If we want to understand the plethora of very specific roles computers play in today’s world, the question “What is software?” is inevitable. Many different answers have been articulated from different viewpoints and different positions – creator, user, enterprise, etc. – in the networks of practices that surround digital objects. From a scholarly perspective, the question is often tied to another one, “Where does software come from?”, and is connected to a history of mathematical thought and the will/pressure/need to mechanize calculation. There we learn for example that the term “algorithm” is derived from the name of the Persian mathematician al-Khwārizmī and that in mathematical textbooks from the middle ages, the term algorism is used to denote the basic arithmetic techniques – that we now learn in grammar school – which break down e.g. the calculation of a multiplication with large numbers into a series of smaller operations. We learn first about Pascal, Babbage, and Lady Lovelace and then about Hilbert, Gödel, and Turing, about the calculation of projectile trajectories, about cryptography, the halt-problem, and the lambda calculus. The heroic history of bold pioneers driven by an uncompromising vision continues into the PC (Engelbart, Kay, the Steves, etc.) and Network (Engelbart again, Cerf, Berners-Lee, etc.) eras. These trajectories of successive invention (mixed with a sometimes exaggerated emphasis on elements from the arsenal of “identity politics”, counter-culture, hacker ethos, etc.) are an integral part for answering our twin question, but they are not enough.

A second strand of inquiry has developed in the slipstream of the monumental work by economic historian Alfred Chandler Jr. (The Visible Hand) who placed the birth of computers and software in the flux of larger developments like industrialization (and particularly the emergence of the large scale enterprise in the late 19th century), bureaucratization, (systems) management, and the general history of modern capitalism. The books by James Beniger (The Control Revolution), JoAnne Yates (Control through Communication and more recently Structuring the Information Age), James W. Cortada (most notably The Digital Hand in three Volumes), and others deepened the economic perspective while Paul N. Edwards’ Closed World or Jon Agar’s The Government Machine look more closely at the entanglements between computers and government (bureaucracy). While these works supply a much needed corrective to the heroic accounts mentioned above, they rarely go beyond the 1960s and do not aim at understanding the specifics of computer technology and software beyond their capacity to increase efficiency and control in information-rich settings (I have not yet read Martin Campell-Kelly’s From Airline Reservations to Sonic the Hedgehog, the title is a downer but I’m really curious about the book).

Lev Manovich’s Language of New Media is perhaps the most visible work of a third “school”, where computers (equipped with GUIs) are seen as media born from cinema and other analogue technologies of representation (remember Computers as Theatre?). Clustering around an illustrious theoretical neighborhood populated by McLuhan, Metz, Barthes, and many others, these works used to dominate the “XY studies” landscape of the 90s and early 00s before all the excitement went to Web 2.0, participation, amateur culture, and so on. This last group could be seen as a fourth strand but people like Clay Shirky and Yochai Benkler focus so strongly on discontinuity that the question of historical filiation is simply not relevant to their intellectual project. History is there to be baffled by both present and future.

This list could go on, but I do not want to simply inventory work on computers and software but to make the following point: there is a pronounced difference between the questions “What is software?” and “What is today’s software?”. While the first one is relevant to computational theory, software engineering, analytical philosophy, and (curiously) cognitive science, there is no direct line from universal Turing machines to our particular landscape with the millions of specific programs written every year. Digital technology is so ubiquitous that the history of computing is caught up with nearly every aspect of the development of western societies over the last 150 years. Bureaucratization, mass-communication, globalization, artistic avant-garde movements, transformations in the organization of labor, expert movements in public administrations, big science, library classifications, the emergence of statistics, minority struggles, two world wars and too many smaller conflicts to count, accounting procedures, stock markets and the financial crisis, politics from fascism to participatory democracy,… – all of these elements can be examined in connection with computing, shaping the tools and being shaped by them in return. I am starting to believe that for the humanities scholar or the social scientist the question “What is software?” is only slightly less daunting than “What is culture?” or “What is society?”. One thing seems sure: we can no longer pretend to answer the latter two questions without bumping into the first one. The problem for the author, then, becomes to choose the relevant strands, to untangle the mess.

In my view, there is a case to be made for a closer look at the role the library and information sciences played in the development of contemporary software techniques, most obviously on the Internet, by not exclusively. While Bush’s Memex has perhaps been commented on somewhat beyond its actual relevance, the work done by people such as Eugene Garfield (citation analysis), Calvin M. Mooers (information retrieval), Hans-Peter Luhn (KWIC), Edgar Codd (relational database) or Gerard Salton (the vector space model) from the 1950s on has not been worked on much outside of specialist circles – despite the fact that our current ways of working with information (yes, this includes your Facebook profile, everything Google is doing, cloud computing, mobile applications and all the other cool stuff Wired writes about) have left behind the logic of the library catalog quite some time ago. This is also where today’s software comes from.

Post filed under algorithms, computing, epistemolgy, mathematics, technological determinism.

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