Software lies underneath everything that comes later

As we have learned by studying different concepts throughout this course, there is no “magic”, when it comes to the world of technology and computers.  But somehow, it is so hard for people to understand how something works and why does it work in that specific way? While there are many theories and research on fields like cognitive sciences and psychology,  that can come with different explanations to the human brain and how we perceive information, I highly believe that by living in a world where we are consumers, by living in a consumer culture, we have lost the sense of participating in the process of building things, we now can just buy what we need, and just make sure that the things we buy work, and never worry about how those things work.

Today, you hear about Iphone X and the “new amazing features” that the new phone can offer to it’s consumers, or maybe you looked at the new Apple Macbook Pro, or Microsoft’s Surface laptop with new improvements and more ways to make it interactive.  So many new things, and in order to participate in the discussions happening in social media (because who doesn’t want to share their personal opinions with the world) and let the world know how “in” they are with the new technologies, you have to buy the newest products, because everyone else seems to use them, and you don’t want to stay behind, right?

I have done that mistake too, and part of this is because you never actually see what’s happening behind the visible layer, what’s behind that blackbox. To cite Bruno Latour, blackboxing is “the way scientific and technical work is made invisible by its own success. When a machine runs efficiently, when a matter of fact is settled, one need focus only on its inputs and outputs and not on its internal complexity. Thus, paradoxically, the more science and technology succeed, the more opaque and obscure they become.

Everyone knows about the new features, but I doubt that people actually know the history of how these new features were invented? And where did they come from?

Lev Manovich, in his book “Software takes command” makes the point that industry is more supportive of the new innovative tech & applications than academia is. Modern business thrives on creating new markets, new products, and new product categories.

But to analyze his point, new discoveries almost always don’t include new content but rather new tools to create, edit, distribute and share this content. To add new properties to physical media, it requires to modify it’s physical substance. But since computational media exists as a software, we can add new properties, new plug-ins, new extensions, by combining the services and the data.

Software lies underneath everything that comes later.

So, the next time you hear about the new cool features of a new product, think of the branding and  marketing side of it.

Ted Nelson and his idea of software, as mentioned in his article Way Out of the Box

“In the old days, you could run any program on any data, and if you didn’t like the results, throw them away.  But the Macintosh ended that.  You didn’t own your data any more.  THEY owned your data.  THEY chose the options, since you couldn’t program.  And you could only do what THEY allowed you — those anointed official developers”. This is a quote by Ted Nelson, in his article Way out of the Box.

In his article, Nelson brings to our attention all the possible ways that we can do things. Just because some companies (Apple and later Microsoft) took the paper simulation approach to the behavior of the software, doesn’t mean that that is the only way to do it. They got caught up to the rectangle metaphor of a desktop, and used a closed approach. Hypertext was still long rectangular sheets called “pages” which used one-way links.

Nelson recognized computers as a networking tool.

Ted Nelson’s network links were two ways instead of one-way.  In a network with two-way links, each node knows what other nodes are linked to it. … Two-way linking would preserve context. It’s a small simple change in how online information should be stored that couldn’t have vaster implications for culture and the economy.

This is an example that demonstrates not to get caught up by the whole computer industry, as software gives plenty of possibilities to look at new ways to implement, rather than just believing and thinking that there is only one way.

Alan Key’s idea of a computer as a “metamedium”, a medium representing other media, was groundbreaking. It is the nature of computational media that is open-ended and new techniques will be invented to generate new tools and new types of media.

Vanneva Bush’s article “As we may think” in 1945, discussed the idea of the Memex, a machine that would act as the extension of the mind, by allowing its user to store, compress and add additional information. It would use methods of microfilm, photography and analog computing to keep track of the data.

You can clearly see the metamedium idea at the Memex.  The second stage in the evolution of a computer metamedium is about media hybridization, which as Manovich explains, is when different medias exchange properties, create new structures and interact on the deepest level.

It was Douglas Engelbart who recognized computers not just a tool, but a part of the way we live our life. The mother of all demos, demonstrated new technologies that have since become common to computers today.  A demo featured first computer mouse, as well as introducing interactive text, video conferencing, teleconferencing, email, hypertext, and real time editing.

Conclusion

All these examples make you think about different ways that software could behave and interact, and how these pioneers continued to push their tools to new limits to create creative outcomes, even without having access to the technology that we have today.

It really is inspiring to look at their work and understand that sometimes it is us who creates limitations to our technology, sometimes pushed by the computer industry and other factors, but it is crucial to understand that there are no limitations to the development of software and graphical interfaces in order to create new ways of human computer interaction (HCI)

Sources:

Bush, Vannevar “As We May Think,” Atlantic, July, 1945.

Engelbart, “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework.” First published, 1962. As reprinted in The New Media Reader, edited by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort, 93–108. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003.

Latour, Bruno“On Technical Mediation,” as re-edited with title, “A Collective of Humans and Nonhumans — Following Daedalus’s Labyrinth,” in Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999, pp. 174-217. (Original version: “On Technical Mediation.” Common Knowledge 3, no. 2 (1994): 29-64.

Manovich, Lev. Software Takes Command. New York: Bloomsbury, 2016. Print.

Nelson, Theodor Holm.  WAY OUT OF THE BOX. EPrints, 3 Oct. 2009. Web. <http://ted.hyperland.com/TQdox/zifty.d9-TQframer.html>.