Summary of Software Takes Command
Software Takes Command is Lev Manovich’s 2010 text (though he started writing it in 2007) centered on “software studies” to explore how software has helped shape Web culture and cultural artifacts, despite these tools being largely invisible to us.The book is divided into three main sections: 1) “Inventing media software,” 2) “Hybridization and evolution,” and 3) “Software in action.”
Starting with the “secret history of software,” Manovich looks at the key founders for what we know as the computer: Alan Turing (creator of the Universal Turing Machine), Douglas Engelbart (inventor of the mouse and, along with Nelson, developer of hyperlinks), Ted Nelson (along with Engelbart, developer of hyperlinks), and, most especially, Alan Kay. Alan Kay is the central figure to Manovich’s historical account as Kay transformed the Universal Turing Machine into the universal media machine, as “Kay wanted to turn computers into a ‘personal dynamic media’ which could be used for learning, discovery, and artistic creation. His group achieved this by systematically simulating most existing media within a computer while simultaneously adding many new properties to these media” (Kindle Locations 1196-1198). That kind of device sound familiar? For the most part, it should, though not all of Kay’s desired functions.
Manovich discusses the changes that have happened to the Web as “the developments of the 1990s have been disseminated to the hundreds of millions of people who are writing blogs, uploading videos to media sharing sites, and use free media authoring and editing software tools that ten years earlier would have cost tens of thousands of dollars” (Kindle Locations 139-141). He also points out that companies like Google and Facebook are updating their codes on a regular basis (sometimes daily), from which emerges a “world of permanent change— the world that is now defined not by heavy industrial machines that change infrequently, but by software that is always in flux” (Kindle Locations 145-146). As individuals whose daily lives are being infused with the Web and digital media, “Software 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” (Kindle Locations 155-156). When we access the Web, we are not just accessing information processed, displayed, and distributed through binary code, but also other individuals who are consuming and creating content around the world. The software itself may be invisible to us in the sense that we pay it little heed so long as it functions, but it is shaping our interactions with others and information as its affordances and limitations mold the way we think about content creation, communications, data storage, play, and distribution.
Though Manovich moves on to hyrbidization and evolution, he continues to ground media hybrids within the overarching software history he set up in his introduction and first section on Inventing Media Software. Hybridization is Manovich’s next stage to Kay and Goldberg’s metamedium, but one that they only make suggestions towards: “The discussion of the computer metamedium at the end of Kay and Goldberg’s 1977 article creates the impression that it would develop via additions, as users built new types of media to suit their needs using the tools provided with the personal computer. Looking at the actual development of the computer metamedium over the following thirty years seems to confirm this conclusion” (Kindle Locations 2927-2930). Manovich makes the analogy that software enters into an ecology on the Web and begins the process of interacting and mutating with other media software, thus creating Media Hybrids like Google Earth.
In much the same way that software is invisible to us, so too is the aspect of multimedia within software: “‘Multimedia’ was an important term when interactive cultural applications, which featured a few media types, started to appear in large numbers in the early 1990s…By the end of the decade [1990s], ‘multimedia’ became the default in interactive computer applications. Multimedia CD-ROMs, multimedia websites, interactive kiosks, and multimedia communication via mobile devices became so commonplace and taken for granted that the term lost its relevance. So while today we daily encounter and use computer multimedia, we no longer wonder at the amazing ability of computers and computer-enabled consumer electronics devices to show multiple media types at once” (Kindle Locations 2993-2994 and 2999-3002). When I click onto a website where video can play and text boxes can appear and disappear with the click of a mouse or a touch of the screen, where audio can play while I read the text, and a Facebook game can be going as I chat with friends on the same browser page, I am not thinking of how wonderful the multimedia affordances of the site are. This is commonplace now, but when the multimedia aspects fail, I start to take notice and start to think about the underlying software. And yet, this software shapes so much of our Web experiences and has started to extended in the “meat space” of our lives.
Just wait for the software to take command