Category Archives: computing

In 1961, Information Pioneer Mortimer Taube (famous for popularizing mechanized coordinate indexing) wrote a book called Computers and Common Sense. The Myth of Thinking Machines. (Columbia University Press). Here is a quote that reminded me a lot of Philip Agre’s Computation and Human Experience:

About a year ago the author was privileged to sit one evening with a group of data processing experts who were attending an institute in Poughkeepsie. Conversation turned to learning-machines. Most of those present had no doubts that machines capable of learning would soon be built. When questions were posed concerning the nature of learning in men and machines and whether or not learning in one was similar or identical to learning in the other, a curious fact emerged. There was considerable agreement among those present concerning the nature of learning in machines, but wide disagreement concerning the nature of human learning. There was agreement that the term “learning,” when applied to human behavior, was vague and ill-defined in spite of the efforts of psychologists to evolve theories of learning. Out of all this a curious consensus emerged. Just because “learning” had no definite meaning when used to describe human behavior and did have a definite meaning when used to describe the activity of a machine, it seemed reasonable to accept the definition which applied to machines and to extend the same definition to cover human action. In other words, man-machine identity is achieved not by attributing human attributes to the machine, but by attributing mechanical limitations to man. (p.42)

Before moving back into media studies, I taught programming at various levels for quite a number of years. One of the things that always struck me, in particular at the beginner’s level, is how little my attempts to find different metaphors, explanations, ways of approaching the subject and practical exercises changed about a basic observation that would repeat itself over the years: some people get it, some don’t. Some students seem like they are born to program, while others cannot – even after long hours of training and no lack of trying – write even the simplest piece of functional and useful code.

Arstechnica has posted a really interesting piece relaying a Q&A on Stack Exchange on this exact topic: “can everyone be a programmer”? Amongst the different resources cited is a link to a paper from 2006 by Saeed Dehnadi and Richard Bornat from the School of Computing at Middlesex University that basically confirms the “double bump” so many programming teachers observe year after year (a lively discussion of the paper is here). What really struck me about the paper was not so much the empirical outcome though, neither the fact that a relatively simple test seems to yield robust results in predicting programming aptitude, but rather a passage that speculates on the reasons for the findings:

It has taken us some time to dare to believe in our own results. It now seems to us, although we are aware that at this point we do not have sufficient data, and so it must remain a speculation, that what distinguishes the three groups in the first test is their different attitudes to meaninglessness.

Formal logical proofs, and therefore programs – formal logical proofs that particular computations are possible, expressed in a formal system called a programming language – are utterly meaningless. To write a computer program you have to come to terms with this, to accept that whatever you might want the program to mean, the machine will blindly follow its meaningless rules and come to some meaningless conclusion. In the test the consistent group showed a pre-acceptance of this fact: they are capable of seeing mathematical calculation problems in terms of rules, and can follow those rules wheresoever they may lead. The inconsistent group, on the other hand, looks for meaning where it is not. The blank group knows that it is looking at meaninglessness, and refuses to deal with it.

While a single explanatory strategy like this is certainly not enough, I must admit that I have rarely read something about teaching programming that comes as close to my own experience and intuition. It was always my impression – and I have discussed this in great length with some of my peers – that programming requires a leap of faith, an acceptance of something that contradicts many of the things we have learned from our everyday experience. When programming, we are using words to build a machine and because the “meaning” of software is expressed through the medium of functionality, the words we write are simply not expressive in the same way as human language.

Over these last years, there has been a debate in software studies and related fields about the linguistic vs. functional dimension of “code”, and I have always found this debate to be strangely removed from the practice of programming itself (which may actually be a goal rather than an omission), perhaps simply because I have always seen the acceptance of the meaninglessness – in terms of semantics – of programming languages as a requirement to be a programmer. This does not mean that code does not have meaning as text but, to put it bluntly, if one cannot suspend that belief and look through the code directly into the functionality it produces, one cannot be a programmer. This is also the reason why I am so skeptical about the focus on code and the idea that scholars interested in software have to “learn how to write code”. Certainly, programming languages, development environments, etc. structure the practice – they open certain doors and close others, they orient and facilitate – but in the end, from the perspective of the programmer, the developer who actually builds a program the true expressiveness of software is behind the code; and when developers discuss the different advantages and disadvantages of various programming languages, they are measuring them in terms of how to get to that behind, how they allow us to pierce through their formalism, their meaninglessness to get to the level of expression we are actually speaking on: functionality.

This is the leap of faith that I have seen so many students not be able to commit to (for whatever reason, perhaps not the least my incapacity to present it in a way they can relate to): to accept the pure abstract performative formality of the words you are writing and see the machine behind the text. Because for those who program – and they are certainly not the only ones who have the right to speak about these matters – the challenge is to go through one kind of language (code) to get to another kind of language (function).

The example discussed in the paper – and used as a test – is telling:

int a = 10;

int b = 20;

a = b;

I do not know how many times I have tried to explain assignment. One of the tricks I came up with was the “arrow to the left” idea: a = 10 does not mean that a is equivalent to 10 but that the “=” should be a “<=” that puts “what is on the right” into “what is on the left”. In my experience – and the paper fully confirms that – not every student can get to a functional understanding of why “a” contains the value “20” at the end of this script. Actually, the “why” is completely secondary. “a = b” means that you are putting the value for b into a. You’re doing it. Really. Really? I don’t know. But if you want to write a program you need to accept that this is what’s happening here. You don’t have to believe in it; formalism is about the commitment to a method, not an ontology. Let go of the idea that words mean something; here, they do something.

Software is not “linguistic” because source code has meaning – it may very well, but to write a program you have to forget about that – but because functionality is itself a means of expression. Despite the many footnotes I should add here, it is the capacity to be able to express the meaningful through the meaningless that makes a programmer. We have to let go a little of the world as we know it, in order to find it again, but in a different way.

This implies a very specific epistemological and even psychological stance, a way of unveiling the world in a certain manner. The question why this manner is apparently not everybody’s cup of tea may be a fruitful way to better understand what it actually consists of.

I have started to work a bit on a forthcoming paper on the history and conceptual thrust of probabilistic indexing in Information Retrieval (“naive Bayes classifiers” for the connoisseurs) – which will also be a chapter of a forthcoming book – and while researching I stumbled over a beautiful paper. E. M. Maron, one of the central pioneers in that field, worked at the RAND corporation in the early 1960 and when not developing prototype systems that used Bayes’ theorem for “fuzzy” document scoring, he wrote memoranda on wider subjects, such as cybernetics ; “Computers and our future” is a very short piece from 1966 that is extremely lucid in terms of the questions it asks. Consider these three points about “the basic characteristics of machines [computers] and at their implications”:

  • Computers operate at exceedingly high speeds. What does this imply? This means that if a high speed machine is used to control a complex situation, then it could compute an action to be taken and execute that action before a human could intervene. What are the potential dangers?
  • Computers, at least at present, demand extreme precision in their instructions. They take their instructions literally. Could there be a tendency to delegate a complex decision to a machine and find out that the machine did what we asked, but that it was not what we wanted – because we ourselves did not fully comprehend the fine structure of our own instructions? What are the full implications of this?
  • Computers have the capacity to handle large amounts of data. They can digest, analyze and relate these data in complete detail. If these data concern financial and personal information on people, what are the implications for the concept of privacy, for improper manipulation and control? What happens when large amounts of information about the economic and political aspects of a society are fed back to the citizens of that society? What is the influence of this information on the truth of the information? Can this type of information, when fed back, cause instabilities – economic and political? (Could the information flow – feedback, overload, and instability – be modeled?)

I would argue that these are extremely timely questions, and they show how aware at least some of the technical pioneers were in terms of the wider implications of the work they were doing. There is a tendency to caricature the cyberneticians of the 1950s and 1960s as narrow-minded taylorist technocrats, but I guess the story is more complicated after all…

The emerging field of software studies (and micro-annexes like “code studies”) shows a remarkable interest in code obfuscation (e.g. here, here, and here), a fun practice for creative programmers that plays on the fact that source code is text and can therefore be endlessly transformed (there are also more serious uses for obfuscation, generally in situations where source code is visible by design, e.g. JavaScript on the Web). While the practice of making a program’s source code unreadable without breaking functionality is indeed a way of approaching software from a potentially revelatory angle, I am somewhat astounded by how much attention humanities scholars pay to an exercise that is diametrically opposed to what 99% of all programmers spend considerable blood, sweat, and tears on every day, namely to make their code readable.

Code obfuscation as creative and playful practice for expert programmers speaks to the humanities’ interest in the original, the artistic, the deviant, and the critical but there is a real danger of losing connection with the mundane practice of writing software, where considerable energy is spent on writing code in a way that other people can easily understand it and, perhaps even more importantly, that a programmer can understand it quickly herself when coming back to a script or module weeks or months after it was written.

As most programmers will attest, the considerable difficulty of programming lies not so much in the “programming” part but in the managing of large amounts of stuff: complex architectures that span over many modules, huge APIs and libraries that provide highly specialized functionality, programming languages with always growing numbers of comfort functions (just look at how many array functions there are now in PHP), pages and pages of (sometimes badly written) documentation, different versions of basically everything, and – of course – the large amounts of code we ourselves and the people we work with have written, not so rarely under considerable time constraints, which leads of course to less than stellar code. The logistical dimension of programming is considerable.

SVN systems, powerful IDE’s (for somebody like me who only programs a couple of hours per week, autocomplete and integrated documentation are simply a godsend), and better development methodology obviously make the task of negotiating this massive environment a lot more bearable, but these tools are not eliminating the need to read code all the time to understand what’s going on. That’s why we try to make it readable as we write it and good refactoring (going over one’s code after the functionality is implemented) treats readability as a priority. But still, every programmer I know has, at one point in time, decided to write a library or a program herself simply because she didn’t want to experience the excruciating pain of reading somebody else’s poorly written code. This is how bad things can get.

Computer Science literature (like Steve McConnell’s classic Code Complete) and the Web are full of guidelines on how to write readable code and recommendations are intensely discussed and can be extremely detailed. I would like to argue here that one can learn as much – or more – about software by looking at strategies for readability than by looking at obfuscation. Some things are rather obvious, like choosing good names for modules, classes, functions, and variables; or like code indentation, which some programming languages have even made a requirement. Good commenting seems to be rather evident as well but there are many different schools of thought on that and automated comment generation in certain programming editors has not lead to real standardization. In general, while there is certainly wide agreement on the need for readability, the persistence of differences in style makes it clear that this is largely a question of convention and therefore depends on normative agreement rather than on simply finding the “best” technique.

But what I find most interesting about the question of readability is that beyond the cited elements lurk even more difficult questions that concern the borders between readability and architecture and between readability and complexity. Ed Lippert for example writes: “Don’t write ‘clever’ code; the maintenance programmers don’t have time to figure out your cleverness when it turns out to be broken.” This points to some of the basic tensions in modern software design and engineering: while programmers learn to value elegance, efficiency, and compact code, the requirements of large teams with a high degree of division of labor and the general speed-up of hardware can make readability a higher priority than execution speed or compactness. This can also mean to not use certain obscure functions or syntactical conventions. Consider these two examples in JavaScript:

variable1 = (variable2 == 10) ? 20 : false;


if(variable2 == 10) {
  variable1 = 20;
} else {
  variable1 = false;

These two elements are functionally equivalent; the first one however is much shorter and, especially for less experienced programmers, more difficult to read and understand.

Another question concerns when and how to divide code into functions, objects, modules, etc. Dustin Boswell and and Trevor Foucher’s Art of Readable Code for example recommends to “extract unrelated subproblems” by moving the code into a subroutine. While this may be straightforward in many cases, what the “reader” needs to know to understand the code can vary a lot from one case to another. Creating subroutines can certainly help with readability (and make code more easily reusable), but it a) means that the reader has to track down the subroutines and b) may make the code more complex simply because the subroutine may take into account different use cases that have to be distinguished. While redundancy is often considered a crime, it can have benefits when it comes to readability.

The subject of readability can be (and is) discussed infinitely but what is significant from a software studies’ perspective is that the problem points to the incursion of a social and economic context into the practice of programming. Not only do we ask “what is my code supposed to do?”, but also “who is going to read my code?”, “will other people work with my code?”, “is this something I will reuse?”, “how important is execution speed?”, and so on. While studying obfuscation points to the duality of computer code as text and machine, the readability question reveals it as caught up in various contexts that have to be negotiated in the practice of programming itself. That code is executable is the technical condition for software. That code is readable is not a requirement on the same level; but it has become a major aspect to a program’s capacity to become part of an increasingly structured professional practice.

Some debates are just so much older than our short forgetful minds allow us to recognize. In 1965 Jacques Barzun (still alive today at a biblical 102!) made the following statement:

What have the humanities been doing for thirty-five years except to do exactly what a computer would do, only with their own unaided card indexes and fountain pens? They have taken apart poetry, they have taken apart novels, they have counted images, they have followed symbols that are sometimes non-existent, they have destroyed their own subject matter by a pseudo-computer-like approach, and now they have only themselves to blame if they have to learn the tricks and the jargon of computerizing. (Jacques Barzun at a conference at Yale University, cited in. Taviss (ed.), The Computer Impact, 1970, p.199)

While I have not found the original document of Barzun’s talk, Bowler (ed.), Computers in Humanistic Research, 1967, p.232 has a summary of his three main points of critique:

First is the assumption of a false relation between the units defined and written and the reality they are supposed to represent. For example, 20 years ago, someone attempted to study genius by selecting names from Who’s Who in America, as being indicative of the quality of genius. Second is the fallacy of assessing importance by weight or numbers. The speaker mentioned a published census, again some 20 years ago, which indicated that the number of brownstone or frame houses in New York was much larger than the number of skyscrapers, giving the erroneous impression that the former represented the city’s characteristic architectural form. The third error is the attribution of meaning based upon only a partial study of the object in question. Two conspicuous examples of the faulty attribution of meaning to partial signs are the cases of machine translation and the objective tests given to school children and the people in business.

Would it be very hard to find contemporary examples that fit these three points?

This blogpost is somewhat of an experiment that I hope will turn into a series. I have started to work seriously on a book that will suggest a somewhat different take on understanding computing and particularly contemporary software deployed on the Internet. A large part of that work consists of historical analysis and in this context I am (re)reading many of the seminal papers of the information and computer sciences. What is striking about these texts is not only their content but their far-reaching influence on the landscape of technological concepts and, often enough, on the actual technological developments that followed. Writing software today is in most cases an articulation that takes place in an extremely dense space of established languages, APIs, frameworks, and libraries but also of concepts, methodologies, best practices, tacit assumptions, strategies, and community rules. There is so much “old” in every “new” but many concepts have become so pervasive, so dominant that we no longer see them as the particularities they in fact are. Being canonical, they become second nature. But many of these path-defining moments can be retraced and given the pervasiveness of computers today, an archeology of computing is, in a way, an archeology of our culture.

One of the ways to do such an archeology may simply consist in trying to read seminal computer and information science papers sideways, not (only) as technological proposals, but as political and cultural projects that combine a (most often critical) analysis of a status quo with a prescriptive take on how a more ideal setting could/should look like. Technology is, in that sense, a way of relating to society, a means of contributing that is political in a very different way than the traditional arenas of governance and debate. What I would like to suggest is that this aspect of technological writing (science papers but also reports, RFCs, norms, proposals, documentation, etc.) is by far not examined enough, particularly when it comes to techniques that are related to software. Our view of technology is still very much shaped by the physical machine – the box, the screen, the keyboard – perhaps also because these physical parts are closer to our bodies, more visible and easier to integrate into the cognitive practices of a culture that, paradoxically, is able to produce extremely sophisticated mechanisms while being quite inept when it comes to understanding the role technical objects play in constituting its very fabric.

In my view, the central mistake is to assimilate technology to techné and be done with it. Perhaps I am wrong, but I cannot shake the feeling that very few scholars in the humanities and social sciences are prepared to accord to technological creation the same depth, complexity, variety, the same imbrication in society, the same amount of “humanity” than literature or artistic creation in general. This unwillingness to really engage technology beyond the surface leads to the familiar reflex-like reactions, both positive and negative, that seem to dominate public debates on “hot” topics like social networking, privacy on the Internet, or computer games.

So what I am looking for is a different way of understanding technology that subscribes neither to an engineering perspective concerned with function nor to a purely “culturalist” analysis that sees only imaginaries, symbols, and metaphors, thereby risking to loose the machine in the machine. So, today, first try and why not start with a big one.

In 1970, Edgar F. Codd, a British computer scientist who moved to the US in the 1940s, published one of the most influential papers in the history of computer science, A Relational Model of Data for Large Shared Data Banks (available here, doi:10.1145/362384.362685), in which he proposed a concept for the construction of database systems built around the central idea of separating the logical organization of information from the way it is stored on a physical storage medium. While the usefulness of such a separation may seem very obvious from today’s viewpoint, Codd’s paper stirred a virulent debate and his employer, IBM, was quite reluctant when it came to turning the proposal into a product (it took eight years for the first relational database system to make it to the market). When discussing Codd’s work, we should be very suspicious of the popular narratives of technological development as a series of inventions, or worse, ideas. To separate logical organization from physical storage had been a common practice in libraries for a long time: the library catalogue, in combination with some basic shelf logistics, allows for very different ways of recording books – alphabetically, by subject, and so on. But technologies are not simply ideas; Gene Roddenberry did not invent beaming. As science and technology studies have shown many times, a successful scientific “discovery” or a technological “invention” is somewhat of a “perfect storm”: many pieces have to fall into place, many different actors have to be mobilized, and most often there is talking, writing, demonstrating, debating, and a whole lot of fuzz. As computer history shows, having an idea (Babbage) or even building a functioning machine (Zuse) may simply not be enough to establish a technology. Since the industrial revolution, technologies are increasingly often systems that require logistics, markets, organizational reform, or an installed user base. In our case, the really interesting thing is not necessarily the abstract idea for what has become today’s omnipresent relational database, but the way Codd builds an idea into a technological concept, as an argument as well as a potential system. To start, let’s quote the abstract in full:

Future users of large data banks must be protected from having to know how the data is organized in the machine (the internal representation). A prompting service which supplies such information is not a satisfactory solution. Activities of users at terminals and most application programs should remain unaffected when the internal representation of data is changed and even when some aspects of the external representation are changed. Changes in data representation will often be needed as a result of changes in query, update, and report traffic and natural growth in the types of stored information.
Existing noninferential, formatted data systems provide users with tree-structured files or slightly more general network models of the data. In Section 1, inadequacies of these models are discussed. A model based on n-ary relations, a normal form for data base relations, and the concept of a universal data sublanguage are introduced. In Section 2, certain operations on relations (other than logical inference) are discussed and applied to the problems of redundancy and consistency in the user’s model. (p. 377)

First of all, who are these users that have to be “protected”? In 1970, this is obviously not (yet) the manager sitting in front of a screen and keyboard but rather the application programmer that will implement the “query, update, and report” functions every larger organizations rely on for management. These users/programmers had been forced to make changes in storage structures whenever requirements changed in a significant way. This was not just an onerous task but also a source of potentially crippling problems as every adaptation risked breaking existing applications. Without explicit reference, Codd’s work is directly related to what has become to be known as the “software crisis” that lead to the emergence of software engineering. The separation of systems into black-boxed modules that communicated via well-specified interfaces was one of the solutions put forward to counter the explosion of complexity that followed the introduction of computers into large-scale, real-world (business) organizations. Seen in this light, the relational model and the concept of “data independence” (p. 377) is an extremely powerful agent for the division of labor that cleanly separates the engineering of a database system from the specification of data structures, adding to the ground work for the concept of end-user software that we know today.

So what is Codd’s proposal? For a reader trained in the humanities trying to read a paper like the one in question (even the first half, which does not use any formal notation), adaptions to the habitual reading style have to be made to get something useful out of it. Much like mathematics, computer science deploys language quite differently than the humanities (except for analytical philosophy): language, here, is not (only) narrative and argumentative, it aims a building a demonstration, which is most certainly a rhetorical form, but a very formal one that follows a convention consisting of laying out a space of thinking through a series of very precise definitions, which often attribute quite specific significations to words taken from everyday language. Miss one of these definitions and the whole pyramid crumbles. In Codd’s case, the basic building block is the concept of relation (taken from mathemataical set theory, like most reasoning about databases), which designates a basic form for structuring data where every abstract entity is composed of a series of attributes. This data structure can be “filled” with entries (rows). If you’re familiar with SQL (today’s standard query language, derivative of Codd’s work), relation (or rather relationship, the unordered version of relation in Codd’s paper; nowadays, relation is used for Codd’s relationship and I’ll follow that convention) is simply the structure of a table. In practice, Codd suggest to build databases that represent all data in a from that looks like this:

students:  name  email           major
           Jack  history
           Mary  science

Here, students is a relation composed of three attributes (name, email, number). Jack is a row (entry), Mary is another one. What was new in this definition is obviously not the notion of the table, but rather the idea to define a relation as a purely abstract and unordered structure, a logical construct that did not specify in any way how it was to be stored on a physical medium. An important indicator for this decoupling is Codd’s comment that “the ordering of rows is immaterial” (p. 379). Without stating it explicitly, Codd shifts the construction of order from the storage to the query. More on this later.

The second key concept is the notion of primary key and its corollary, the foreign key. Let’s add a primary key to our table:

students:  key  name  email           major
           1    Jack  history
           2    Mary  science

The primary key is a way of addressing a row of data unambiguously (student #1 is Jack and no other student, keys have to be unique). The idea of a foreign key means to simply use a primary key in another table. Instead of doubling information (which may lead to all kinds of update problems as well as storage overhead), we’re simply “pointing” from one table to another. Take the relation (table) “grades”:

grades:  english  history  geography
          1           C        C        C
          2           B        B        B

In this case, (relation.attribute is the notation we still use today) is the foreign key linking to the primary key of our “students” relation. In practice this means that Jack had all Cs and Mary all Bs in the three classes they took. Codd shows that using this concept of primary/foreign key, very complex organizations of data can be produced while keeping the basic principles very simple. While both of the dominant models of the time, the tree and network models, were based on data hierarchies (that had to be rebuilt if informational practices changed), the relational model is much more flexible.

To put things into perspective: most of the world’s structured data is currently organized according to this basic form. I would guess that despite the current NoSQL hype (companies like Google and Facebook use even simpler and highly customized data structures for ultra-high speed access) more than 90% of all Web applications have a database backend based on one of the many implementations of the relational model, e.g. Oracle, MS SQL Server, MySQL, PostgreSQL, to name just a few. But data organization is only the first half of the proposal.
The next step in Codd’s paper is to reflect on a language that would allow for data retrieval and manipulation by addressing the logical organization of the data rather than its physical storage. Rather than specifying the physical location of the data, saying “I want the entries from address 0x00000 to address 0xfffff” (and we would have to know these addresses beforehand!), we could simply ask for all the entries in the table students. Remember that above, I indicated that Codd declared entry order as “immaterial”? This is because the ordering of data is no longer (merely) a property of the archive. Ordering is done in the language we use to get the data: “I want all the students, sorted alphabetically by name” (SQL: SELECT * FROM students ORDER BY name). The data structure has of course be prepared for the kind of queries we will want to make, but in our example, I could group my list by major, sort it by email, or, by “joining” our two tables, order by grade average. More elaborate queries would allow me to select the 25% percent students with the best grade average or to plot the grade evolution over the years if I have that data.
A data retrieval and manipulation language would have to do more than just query and this quote summarizes the requirements:

A set so specified may be fetched for query purposes only, or it may be held for possible changes. Insertions take the form of adding new elements to declared relations without regard to any ordering that may be present in their machine representation. Deletions which are effective for the community (as opposed to the individual user or sub- communities) take the form of removing elements from declared relations. (p. 382)

These are the four building blocks of every database system I have worked with (again using SQL): SELECT (query a database using different parameters for searching and ordering, e.g. get all students with a certain grade average), INSERT (insert new data into a table, e.g. add a new student into students), UPDATE (change data, e.g. change a student’s grade after accepting a bribe), DELETE (erase date, e.g. expel a student for offering you a bribe). Such a language – Codd will propose the Alpha language in the 1970s but IBMs SQL (structured query language; Larry Ellison of Oracle actually was the first to bring a SQL based product to the market and consequently became one of the richest people on the planet) largely won out – would again “protect” the user from having to interact with anything but the data organization specified in the terms of the relational model.
In the rest of the paper, Codd tackles a series of problems that could arise in the implementation of actual systems (and what we would call a “storage engine” today) based on the relational model, but this part is less interesting for my purposes.

I would like, however, to propose a couple of comments that may help putting things into a larger perspective:

1) The central critique of Codd’s proposals came from programmers and engineers that abhorred the loss of control (an potentially performance) over the actual organization of data storage on the physical medium and the dangers such a black-boxing may pose to data integrity in the case of dysfunction or accident. But in the 1980s the demands for more flexibility and cost control won the day, driven by lower hardware costs and better techniques for securing data. This evolution towards layering, modularity, and a general “abstraction” from the hardware has happened in all fields of computing and, indeed, the loss of control and visibility is most often the prime concern. In a sense, software has followed a similar trajectory as social organization, from community to society (and back, whenever there is a new frontier to homestead), that is from small-scale teams and organizations to the large-scale efforts of companies like Microsoft or Oracle. Abstraction techniques like Codd’s played a central role here as enablers of division of labor. It also permitted – and this is crucial – a much tighter integration between management processes and information technology. The moment information structures are “liberated” from questions of physical storage, they can be implemented in flexible, end-user friendly software packages, which makes it possible for management to interact much more directly with data. The rise of Business Intelligence and Decision Support Systems would have been much less spectacular without the relational model turning “information” into the malleable material it has become.

2) While I am of course tempted to write something like “The decoupling of the logical structure of data from physical storage and the immense power and flexibility afforded by query languages have led to the emergence of late-modern network economies.”, this would be too quick and easy. The relational database, the powerful query languages, and the business control and intelligence functions they enable are certainly a central part of the informational infrastructure that supports contemporary economic organization. Data, once collected, can be interrogated from every possible angle and automatic reporting (which is no more than a series of very elaborate SQL queries over a large number of tables) has introduced incredible speed into business processes, while keeping up an illusion of control. Illusion, because just like any formal model of reality, data and query models are necessarily reductionist. At the same time, databases are themselves part of a much longer trend in management that started with systems management in the late 19th century. We’re snowballing from one information age to the next and technologies like the relational model are as much enablers as results, causes and effects.

3) The relational database is part of a much larger transformation in how documents, information, and knowledge are handled. From the library catalog to documentation centers and further on to data banks, information retrieval, and data mining, we see a steady growth in the attention being payed to the logistics, organization, and “exploitation” of an always faster growing mountain of texts, images, sounds, and so forth. The relational model not only helps with classic tasks such as storage and retrieval, it shares in the birth of the what could be called the “automated production of knowledge”, i.e. the creation of new information from cross-referencing, comparing, statistically examining, synthesizing, and representing large quantities of information. Whether these automated processes (think reporting, data mining, etc.) produce “real” knowledge is a rather stale question; it is much more important to emphasize how businesses and other organizations have come to depend on these tools for everyday management and decision-making. Query languages built on Codd’s proposal constitute the foundation for these developments.

There would be much more to say about Codd’s work and the relational database but I want to close by going back to the initial question about reading computer science from a humanities perspective. A classic analysis of language and use of metaphors would probably have proceeded quite differently and would have homed in on things like the “protection” of users or citations such as this footnote:

Naturally, as with any data put into and retrieved from a computer system, the user will normally make far more effective use of the data if he is aware of its meaning. (p. 380)

Imaginaries are indeed important aspects of an archeology of computing but even in written form, computer science is, in a way, always looking elsewhere, beyond the text, and Codd points to this “elsewhere” in his last paragraph:

Nevertheless, the material presented should be adequate for experienced systems programmers to visualize several approaches. (p. 387)

What Codd asks the reader to visualize is the laboratory of computer science, the site where things come together, the working system. While the discursive aspects are certainly important, I feel that function is central to the poetics of the technical sciences and if we want to understand their cultural significance we have to read them both as texts and as functional blueprints.

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.

Books are great and I just finished another one that I wish I had read years ago: Alfred D. Chandler Jr. and James W. Cortada: A Nation Transformed by Information. How Information Has Shaped the United States from Colonial Times to the Present. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000 (Google Books). The fact that the leading historians on business (Chandler) and computing (Cortada) edit a book together is a setup for great things and the book does not disappoint. Their concluding chapter proved to be particularly stimulating especially the couple of pages in a section called “The Case for Software” (p.290f). Here, the authors argue that while there have been many continuities in the development of IT over the last two centuries, software represents a major discontinuity because of 1) what it is, 2) how it came into the economy, and 3) how it was sold. There is quite a list of arguments the authors present, but two stand out:

First, software is diagnosed as being the “least capital-intensive and most knowledge-intensive of all information technologies to emerge” (p.290) which lead to low barriers to market-entry and immense opportunities for start-ups. Second, the fact that IBM chose to market the IBM-PC as an open hardware platform and Windows’ dominance as a standardized platform for application development created a gigantic market where even niche products could find a considerable audience. For Chandler and Cortada, the “story” of software is not so much the epic battle between operating systems that we love to dwell on but the development of applications. Their story goes like this:

Although software development is very much a knowledge business, the personal commitment required to learn enough to write software is far less than is needed by a computer scientist who is developing either hardware or the next generation of computer chips. The teenager or college student who writes software and ultimately finds a distributor has far less training in the field than the engineer working on Intel’s future product line. Yet both arrive at the same point: they create a marketable product. Thus, in economic terms, software so far has required less intellectual capital, hence offering fewer knowledge barriers to new entrants. Will that change? Perhaps, but what occurred in the 1980s and 1990s is that the barriers to entry remained far lower than for any previous form of information technology and products. (p.296f)

So far so good. This account has been echoed repeatedly (my colleague Mirko Schäfer and I have been amongst the many) but Chandler and Cortada weave a pretty dense and economically sound argument. What is interesting though is the historical backdrop against which the emergence of software unfolds:

In the electronic-based industries on which the Information Age rests, opportunities for individual entrepreneurs to build long-term competitive enterprises also came primarily with the introduction of a new technology. But these opportunities only occurred three times. The first was in the early 1920s with the coming of broadcasting. The second opportunity occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s, after the introduction of IBM’s System 360 and Digital’s PDP series greatly expanded computerized data processing for commercial activities. The third took place in the first half of the 1950s with the sudden and unexpected coming of the multi-billion-dollar microcomputer industry. Since the mid-1950s opportunities for entrepreneurial start-ups in hardware arose primarily in the production of specialized niche products or for providers of supplies and services to the large established core companies. So if history is any guide, a small number of large complex enterprises, particularly those experienced in building systems, will continue to lead in commercializing the hardware for today’s Information Age.

For the authors, software is different, for the reasons given above. Now, what seems to have happened over the last three years is something that is bringing software incrementally back to the “normal” course of history: the app store and the cloud. To provide a cloud based service, a little coding skill is obviously no longer enough – building a datacenter is not that easy and even cloud hosting services that scale well do not eliminate the need for handing the software logistics of a large user base and huge amounts of data. Mastering synchronization between cloud and client, handling different versions of data points, providing clients to various different (mobile) platforms, etc. requires pretty neat skills and a team of experts. In short, the cloud makes software service development much more capital-intensive (Chandler and Cortada’s first argument) and quickly raises barriers to market entry. Just look at how many billions Mircosoft dumped into search technology for some scraps of the market.

The app store story is a little more complex because – just like Windows – the iPhone SDK and store combo has created a market that is standardized and quite large, affording a new business model for many a developer. But with all the technical limitations (since I got an Android phone the fact that I don’t have a common file storage area on the iPad just feels very, very weird) and the filtering, I would argue that the logic of the app store (at least in its Apple version, but Google also has its kill switch) is halfway between the classic logic of operating systems and the television market where independent studios and production companies sell content to the all powerful networks. The independent journalist that sells copy to newspapers and magazines also comes to mind.

While the software market – despite the long-standing existence of software giants – continues to be a pretty diverse playing field, the process of commodification of software via the cloud and the app store may very well be a step away from software as usual, a kind of historic “normalization” to a situation where a limited number of companies (Google, Apple, Microsoft?) dominate or shape a large portion of the market for software.

The question of how mathematics could lay the foundation for a machine that sustains such a wide variety of practices is really quite well understood from the point of view of the mathematical theory of computation. From a humanities standpoint however, despite the number of texts commenting on the genius of key figures such as Gödel, Turing, Shannon, and Church, there is still a certain awkwardness when it comes to situating the key steps in mathematical reasoning that lead up to the birth of the computer in the larger context of mathematics itself. One of the questions I find really quite interesting is the role of the formalist stance in mathematics.

In the philosophy of mathematics, there are many different positions. The realist stance for example holds that mathematical objects exist. For the platonist, they exist in some kind of extra spatio-temporal realm of ideas. For the physicalist, they are intrinsically connected to material existence, even if that relationship is not necessarily simple. Then there is formalism and this is where things get interesting. In a tale we can read in many social sciences and humanities books on the computer, there is the young Kurt Gödel that smashes the coherent world of the “establishment” mathematician David Hilbert, inventing the metamathematical tools that will later prove essential for the practical realization of computing machinery in the process. What is most often overlooked in that story is that Hilbert’s formalist position is already an extremely important step in the preparation for what is to come. For Hilbert, the question of the ontological status of mathematical objects is already a no-go – truth is no longer defined via any kind of correspondence to an external system but as a function of the internal coherence of the symbolic system. As Bettina Heintz says, Hilbert’s work rendered mathematical concepts “self-sufficient” (autark) by liberating them from any kind of external benchmark and opening a purely mechanical world where symbolic machinery can be built at will, like in a game.

If we want to think about computing today, I think we should remember this break from an ontological concept of truth to a purely formalistic one (even if that mean Gödel put a pretty big crack in it lateron). Because in a way, programming is like a “game” with formulas and if the algorithm works, that means it is “true”. In this sense, Google’s PageRank algorithm is true. But without the reference to an external system, this “truth” is purely mechanical, internal. In a similar way, an algorithm’s claim to objectivity, impartiality, or neutrality should be seen as internal only. The moment we apply mathematics to the description of some external mechanism (gravity, for example), there is a second truth criterion that intervenes, which refers to the establishment of correspondence between the formal system and the external reality. In the same way, if an algorithm is applied to, let’s say the filtering of information, the formal world of the game is mapped onto another world. There is an important difference however. When mathematics are applied to physical phenomena, the gesture is descriptive and epistemological (verb: is). When an algorithms is applied to tasks such as information filtering, the gesture is prescriptive and political (verb: ought).

The fact than an automatic procedure works makes it true in a formal sense. The moment we apply it to a certain task, other criteria intervene. Hilbert’s formalism pulled mathematics from the empirical world and if we bring the two together again by writing software, the criteria by which we judge the quality of that action should be seen as political because there are no mathematical criteria to judge the mapping of on world onto the other. No Hilbert to hold our hand…