- Behind the Blip: Essays on the Culture of Software
Matthew Fuller's Behind The Blip: Essays on the Culture of Software is essential reading for anyone interested in the application of cultural theory to the study of software. At times uneven, and occasionally with object texts that are somewhat dated, Behind The Blip still manages to condense a surprising number of insights into 165 pages. Fuller plies his trade in the emerging field of "software studies," an unaffiliated, interdisciplinary cadre of academics, net artists, and activists. The focus of Fuller's text, like the focus of much cultural theory concerned with software, is the conglomeration of people and artifacts around software, that is, not the way software is received by users, based on its functionality, but the reciprocal relationship between the production of software and its reception, and the modes of becoming that intersect therein. Software is more than just a programmable tool: it is a materialization of disparate modalities, a conjunction of multiple and heterogeneous processes and discourses, an "assemblage," to use the term Fuller borrows from Deleuze and Guattari. Much as Howard Rheingold suggests in Smart Mobs the next "killer app" might not be a technical innovation but social practices, the next flashpoint for cultural studies may be the culture of software.
Characterized by the work of Fuller, Geert Lovink, and Lev Manovich, software studies is an evolving interdisciplinary field with antecedents in human-computer interaction (Donald A. Norman), sociology (Manuel Castells, Steve Woolgar), law (Lawrence Lessig), literary theory (N. Katherine Hayles), literature (Neal Stephenson, Ellen Ullman), and media theory (Friedrich Kittler). Software studies theorizes the "turn to computer science" in everyday life by examining [End Page 182] the "new terms, categories, and operations that characterize media that became programmable" (Manovich, 48). Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, assistant professor of English and digital studies at the University of Maryland, blogs:
Software studies is what media theory becomes after the bubble bursts. . . . Software studies is, or can be, the work of fashioning documentary methods for recognizing and recovering digital histories, and the cultivation of the critical discipline to parse those histories against the material matrix of the present.
Kirschenbaum's sense that the historicization of digital objects begins with the bursting of the "bubble" in media theory—that is, with the concomitant divestiture of naive media-theory utopianism and overvalued technology stocks—shares an affinity with Lovink's call to "liberate the Internet from its engineering history" (10). Both Kirschenbaum and Lovink, among others, want to inject history and culture into the debate over the production of software and its materiality, a debate that thus far has focused on reception. And both theorists express a feeling of critical sobriety in the wake of dotcom mania: "What happens," asks Lovink, "when the party is over, when you run up against the borders of commonly used software standards and group dynamics, when the cyber-spectacle fades away and the everyday, with its dirty politics, takes command?" (29). The dotbomb crash may symbolize the growing familiarity of digital objects: no longer objects of fetish, they are becoming invisible and routine. This transitional moment, from unknown to unnoticed, marks the emergence of software studies.
Manovich, Lovink, and Fuller have produced accounts of the culture of software with widely varying methodologies: Manovich's formalist approach in The Language of New Media identifies the principles of a culture that has become programmable through decades of "transcoding" and attempts to create a media archaeology that posits the origins of the contemporary computer interface in the visual culture of modernism; Lovink's project in My First Recession is driven by a post-Marxist notion of "the political" and investigates "possibilities for advancing the social 'settings' within software and network architectures in order to experiment with a pluriform and agonistic 'post-geek' form of hegemony" (24); and Fuller's exploration of software [End Page 183] culture employs Deleuze and Guattari to imagine a "digital subjectivity" (28) that interrogates a "dimension of relationality rather than of territoriality" in the "implicit politics" of software (31). To interrogate the "implicit politics" of software, Fuller proposes...