Software and Computer Code

Since I’ve decided to publish my researches on my personal blog, here’s just another research about why it is important to study software and computer code in the digital age. This research answers the questions: what is the digital age / information society? what is software / code? Finally, I used Google as a case study.

 Your feedback is highly appreciated🙂

Submitted to MSDM01 Module at Swansea University.

matrix

‘Studying software and computer code is important in the digital age’

Whilst we are dead to the world at night, networks of machines silently and repetitively exchange data. They monitor, control and assess the world using electronic sensors, updating lists and databases, calculating and recalculating their models to produce reports, predictions and warnings… To do this requires millions, if not, billions of lines of computer code, many thousands of man-hours of work, and constant maintenance and technical support to keep it all running. (Berry 2011:1)

The world has become a huge electronic machine that is connected by a network of software and controlled by its creators and owners. The Matrix (1999) is a science fiction film but in some ways it showed prescience of where the world is heading. In the film, machines control the bodies of humans, making them live in a simulated reality while producing energy to keep the machines going. The creators and owners of code and software are, like the machines, controlling the lives of humans by creating a virtual world (internet, applications, computer games etc.) where people spend most of their time nowadays. Instead of producing energy, people are in fact the living heart of the digital world. As Chun (2011: 13) describes it, ‘you are the engine behind new technologies’. The data collected by technical devices is uncountable in terms of ‘formal technical data such as IP addresses’ and ‘qualitative feelings and experiences’ like when Facebook asks ‘what’s on your mind?’ (Berry 2011: 6). In other words, the collection of data results in the ability to track people and monitoring their behaviour. I believe that we are living in what Deleuze (1992) called ‘societies of control’.

Holding this thought of being monitored and watched by the devices around us, in this paper I intend to discuss the importance of studying software and computer code in the digital age. ‘In order to understand the contemporary world… we need a corresponding focus on the computer code that is entangled with all aspects of our lives’ (Berry 2011: 6). To be aware of what is going on behind the scenes, we should pay more attention to the ways ‘code is deployed and used in society’ (Berry 2011: 9). First, I will explain what the digital age is by going back in history to its origin to understand how we got here in the first place and how we can differentiate it from its precedents. Then, I will explain what computer code and software is and discuss theorists’ arguments. I will also look at how companies like Google use software to impose control on the lives of their users by integrating into the society itself.

Why is the era we are living in called the ‘digital age’? To begin with, the root of the word digital is ‘digit’ which means ‘any of the numerals from 0 to 9’. Digit also means ‘a finger or toe’ since its origin comes from Latin (digitus) in the late 15th century and ‘arose from the practice of counting on fingers’ (McKean 2008). In contrast to ‘analogue’, that is ‘using information represented in physical quantity’, digital refers to ‘the information represented by discrete values (digits) of a physical quantity’ (McKean 2008).  In technical terms then, ‘analogue’ refers to the process in which a set of physical properties are stored in another analogous form which is subjected to technological coding while ‘digital’ refers to the process where all input data are converted into numbers and stored on online sources or digital forms to be decoded for the output (Lister et al. 2008: 16-17). The digital age is where the previously existed media in discrete analogue forms (e.g. newspapers, films etc.) has been converted to digital data which is now called new media (also referred to as digital media) that can be read by computers in a binary system using 0s and 1s (Lister et al. 2008: 422). The process of digitalisation or to digitise then is ‘the simplification and standardisation of the external world so that it can be stored and manipulated within code’ (Berry 2011: 54). It emerged as a ‘preservation method’ in the 1990s in order to save intellectual content that was threatened to be lost on decaying material (e.g. books) and to reproduce it using code (Chun 2011: 137).

After this brief definition of the digital age, I want to highlight some of its features and the changes that occurred in this period. I should note here that information has become central in all aspects of life therefore the digital age is also called the information age or more specifically the information society. Webster (2003) recognizes five definitions of the information society in which he discusses views of theorists and gives a measurement tool to identify this period. These definitions are ‘technological, economic, occupational, spatial, and cultural’ (Webster 2003: 1338). I will give a brief summary of each because they represent the features of the era and distinguish it from its predecessors.

The first and most common definition is technological: The application of information technologies in society through processing, storage and transmission of data. Its most obvious measurement is that computers and digital technologies in general have seen major reductions in costs (Webster 2003: 1338) making them widespread throughout the world. Moreover, this age has witnessed what Webster calls ‘computerization of telecommunications’ where computers are linked to each other making a huge global network (Webster 2003: 1338). Think, for example, how we use the internet to connect with people living hundreds of miles away.

The second definition is economic where the economy has evolved from the ‘economy of goods [to]… a knowledge economy’ (Drucker quoted in Webster 2003: 1341). This knowledge economy is based on ‘creativity’ which is the key function of the new era because governments and capital focused on it (Berry 2008: 42). ‘Creativity’ is also linked to the ‘concept of immaterial production or mental labour’. Of course, humans created computers and therefore ‘computers rely on the work of human minds in order to produce, code, control and communicate using technology’ (Berry 2008: 43).

The occupational definition may be the most obvious evolution to information society. When jobs become more dependent on knowledge than on physical strength (e.g. teachers vs. miners) then it becomes clear that we have entered a new stage in life (Webster 2003: 1343). Theorists have argued that there are two sectors of jobs in this new economy which are the ‘information sector’ and the ‘production sector’ (those who create physical goods) (Jonscher in Webster 2003: 1344). I believe it is impossible for a society to automatically shift into an information society because some of the old professions are still needed to build an economy (e.g. builders).

The information society’s spatial conception focuses on space and location. Computers and communication technologies are needed to distribute information on the global level. This facilitates the coordination among organizations because the modern world demands planning and marketing across continents (Webster 2003: 1345). I think that the world has become more connected and the boundaries of geographical locations are gradually diminishing.

The final definition of the information society is cultural which we feel and see in our daily lives. Information is increasingly spreading and circulating in the world through the internet and other forms of technology such as televisions, radios, cinemas etc. (Webster 2003: 1347). We notice that even small children today have Facebook accounts with friends from around the globe. This helps transfer information in a fast and easy way. Webster (2003) describes this culture by saying that ‘we exist in a media-saturated environment, which means that life is quintessential about symbolization, about exchanging and receiving messages about ourselves and others.’ (Webster 2003: 1348).

However, the increase of information does not indicate the transformation to a new age. Simply, information exists. As Roszak (1986: 13) says ‘information has come to denote whatever can be coded for transmission through a channel that connects a source with a receiver, regardless of semantic content.’ A unique definition of information society was given in the information theory:

Information is a quantity that is measured in “bits” and defined in terms of the probabilities of occurrence of symbols. It is a definition derived from and useful to the communications engineer whose interest is with the storage and transmission of symbols, the minimum index of which is on/off (yes/no or 0/1) (Shannon and Weaver quoted in Webster 2003: 1351-2).

Computers and digital technology are the devices that provide us with a ‘social milieu’ (Berry 2011: 3). As discussed above, society is more dependent on information and knowledge which increased the need of a medium to transfer information. By looking more deeply into computer code and software, I want to discuss why it is crucial to understand what is hidden inside the ‘black box’[1].  In the following section, I will look at definitions and functions of code and software and their effects on the society.

Software, commonly referred to as code (Kitchin and Dodge 2005), forms the architecture of digital technologies. To begin with, source code (also referred to as delegated code see Berry 2011: 52) is the set of ‘human readable computer commands written in higher level programming languages’ (Krysa and Sedek 2008: 237). It can also be understood as the mechanism which functions on symbolic data and can transfer the data from one storage location to another (Berry 2011: 52). Furthermore, prescriptive code (or software) is the final commercial product, such as Photoshop and Microsoft Word, which is sold without the essential source-code (Berry 2011: 53). Software is ‘not only “code” but a symbolic form of writing involving cultural practices of its employment and appropriation’ (Fuller quoted in Berry 2011: 32).

There are two difficulties to understanding code, explains Berry (2011). The first lies in interpreting code as a ‘textual artefact’ which is the functions written on computers in order to apply them in achieving computation goals and then produce ‘executable code’ which the computer can understand (Berry 2011: 29). This executable code is ‘a simple processor commands that operate on bits and bytes’ (Krysa and Sedek 2008: 237). The second is to study something that is running on a computer (Berry 2011: 29).  It would be awkward for us to watch our computer screens if the speed on which the computer runs slows down. If a programmer controls code and makes it go step-by-step to ensure it functions as desired, then he would be able to watch it tick. Consequently, the ‘quantitative speed’ of computers raises their ‘qualitative experience’ (Berry 2011: 38).

Moreover, software is a set of codes that control devices in our daily lives like traffic lights, as a simple example. Computer scientist Manfred Broy described software as ‘almost intangible, generally invisible, complex, vast and difficult to comprehend’ (Broy in Chun 2011: 3). Software is a process that ‘does not arise from nowhere; code emerges as the product of many minds working within diverse contexts’ argue Kitchin and Dodge (2011: 23). The nature of software is highly complex and software itself is difficult to write because any error in the letters and punctuation of code could cause a program to crash.

As a second step, I will give a brief historic overview of code/software and how it was developed. Long before the invention of computers, software existed theoretically when mathematician Charles Babbage (1791-1871) invented the Analytical Engine which was the first programmable machine. Augusta Ada Byron (also known as Ada Lovelace) (1815-1852), who wrote a description of how Babbage’s machine can calculate Bernoulli numbers[2] in 1843, is considered the first programmer (Philipson 2005: 3).  In 1936, another mathematician Alan Turing (1912-1954) wrote a paper describing a machine, which was later called the Turing machine, which influenced the early thinking of the nature of computation (Philipson 2005: 4). The first electronic computer ENIAC[3] was built in the early 1940s and ran its first program in 1945 (Philipson 2005: 5). Software as a term was first used in 1958 as there was little understanding and differentiation of hardware and software (Philipson 2005: 6).

The software industry is divided into three phases between 1950 and 1990. The first phase, ‘software contracting’, was when software used to be written by in-house programmers. When the software was contracted out to programming services companies, they became ‘corporate software products’ such as banking and accounting systems. Then, ‘mass market software products’ like Microsoft office were developed and were followed by personal computer operating systems (Campbell-Kelly in Mackenzie 2006: 67).

Today, software is found in everyday objects. These objects (e.g. children’s toys, medical devices, sports equipment, etc.) have the capacities that allow them to do additional functions as they are ‘becoming addressable, aware and active’ (Kitchin and Dodge 2011: 47). It also functions within ‘diversely produced social, cultural, economic, and political contexts’ (Kitchin and Dodge 2011: 23). The material forms of some of these objects embed code which changes their ongoing relations with the world. Software then improves their functional capacity to enable them to ‘sense’ the environment around them and therefore carry out different tasks (Kitchin and Dodge 2011: 54). For example, digital cameras, when set to automatic, have the ability to capture good quality images by setting the right ISO and shutter speed according to their surroundings. It is as if these objects have been given their own identities, reminiscent of The Matrix (1999). Code is also used to support the design and operation of new objects such as mobile devices (MP3 and GPS) and to replace their analogue forms for instance books (Kitchin and Dodge 2011: 54). Everyday life has changed because software possesses and increases the object’s ‘technicity’[4] (Kitchin and Dodge 2011: 47). It should be noted that code is a medium which ‘radically reshapes and transforms’ other mediums into a ‘new unitary form’ (Berry 2011: 10).

In the near future, digital technologies will extend to be involved in literally everything. Kitchin and Dodge (2011: 216) call this notion ‘everyware’ and explain that computational power will be available ‘at any point on the planet… with multiple computers operating for every person’. Imagine what society will be like as these objects will be connected via discreet networks and ‘chatting to each other’ about all matters (Kitchin and Dodge 2011: 216). Data about each person will be stored somewhere and could be retrieved for particular reasons. This returns to the idea of ‘societies of control’ where control will be more powerful. Moreover, software will integrate into the society to reach a point where it will be forgotten as it will perform tasks automatically without people realizing that software is active (Kitchin and Dodge 2011: 217). I will come back to the idea of forgotten software after discussing further the changes software makes to society.

It is essential to attach agency to software, explains Mackenzie (2006), who explores ‘software as a social object’. We are now used to living rapidly and it may be hard for us to go back to conventional ways where we have to stop using digital technologies such as microwaves, washing machines or even smartphones. Computational devices perform complex mental processes because of software which ‘instils a greater degree of agency into the technical devices’ (Berry 2011: 2). Agency is distributed between humans and nonhumans as technical objects have become considered as ‘mediations, hybrids, or even quasi subjects’ (Latour quoted in Meckenzie 2006: 9) which leads to ‘rapid growth in the amount of quantification that is taking place in society’ (Berry 2011: 2). Software measures our everyday lives through devices like websites, CCTV cameras, etc. which are able to count and save everything we do turning our lives into ‘quantifiable metrics’ that can be amended for processing (Berry 2011: 2).

In addition, social software receives a lot of interest from companies because of its commercial use (Haefliger et al. 2011). Companies like Facebook and Twitter use advertisements to generate their income based on how many clicks an ad receives. Users of these social networks help in the growth of companies and attract investors to the market. Also, both ‘cultures of software’ and ‘cultures of consumption’ should be understood beside the technical dimension (Berry 2011: 17). How people act and react towards a newly invented technical device is part of its consumption. Millions, if not billions, of devices have been sold in the past decade especially tablets (e.g. Amazon’s Kindle Fire, Apple’s iPad, or Google’s Nixus 7, etc.)  smartphones (e.g. Apple’s iPhone 5, Samsung’s Galaxy S3, HTC One X, etc.) and so forth. In order to understand the contemporary ‘cultural production’ (i.e. literature, art, etc.), we should understand code (Berry 2011: 18). The new technologies have transformed the cultural production to digital forms like ebooks. Think of how we use the technical devices to read newspapers online instead of buying hard copies.

Unfortunately, software is in a way forgotten, in the technical sense as well as in real life. On the one hand, software is only saved in the memory of theoretical books. Even today, software is written using the help of other software or supporting programs. It is worth noting that code is a ‘collective achievement’ where even programmers do not start from the scratch (Berry 2011: 40). Logically, every discipline and every new experiment is based on what has been discovered earlier. When scientists make new discoveries, they do not go back to discovering gravity for example because they already know it is there. In the same sense, software is already there and does not need to be rediscovered. However, it needs more focus in order to understand its implications and uses.

On the other hand, we use software daily without realizing or thinking about which objects include which software. It is usually hidden under ‘a façade of flashing lights, deceptively simple graphic user interfaces (GUIs) and sleekly designed electronic gadgets’ (Berry 2011: 4). It is therefore important to at least observe and be critical in our use of digital objects to understand our virtual situation. Moreover, we need to think of software as the ‘unfinished project’ as it always needs updating and editing (Berry 2011: 39).  As everything else, software is also subjected to failure through ‘internal contradictions’ or ‘external disruptions’ (Berry 2011: 42). Most importantly, we should hold in mind that software is subjected to misunderstanding commands because of bugs or errors or even disruptions caused by hackers.  Another aspect that is usually forgotten about software is that it ‘follows a cycle of life’. We must understand that even if we like what the device does, its software should always be updated because ‘software ages’ (Berry 2011: 42).

Having tackled both the digital age and code/software, I will now discuss Google and its software as an example. Questions may be buried in our unconscious minds about how such a website gives us everything we are looking for or how it knows exactly what information we need. What follows is a small case study which includes a summary of the company, the software it uses, and how it imposes control on our lives.

Founded in 1998 by Larry Page and Sergery Brin, Google Inc. had become in 2000 the largest search engine in the world. The growing market of the internet and the World Wide Web at that time demanded a way to create an index and a database of filenames which is basically the concept of the early search engines (Marketline 2012: 2). Google’s search engine has beaten all its precedents and competitors (e.g. Yahoo!) because of the software or the process it has used. Google’s ability to give highly accurate results from its early stages led to its quick popularity (Marketline 2012: 7).

Google uses an algorithm called PageRank. Created by Page and Brin, the PageRank algorithm keeps track of the relevancy of a page through calculating the links embedded within a page’s HTML[5] (Mareketline 2012: 7). ‘The core of the PageRank algorithm exploits an iterative weight assignment of ranks to the Web pages, until a fixed point is reached’ (Wu and Wei 2010: 11:2). The Web pages are analysed by software called ‘spider’ which searches for data and creates lists of links that are directed to a page. Then, numerical values are given to the page according to the times this particular page is linked to and the number of links it has (Marketline 2012: 7). ‘[I]n the process of ranking results, search engines effectively create winners and losers on the web as a whole’ (Halavais quoted in Berry 2011: 7).

After collecting all the data needed, Google gives it back by pre-populating the search box in which it can control the directions of people’s searches (Berry 2011: 7). Searching on Google gives us results in seconds but it is limited by giving each person personalised search results which I believe may affect its accuracy. Google has developed its software to track the behaviour of users, even monitoring how they ‘move their mouse cursor on the screen’ (Berry 2011: 7) and giving them results according to their preferences. The concern here turns to privacy issues especially as so many users are unaware of the statistics collected about them by every click or move across the website. Google has also developed cookies (e.g. Google Analytics) to track people’s reactions to other websites which gives it more information about the traffic on each website.

Google has grown to the extent that it has a different domain for each country with different search results. I think Google assumes what the population of each country would be interested in and it gives priority to websites and domains of that country. For example, if I go to google.ps today and search for a word, the results I get are different from those on google.co.uk. Meanwhile, some results are the same but with different rankings as Google decides which website comes first or second and so forth. This could be a great achievement or a controversial issue as it raises questions about inequality around the world.

The growth of Google and its popularity among users has attracted advertisers. Of course, the company needs to make money in order to maintain its sustainability and to stay as the leading search engine. In 2011, 96% of Google’s revenues came from advertising alone (Marketline 2012: 10). Companies pay Google large amounts of money in order to have their websites on top of the search lists. It is logical, therefore, to see how this affects the objectivity of Google’s results. Amazingly, Google’s response to the argument of search neutrality is summarized by saying that users can choose which engine they want to use but they prefer that which gives them ‘their personal notion of what is best for the task at hand’ (Mayer quoted in Berry 2011). The advertising market which Google creates demands computer power in order to know who is searching and what advertisements should be given. This strategy of collecting data and analysis on each user makes Google’s service valuable to advertisers (Berry 2011: 8).

Google realises how reliant users are on its search results, giving it the ability to impose more control on their lives. Former CEO of Google[6], Eric Schmidt, has said that because of the data collected by Google ‘we know roughly who you are, roughly what you care about, roughly who your friends are… to within a foot, where you are’ (Jenkins quoted in Berry 2011). This is a serious claim where privacy is no longer available with this kind of software. I am sure Google users do care about their privacy but some have no clue of what is going on behind the scenes and see Google’s search as their primary source to get information.

Despite its secrecy, Google has recently started giving its users some of the information it collects about them. The function ‘Google Query Suggestions’ in the search box gives users what they previously searched for and the most popular searches typed by other users (Berry 2011: 6). For instance, if you search for a particular thing on Google today, there is a drop down list that pops up while you are typing and gives you the option to remove what you previously searched for. Another feature that Google has started recently is that it gives you the number of visits and the date of websites you already viewed through its search engine. This helps users in organising more their search results through keeping them aware of what they already saw.

Google nowadays is trying to get more involved within the society by offering different services and devices. Although the company’s services are numerous, I will mention only a few examples the company is working on and is expected to release soon. It has purchased Motorola Mobility for billions of dollars in order to start making mobile phones using its software. It is also working to reach the market through its latest service that is Google Wallet which transforms smartphones into digital wallets (Lessin 2012). The future with Google is heading towards collecting more data and statistics in order to try to improve its performance and impress us more.

To conclude, I have discussed why studying code and software is important in understanding the world today. Software is the hidden layer in almost all objects around us. I believe that it is essential to at least be aware of how software works and what it is capable of. I do not suggest that we should become experts in writing code and creating new software in order to understand the world but each and every one of us should have basic knowledge to survive the digital age. Moreover, what I suggest is that we should think of objects according to their software to fully grasp how they function and what they can do for us.

While researching, I have come across the following quote by Scott Rasenberg which I believe concludes my argument on the importance of studying software. ‘The art of creating software continues to be a dark mystery, even to the experts. Never in history have we depended so completely on a product that so few know how to make well’ (Rasenberg quoted in Kitchin and Dodge 2011: 23). Indeed, depending so much on software is the basic and main reason to study software. As discussed in the paper, even some ‘experts’ rely on software to create new software making it harder and harder as we move forward without looking back at the origin of the idea of software and how it was created in the first place.

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[1] The black box: an opaque technological device for which only the inputs and outputs are known. (Galloway 2011: 239).

[2] A sequence of rational numbers in mathematics

[3] Electronic Numerator, Integrator, Analyzer and Computer

[4] Technicity: ‘refers to the extent to which technologies mediate, supplement, and augment collective life; the extent to which technologies are fundamental to the constitution and grounding of human endeavor; and the unfolding or evolutive power of technologies to make things happen in conjunction with people’ (Mackenzie 2002).

[5] HyperText Markup Language

[6] Current CEO is Google’s co-founder Larry Page.

Comments
One Response to “Software and Computer Code”
  1. Robert B says:

    Orlikowski’s application of Socio-materiality to Google’s search algorithms is interesting. I see you’ve referred to Latour and by implication Actor-Network theory… just wondered if you had come across Wanda Orlikowski’s work? It stems from some ideas by Karen Barad (agential realism) and seems to be growing as a way of understanding the interaction or entanglement between technology and people. Your work is excellent by the way….I should have said that at the start🙂 Robert

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