. 517-518 | 10.1353/tech.2014.0061

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
Coding Places: Software Practice in a South American City. By Yuri Takhteyev. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012. Pp. xiv+ 257. $34.

Coding Places is an ethnographic attempt to understand the nature of globalization, and in particular the nature of globalized software development. Yuri Takhteyev challenges popular op-ed pronouncements, such as “distance is dead” and “the world is flat” and placeless. In fact, he argues that in order to understand the phenomenon of globalization we must pay close attention to local place. The studied local place in the book is Rio de Janeiro, a city widely known for its beaches and soccer but also as a “wrong” place for high-tech work. Takhteyev argues that “we have much to gain from looking at software development in this unlikely place … so we can learn a lot about place and its persisting importance in today’s ‘knowledge economy’” (p. 2). He draws from Anthony Giddens’s theory of structuration to lay the theoretical foundation of his book, specifically the notion of “worlds of practice”—“systems of activities comprised of people, ideas, and material objects, linked simultaneously by shared meanings and joint projects” (p. 2).

Takhteyev visited Brazil for two six-month periods where he interacted with local scholars, government officials, and developers of Lua and Kepler. Based on his interviews, he highlights five processes that take place in high-tech peripheral cities and shape their worlds of practice. These are processes of disembedding and reembedding: “peripheral participants who want to make a contribution to central practices must thoroughly disembed their innovations, making them mobile” (p. 209); the process of cumulative and parallel nature of the reproductions: “software practice cannot be understood in isolation from the parallel efforts of people engaged in other practices” (p. 210); the complex relation between individuals and collective efforts in engaging in foreign practices, such as different languages; interactions between different cultural and economic levels of practices; and the individual’s understanding of his/her agency: “individual agency of peripheral actors, situating their actions in the context of cultural and economic structures, while also showing how their individual attempts to engage in global systems of activities add up, collectively and over time, to create the seeming universality of global practice” (p. 6).

The stories of Lua and Kepler’s developers are a constant clash between the local and global, Portuguese and English. Takhteyev shows how the effort to overcome these clashes often contributes to the continued dominance and power of remote centers, since the work delivered must comply with the center’s epistemology and ontology. Although it often left the developers in “a paradoxical state of being hyperconnected in some ways [End Page 517] and quite disconnected in others” (p. 206), the author claims this is the process that ultimately defines what we call globalization. Takhteyev concludes by denying that software work will ever be fully placeless. According to him, the work done by people on the periphery can be seen as ways for them to “find their new places in the global world of software, in their own increased ability to combine local and global resources in pursuit of their global dreams” (p. 215).

The ethnographic material presented by Takhteyev is interesting and tells a story that hasn’t been touched in the literature of software development. As a native Brazilian and technology scholar, I was able to recognize the author’s effort to present the peculiarities of Brazil in the book, but the complex political and economic contexts may not be as clear to someone not familiar with the country. Hence he may have missed the opportunity to immerse readers in his stories by not presenting a better account of the Brazilian history and explaining how the country became a peripheral site. According to the book, Takhteyev had access to Paulo Tigre, a historian of technology from Brazil, but did not mention Tigre’s Computadores brasileiros: Indústria, tecnologia e dependência (1984), which could have been useful for the contextualization. Also, there is no discussion or reference to other ethnographies of software work such as Ellen Ullman’s Close to the Machine (1997) or Scott Rosenberg’s Dreaming in Code...