Programmed Visions Software and Memory Wendy Hui Kyong Chun (MIT Press, Usa, April 2011)

New media thrives on cycles of obsolescence and renewal: from celebrations of cyber-everything to Y2K, from the dot-com bust to the next big things--mobile mobs, Web 3.0, cloud computing. In Programmed Visions, Wendy Hui Kyong Chun argues that these cycles result in part from the ways in which new media encapsulates a logic of programmability. New media proliferates "programmed visions," which seek to shape and predict--even embody--a future based on past data. These programmed visions have also made computers, based on metaphor, metaphors for metaphor itself, for a general logic of substitutability. Chun approaches the concept of programmability through the surprising materialization of software as a "thing" in its own right, tracing the hardening of programming into software and of memory into storage. She argues that the clarity offered by software as metaphor should make us pause, because software also engenders a profound sense of ignorance: who knows what lurks behind our smiling interfaces, behind the objects we click and manipulate? The less we know, the more we are shown. This paradox, Chun argues, does not diminish new media’s power, but rather grounds computing’s appeal. Its combination of what can be seen and not seen, known (knowable) and not known--its separation of interface from algorithm and software from hardware--makes it a powerful metaphor for everything we believe is invisible yet generates visible, logical effects, from genetics to the invisible hand of the market, from ideology to culture. 

Invisibly Visible, Visibly Invisible 
1 On Sourcery and Source Codes Computers that Roar 
2 Daemonic Interfaces, Empowering Obfuscations II Regenerating Archives 
3 Order from Order, or Life According to Software The Undead of Information 
4 Always Already There, or Software as Memory 
Conclusion: In Medias Res
Epilogue: In Medias Race
You, Again

About the Author: Wendy Hui Kyong Chun is Professor of Modern Culture and Media at Brown University. She has studied both Systems Design Engineering and English Literature. 

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Extracts fron the introduction: Software, a Supersensible Sensible Thing
Debates over new media resonate with the parable of the six blind men and the ele- phant. Each man seizes a portion of the animal and offers a different analogy: the elephant is like a wall, a spear, a snake, a tree, a palm, a rope. Refusing to back down from their positions since they are based on personal experience, the wise men engage in an unending dispute with each “in his own opinion / Exceeding stiff and strong / Though each was partly in the right, / And all were in the wrong!” The moral, accord- ing to John Godfrey Saxe’s version of this tale, is: “So oft in theologic wars, / The disputants, I ween, / Rail on in utter ignorance / Of what each other mean, / And prate about an Elephant / Not one of them has seen!”1 It is perhaps irreverent to compare a poem on the incomprehensibility of the divine to arguments over new media, but the invisibility, ubiquity, and alleged power of new media (and technology more generally) lend themselves to this analogy. It seems impossible to know the extent, content, and effects of new media. Who can touch the entire contents of the World Wide Web or know the real size of the Internet or of mobile networks? Who can read and examine all time-based online interactions? Who can expertly move from analyzing social networking sites to Japanese cell phone novels to hardware algorithms to databases? Is a global picture of new media possible? In response to these difficulties, many within the field of new media studies have moved away from specific content and technologies toward what seems to be common to all new media objects and moments: software. All new media objects allegedly rely on—or, most strongly, can be reduced to—software, a visibly invisible or invisibly visible essence. Software seems to allow one to grasp the entire elephant because it is the invisible whole that generates the sensuous parts. Based on and yet exceeding our sense of touch—based on our ability to manipulate virtual objects we cannot entirely see—it is a magical source that promises to bring together the fractured field of new media studies and to encapsulate the difference this field makes. To know software has become a form of enlightenment—a Kantian release from self-incurred tutelage. (...)
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