Software Studies Workshop

This project is entitled software studies for two reasons. Firstly it proposes that software can be seen as an object of study and an area of practice for art and design theory and the humanities, for cultural studies and science and technology studies and for an emerging reflexive strand of computer science. Secondly, it takes the form of a series of short ‘studies’: creative and critical texts on particular algorithms, logical structures and digital objects. Such objects can be drawn from any layer of computational culture – from the front, to the back end.

Software is often a blind spot in the theorisation and study of computational and networked digital media. It is the very grounds and ‘stuff’ of media design. 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. As software becomes a putatively mature part of societal formations, or at least enters a phase where generations are now born into it as an infrastructural element of daily life and specialist practice, as such it gathers and makes palpable a whole range of associations, interpretative frameworks, qualitative dimensions of relationality, aesthetic and political bottlenecks and amplifiers and logico-cultural dimensions and aporias.

Software as a field is largely seen as a question of realized instrumentality. Software is seen as a tool, something that you do something you do with. It is ‘neutral’, grey not simply as a matter of style but of common sense. On the one hand, this can be taken as its ‘ideological’ layer, as deserving of critique as any such myth. Alternately, it can be seen as something that blocks a real and more inventive engagement with its particular qualities and propensities. Equally therefore, another theoretical blockage that this workshop seeks to overcome is the oft-supposed ‘immateriality’ of software. Instead, we propose to develop cases of an understanding of the materiality of software being operative at many scales. Whereas much work published in the area of ‘new media’ largely adopts an ICT model (the shunting of ‘content’ from A to B) for its understanding of phenomena such as the internet or even games, this project aims, amongst other things, to emphasise the neglected aspect of computation, which involves the possibilities of virtuality, simulation, abstraction and autonomous processes.

As such the project aims at folding the internalist / externalist question of science studies inside out, the mechanisms of the one conjugating the subject of the other: what does software-enabled scholarship, in software, art and literary practice have to say about its own medium? The purpose of this interaction is not therefore to stage some revelation of a supposed hidden truth of software, to unmask its esoteric reality, but to see what it is and what it can be coupled with: a rich seam of paradoxical conjunctions in which the speed and rationality of computation meets with its ostensible outside.

This workshop proposes a wide-ranging exercise in the rapid-prototyping of potential critical, inventive and speculative approaches to software. The results of the workshop, alongside contributions by others, will provide the working material for a book to be published in 2007.

For more info: website Piet Zwart Institute