Software as Ideology

Code Societies, Day 8 with American Artist

written by stud1nt

American Artist @ SFPC

American Artist (yes, that’s their real name) is an interdisciplinary artist from Altadena, now thriving in Brooklyn. Their work is informed by the “dialectics formalized in Black radicalism and organized labor” and treats the intersections of history, technology, and culture through a multiplicity of mediums. They are currently a resident at Eyebeam and have exhibited at the Kitchen, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

American joins our eighth day at Code Societies to unpack the depth and span of the analogy of software as ideoelogy. They draw from the theory-laden, digital media texts of Wendy Hui Kyong Chun and Alexander Galloway as a gateway into the historicity and sociopolitical underpinnings of software and hardware as interface.

Definition of Ideology (Marx)

American begins class with an introduction to Marxist thought on cultural materialism. We discuss the reproduction of labor and its relation to the form of infrastructure and superstructure, and how, ultimately, the modes of production and reproduction determine the latter structures. Ideology is a projection or reflection of the values of the ruling class, and in turn, makes the working class both submissive and complicit in their oppression through normalization of sociopolitical values and beliefs.

Software as Ideology course outline

Together, we watch a brief portion of Slovenian continental philosopher Slavoj Zizek’s The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, a 2012 documentary where Zizek uses psychoanalysis to explore why, as a society and individuals, we behave the way we do. Zizek believes that our actions reflect our beliefs on a subconscious level and suggests that if we assimilate new beliefs into our psychological vocabulary, we can alter our social performance.

History of Software (Chun)

Next, American gives us a tour of the history of software through Wendy Chun’s “On Software or the Persistence of Visual Knowledge”.

Programming a computer “originally meant patching circuits together using cables or connectors…service labor performed in or on informatic machines” (Galloway 59), also known as direct programming. This later transitioned to symbolic programming where computers became able “to translate between more humanly readable assembly code…and what has since been called machine language rather than a logical code” (Chun 29). Eventually, the machine was completely forgotten through automatic and structured programming as human programmers interfaced with another layer of software to be able to write code at a higher level of abstraction.

As the role of the programmer became more professionalized and thereby coded as masculine, women were erased from the field and the transition from commanding a woman to commanding a computer occurred.

What is the significance of following and implementing instructions? Perhaps the “automation” of control and command is less a perversion of military transition and more an instantiation of it, one in which responsibility has been handed over to those (now machines) implementing commands. The relationship between maters and slaves is always ambiguous. (Chun 36)

Analogy

We continue to read aloud from Chun’s article with a particular focus on the extent to which software can and does function as ideology. Software is much like the commodity form; it transmutes concrete processes (for example, human labor and changes in voltages) into abstract, seemingly immaterial forms.

Programming presents itself as a set of rules that exist in an entirely abstract, objective way such that performing within that structure makes one feel in control despite necessarily always, already working within a given set of parameters. “Users” are pleased by the “direct manipulation of the object of interest” (Chun 47) such as moving creating a new folder or dragging photos to trash as it gives a sense of power and authority over the machine.

In a formal sense computers understood as comprising software and hardware are ideology machines. They fulfill almost every formal definition of ideology we have, from ideology as false consciousness (as portrayed in The Matrix) to Louis Althusser’s definition of ideology… (Chun 43)
Software, or perhaps more precisely operating systems, offer us an imaginary relationship to our hardware… Software producers ‘users.’ (Chun 43)
Software and ideology fit each other perfectly because both try to map the material effects of the immaterial and to posit the immaterial as a commodity, as something in its own right. (Chun 44)

Next, we read from Galloway’s “Software as Ideology”, from The Interface Effect which is in direct conversation with Chun’s work. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Galloway’s critique is the idea that software simultaneously hides and reveals itself as it works. This applies to both its creation and use. Software is typically developed in chunks by programmers who are not privy to information outside of the scope of their work. Similarly, software conceals from its users the larger social processes that have informed its production, design, and intention. In effect, we only think we know how software works, similar to the consequences of ideology on the public’s grasp of social reality.

…be it the commodity object (or as Guy Debord maniacally demonstrated, the commodity as image) and its ability to mask its own history of production and the social division of labor that generated it, or be it the Java object and its ability to cordon off various functionality into this or that site of inscription and execution, which is no doubt an abstraction or mapping of the actual division of labor globally in the dot-com firm producing it… (Galloway 68)
Formulated as an assertion, software requires both reflection and obfuscation. If software is indeed an allegorical analog to ideology, it should come as no surprise that software functions in such a dialectical fashion.” (Galloway 64)
….the larger trend in software design to hide numerical encoding of data behind more privileged “semantic” formats such as natural language or graphics. In this way, numbers essentially follow an occult logic: they are hidden at exactly the moment when they express themselves.” (Galloway 65)

Artworks

American winds down class by sharing the work of contemporary artists, Hito Steyerl and Sondra Perry, who simultaneously use and critique media and technology as part of their practice.

American closes with an introduction to their works “Mother of All Demos”, “No State”, and “Untitled (Too Thick)” which all dwell within their speculative, ontological platform Black Gooey Universe. The Black Gooey (read as both sticky substance and homophone for graphical user interface) Universe is a space where blackness functions as a stage for “slowness, refusal, thought, complexity, critique, softness, loudness, transparency, uselessness, and brokenness”.

American considers what it means if the negative space on a computer transitions from black to white. In other words, they speculate about what the black interface would look like and how it would develop if it continued to exist. In their works, blackness does not operate as the background or precondition for whiteness in the way that capitalist hegemony and white supremacy presuppose and ultimately necessitate. Instead, American asks us to consider incisive, prefigurative questions around social erasure and how and for whom these seemingly obsolescent or useless objections can function.

American Artist, Mother of All Demos, 2018 (photo courtesy HOUSING, Brooklyn, NY)
American Artist, No State, 2018 (photo courtesy HOUSING, Brooklyn, NY)
American Artist, Untitled (Too Thick), 2018, (photo courtesy HOUSING, Brooklyn, NY)

References:

Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong. On Software, or the Persistence of Visual Knowledge https://doi.org/10.1162/1526381043320741

Galloway, Alexander.. Language Wants To Be Overlooked: On Software and Ideology