digital rhetoric

the rhetoric of software studies

I've started reading Lev Manovich's in-progress book Software Takes Command (PDF available from this site). The book begins with the articulation of an emerging field Manovich terms "software studies." This term emerges in The Language of New Media where Manovich writes

To understand the logic of new media we need to turn to computer science. It is there that we may expect to find the new terms, categories and operations that characterize media that became programmable. From media studies, we move to something which can be called software studies; from media theory — to software theory. The principle of transcoding is one way to start thinking about software theory. (48)

Transcoding was one of the five main principles of new media discussed in that book and was Manovich's approach to mapping the intersection between new media technologies and culture. Interestingly, it also proves to be the concept that moves Manovich beyond "new media studies" into "software studies," which he seems to see as a broader project that looks into the processes by which new media is produced. As he notes in his new book:

At the moment of this writing (Spring 2008), software studies is a new paradigm for intellectual inquiry that is now just beginning to emerge. The MIT Press is publishing the very first book that has this term in its title later this year (Software Studies: A Lexicon, edited by Matthew Fuller.) At the same time, a number of already published works by the leading media theorists of our times – Katherine Hayles, Friedrich A. Kittler, Lawrence Lessig, Manual Castells, Alex Galloway, and others – can be retroactively identified as belonging to "software studies." Therefore, I strongly believe that this paradigm has already existed for a number of years but it has not been explicitly named so far. (In other words, the state of "software studies" is similar to where "new media" was in the early 1990s.) 

Manovich recruits a wide range of traditional disciplines into the work of software studies, including the humanities. Who knows if the term will catch on, but it is certainly clear that the explosion of participatory media and mobile networks has dramatically redefined what new media might mean in comparison to what we were discussing at the beginning of the decade. This is clearly a challenge for any discipline, as technological change outpaces the disciplinary-institutional apparatus.

As with any interdisciplinary project, we each have to bring the strengths of our perspectives and methods to bear on the subject. In the case of rhetoric, we continue to struggle with the inclusion of "multimodal" composition, drawing on language from Gunther Kress that hails from the first new media ago. In the trenches of first-year composition classroom, faculty offices, and hallways, we can certainly still hear the debate of whether such instruction is necessary or appropriate; the point is probably moot in that most instructors nationally don't have the technical skills to teach such material, and even if they did they may not have access to the technology to make such things possible. Still we continue to engage in these conversations about students building web pages or making videos.

And certainly the rhetorical skills and knowledge behind multimodal composition remain germane, just as the long history of print rhetoric remains germane. At the same time though, in some ways we are fighting the last war. We are now in the midst of a very different new media environment from the one that spurred the conversations we largely continue to have. This is Manovich's argument, or at least part of it. Manovich takes up the concept of remix as the familar, integral component of software studies, and looks to deepen that idea (more on that later as I get further into the book).

To offer just one final snippet along these lines, Manovich notes

In the new communication model that has been emerging after 2000, information is becoming more atomized. You can access individual atoms of information without having to read/view the larger packages in which it is enclosed (a TV program, a music CD, a book, a web site, etc.) Additionally, information is gradually becoming presentation and device independent – it can be received using a variety of software and hardware technologies and stripped from its original format. Thus, while web sites continue to flourish, it is no longer necessary to visit each site individually to access their content. (205-206)

What does this remix culture mean for the way we think about composition? What does it mean for how we understand invention and the use of existing information in compositional processes? What implications exist for design or organization when we realize that our audience might encounter our work in an atomized way, through any number of devices? Software studies suggests the examination of such concersn.