Lev Manovich_New Text Presentation

Summary of Software Takes Command 

And this, my dears, is our text. Image hosted on the blog Software Studies Initiative.

And this is our leading man. Image hosted on Manovich's website.

And this is our leading man. Image hosted on Manovich’s website.


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.

By guiding us through broad strokes of software’s history, Manovich hopes to show us how developments in software (and hardware) are behind everything new media can do: “None of the new media authoring and editing techniques we associate with computers are simply a result of media ‘being digital.’ The new ways of media access, distribution, analysis, generation, and manipulation all come from software. Which also means that they are the result of the particular choices made by individuals, companies , and consortiums who develop software— media authoring and editing applications, compression codecs, file formats, programming and scripting languages used to create interactive and dynamic media such as PHP and JavaScript” (Kindle Locations 2652-2657). What is available to us is just as important as recognizing that some software and hardware has been excluded.

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.

Software extending its influence into the physical space.

Software extending its influence into the physical space.



Manovich, Lev. Software Takes Command. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013. Kindle Edition.

Just wait for the software to take command


3 Responses to Lev Manovich_New Text Presentation

  1. Ramona Myers says:

    I obviously have no concept regarding the creation of software, so Manovich’s book is at the same time an “eye-opener” and a “conundrum” for me. On the one hand, his discussion is causing me to ask questions and to look at the underlying software that I use every day, but on the other hand, I am so focused on getting the software to do what I need it to do that I don’t really care about the “how” so long as the end product of “what” is produced. I do consider software when I have an idea about how I want something produced but the software prohibits me from delivering the product that is in my head. I experienced this specific issue when creating my own presentation for the new work, yet I didn’t stop to ponder it long because I was thinking of ways to work around the software limitations. I’m still trying to wrap my head around Manovich’s distinction between multimedia and media hybridity; I think I need a concrete analogy (something besides his weak sexual reproduction analogy) in order to grasp the differences between these two. The difference between a blog page and Google Earth does help begin to bridge the gap in my (non-)understanding, but I need more evidence myself. Since I grew up when computers where just becoming available to individuals, I expect that I would have more interest or understanding of Manovich’s concepts as compared to the teenagers of today who have never known a life without technology, and yet I still find myself floundering. Oh well. I’ll enjoy my baby steps.

  2. Dan Cox says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with Manovich’s assertion that we live in a “world of permanent change” and that “software . . . is always in flux.” As someone who has had to develop and maintain code, the often moving target nature of some software libraries — and operating systems — means constantly updating code or risking it no longer being able to run. And with every tweak, update, and patch, the original software mutates and is no longer as it once was when the user started with it.

    Of course, no more is this true than in the video game industry with its often forgetfulness of its own past. For example, it is no longer possible to experience the “early days” of many MMOs like World of Warcraft that have seen around a decade of expansions and frequent updates. The game is no longer the same as the people in 2004 were originally playing.

    This also feeds into my completely agreement with your point on us only noticing the interface (software) when it fails. That we undergo all these updates and patches has become so commonplace, as you note, that it is only when some “breaks” that we pay attention at all to the tools right in front of us. We’ve become blind to the deeper layers of interface and forgotten the hundreds if not thousands of people who have invested time in writing things like hardware drivers and small patches for different software libraries to communicate with each other.

  3. I did not have a computer in my home until I got married and gained a computer as part of combining belongings with John. It was the end of 1996 and Netscape was a big deal. I used AltaVista and Webcrawler. Programming languages used to develop software looked alien to me and I did little beyond word processing and email. Because software developers have had years to grow up immersed within digital culture, they have taken the time to develop more sophisticated and intuitive programs that even novices can use, and these programs (one would hope) get better over time with revision and replacement. From an end user’s perspective, I am happy with the choices that developers have made because I can do what I need to and want to do (for the most part) with the software available: “The new ways of media access, distribution, analysis, generation, and manipulation all come from software. Which also means that they are the result of the particular choices made by individuals, companies , and consortiums who develop software.” I am typically suspicious of exclusions, but I am not in a position to change what has been excluded: I could try to code in an older language, but it may not be compatible with what I am trying to do. I could try to override a trait within my WordPress template, but I would have an easier time and greater likelihood for success if I simply used a different template. I am not the one in control of the software; therefore, I can edit minimally.

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