August 22, 2013


Software Takes Command. By Lev Manovich. Bloomsbury. $29.95.

     Not for the faint of heart and decidedly not for the faint of mind, Lev Manovich’s Software Takes Command is a complex, highly theoretical analysis of what happens when media-specific tools such as photo editors are simulated and transformed into software that is independent of the medium for which the tools were designed. Indeed, what is a “medium” in the decidedly post-McLuhan age of Photoshop, Final Cut and Google Earth? It is no longer the medium of photography, of editing, of geographical mapmaking. Yet the new software subsumes as well as contains the media from which the software emerged, and it is the ways in which media revenants – almost, in a sense, ghosts from the machine – continue to permeate modern digital programs that particularly interests Manovich.

     Or, more accurately, this is one thing that particularly interests him, since Manovich – professor of computer science at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York – has a very wide range of interests indeed. They all center, though, on creating a kind of unified field theory of technology, figuring out where the programs that so many people use today (without necessarily knowing or caring about their history) have their roots in the past; whether those roots matter and – if so – how they matter; and what the current state of technology tells us, or implies for us, about the future.

     Software Takes Command is the fifth book in a very ambitious series called International Texts in Critical Media Aesthetics, and it is not easy reading. Some of what Manovich says is straightforward enough to be revelatory: “Although the ability to search through a page-long text document does not sound like a very radical innovation, as the document gets longer this ability becomes more and more important. It becomes absolutely crucial if we have a very large collection of documents – such as all the web pages on the Web.” Most of the time, though, Manovich’s writing is more philosophical in tone, more complex, and can be convoluted enough to be difficult to follow unless you proceed very slowly indeed: “The sequence of examples also strategically juxtaposes media simulations with other kinds of simulations in order to emphasize that simulation of media is only a particular case of the computer’s general ability to simulate all kinds of processes and systems.” And Manovich is sometimes given to a fineness of argument that approaches that of distinction without difference, as when he observes that "computerization of media does not collapse the difference between mediums – but it does bring them closer together in various ways.”

     Amid the abstruse, Manovich’s occasional brightly shining comments emerge with unusual clarity: “[I]t is important to remember that without software, contemporary networks would not exist. Logically and practically, software lies underneath everything that comes later.” But while this is clear, the directions in which Manovich takes an argument of this sort are extremely complex and not really intended for the lay reading (or computer-using) public. “[B]oth theoretically and also experientially – at least for the users who have more than casual experiences with media applications – ‘media’ translates into two parts which work together. One part is a small number of basic data structures (or ‘formats’) which are the foundation of all modern media software: bitmap image, vector image, 3D polygonal model, 3D NURBS model, ASCII text, HTML, XML, sound and video formats, KML, etc. The second part is the algorithms (we can also call them ‘operations,’ ‘tools’ or ‘commands’) that operate on these formats.”

     What Manovich is trying to do in Software Takes Command is to explain what makes software “the engine of contemporary societies” and what that tells us about software, about software designers, and about society itself. This is a highly ambitious goal toward which Manovich can only move through in-depth study of concepts such as “hybridity,” “deep remixability” and “compositing,” and it is perhaps inevitable that the very last portion of the book is called “software epistemology,” since epistemology in the realm of philosophy is the development and exploration of a theory of knowledge itself – and indeed a theory of philosophy. There is thus a self-referential element to epistemology, and in a similar vein there is a fair amount of navel gazing inevitably implied by the way Manovich constantly seeks the larger implications of the smallest elements of software development and design – the societal implications of decisions to handle specific media programs in a particular way rather than in another manner. Software Takes Command reads more like a book for a graduate-level course in the philosophy of silicon life (or something along those lines) than like a work for any sort of general reader. It is heady stuff, to be sure; but it is also dense, difficult and frequently very hard to wade through in search of revelation. Like many other philosophers who have thought on a grand scale, Manovich has bitten off more than he can chew in this wide-ranging exploration; but he has produced a thoughtful, complex and frequently fascinating work that one suspects he would do better to use as the basis of a course than as a book foisted upon a world that, however much it has been transformed by silicon and software, may not be quite ready yet for this level of analysis of what has happened.

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