The Algorithms of Our Lives
The article appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education, December 16, 2013.
In contrast to 20th-century "texts" such as a examined a novel, movie, or TV program, interactive software-driven media often has no finite boundaries. For instance, a user of Google Earth is likely to experience a different "earth" every time he or she uses the application. Google could have updated some of the satellite photographs or added new Street Views and 3D buildings. At any time, a user of the application can also load more geospatial data created by other users and companies.
Even when a user is working only with a single local media file stored in his or her computer, the experience is still only partly defined by the file's content and organization. The user is free to navigate the document, choosing both what information to see and the sequence in which to see it. (In Google Earth, I can zoom in and out, switching between a bird's-eye view of the area, and its details; I can also switch between different kinds of maps.)
Most important, software is not hard-wired to any document or machine: New tools can be easily added without changing the documents themselves. With a single click, I can add sharing buttons to my blog, thus enabling new ways to circulate its content. When I open a text document in Mac OS Preview media viewer, I can highlight, add comments and links, draw and add thought bubbles. Photoshop allows me to save my edits on separate "adjustment layers," without modifying the original image. And so on.
All that requires a new way to analyze media and culture. Since the early 2000s, some of us (mostly from new-media studies and digital arts) have been working to meet that challenge. As far as I know, I was the first to use the terms "software studies" and "software theory" in 2001. The field of software studies gradually took shape in the mid-2000s. In 2006, Matthew Fuller, author of the pioneering Behind the Blip: Essays on the Culture of Software (Sagebrush Education Resources, 2003), organized the first Software Studies Workshop in Rotterdam. "Software is often a blind spot in the theorization and study of computational and networked digital media," Fuller wrote in introducing the workshop. "In a sense, all intellectual work is now 'software study,' in that software provides its media and its context, but there are very few places where the specific nature, the materiality, of software is studied except as a matter of engineering."