Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
Type a letter on a keyboard and the letter appears on the screen, double-click on a program’s icon and it opens, use the mouse in an art program to draw a line and it appears. Yet knowing how to make a program work is not the same as knowing how or why it works. Even a level of skill approaching mastery of a complicated program does not necessarily mean that the user understands how the software works at a programmatic level. This is captured in the canonical distinctions between users and “power users,” on the one hand, and between users and programmers on the other. Whether being a power user or being a programmer gives one meaningful power over machines themselves should be a more open question than injunctions like Douglas Rushkoff’s “program or be programmed” or the general opinion that every child must learn to code appear to allow.
Sophisticated computer programs give users a fantastical set of abilities and possibilities. But to what extent does this sense of empowerment depend on faith in the unseen and even unknown codes at work in a given program? We press a key on a keyboard and a letter appears on the screen—but do we really know why? These are some of the questions that Wendy Hui Kyong Chun poses in Programmed Visions: Software and Memory, which provides a useful history of early computing alongside a careful analysis of the ways in which computers are used—and use their users—today. Central to Chun’s analysis is her insistence “that a rigorous engagement with software makes new media studies more, rather than less, vapory” (21), and her book succeeds admirably in this regard.
The central point of Chun’s argument is that computers (and media in general) rely upon a notion of programmability that has become part of the underlying societal logic of neoliberal capitalism. In a society where computers are tied ever more closely to power, Chun argues that canny manipulation of software restores a sense of control or sovereignty to individual users, even as their very reliance upon this software constitutes a type of disempowerment. Computers are the driving force and grounding metaphor behind an ideology that seeks to determine the future—a future that “can be bought and sold” and which “depends on programmable visions that extrapolate the future—or more precisely, a future—based on the past” (9).
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