The “Softwarization” of Media



When I book a flight, do online shopping, share posts and pictures on Facebook, request an interlibrary loan, search through billions of data online, compose a blog post in WordPress like this one, I use a software.

Few years ago, when I was working at a Petroleum company we had to use a specific software to keep affiliates updated on the company’s progress. Other systems in hospital like a scanner, school data, a military base, or labs, etc., run on a software as well. Different software perform different functions in different cultural contexts.

In this sense, software has changed people’s work, communication and ultimately our perception of the world. It “has become our interface to the world, to others, to our memory and our imagination—a universal language through which the world speaks, and a universal engine on which the world runs.” (2) In other words, this “universal language” has “softwarized” people’s perception of the twenty-first century world.

So, in the age of “softwarization”, to use Lev Manovich’s word, has media taken a back seat or has it merged into a metamedium? What role do software play in media production? How the study of a software like Facebook or any other social media helps interpret the social content behind it? While it took generations to introduce brilliant techniques to refashion media and culture, one still wonders why software was invented in the first place. What was the thinking behind these inventions? Also, why would humanists care about the intellectual history of a software?

But, what is a software?

Lev Manovich defines it as a program that is “used to create and interact with media objects and environments.” (26) It re-adjusts and reshapes everything it is applied to.

Manovich examines the genealogy of a media software—from the inside, its anatomy—the actual processes that make digital media programmable, and its pragmatics—the effects on the world. He wrestles with the essence of this medium and its cultural context. This leads to the idea that just like hardware, software is not simply a “technology”, but rather a new medium through which one can think and imagine the world. Software has become the interface not only to a virtual world, but to our daily things. In other words, understanding software makes the machine culturally visible.

At the same time, none of the software apps and websites function in isolation, they are interconnected with other mediums such as web technologies, search engines, etc. Without this “ecology”, as Manovich put it, “most web services and mobile apps would not be possible.” (334) Algorithms and techniques are used to buttress these new inventions into a media format that together make up “software epistemology”—data visualization, data fusion, information retrieval, etc.    

This mashup between design, data, coding and computing puts forward a different representational model and a unique aesthetic experience in that it makes the media designer acts as “a DJ who creates by mixing what already exists” and the consumer as navigator to a world of representations à la Google Earth.  

So, aside from knowing how software systems work and how they amplify human intelligence, they are still unable to replace human judgment—ethics—or create human knowledge.     


2 thoughts on “The “Softwarization” of Media

  1. I enjoyed your post Baligh. And I think the point you make towards the end is an important one, that software is unique in its ability to make both the designer and the user of the media complicit in the “final product,” something which Manovich argues is unique in the history of media. And as you point out, this leads to the ultimate conclusion (which is one I make in my post as well) that software systems still require the human component in order to “create knowledge.” And this human component is present on both ends of the equation: in the designer/programmer who must conceptualize and build the software itself, and the user, how must decide how to use to software and what conclusion to draw from it.

  2. The concept of hardware versus software is a long and messy one. Software seems to be what everyone wants their specific computer to do for them at any given moment in time. The days of floppy disks being the only software available are gone. Just the thought of trying to decipher the software it takes to run such programs as Facebook, gives me a headache. Thank goodness there are far more computer savvy people out there than I am.

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