The advent of digital media revived the interest for medium specificity as materiality of a medium in media studies, most influentially discussed until now by Marshall McLuhan. As Katherine Hayles rightfully points out, in the literary criticism environment it was the emergence of an alternative medium for supporting literary work, the electronic medium, which helped to make visible the medium specific assumptions of print and the dependence of the meaning of a literary text on the material apparatus used to produce it.
Medium-specific analysis emphasizes, following the McLuhanite tradition, the role of the nature of the medium in which a cultural form is instantiated in the interpretation of that form. For Hayles, the specificity of a medium lies in its materiality, which she reconceptualises as “the interplay between a text’s physical characteristics and its signifying strategies.” This definition repositions materiality from being a pre-given of the medium to being constantly shaped by the cultural form which it instantiates. The influence is reciprocal: not only the characteristics of the medium contribute to determining the meanings of the cultural form but the cultural form shapes the way in which the characteristics of a medium are perceived as well: “It makes materiality an emergent property, so that it cannot be specified in advance, as if it were a pregiven entity.”
The situation of Hayles’ discussion of media-specific analysis (MSA) in the field of literary studies is determinant of her method. She employs the common method of comparison to show how a literary genre, literary hypertext, is instantiated in two different media: the book and digital media. She builds both on the theory of remediation in analyzing media comparatively and exposing how they simulate each other’s characteristics, and on the theory of reverse remediation in studying how the effects of electronic hypertext can be simulated in print.
Hayles’ MSA method is very productive outside the field of literary studies as well, in inquiring more generally on what the role of code or computer software in the creation and production of texts in general is. This line of inquiry is picked up by Mathew Fuller in the essay “It Looks Like You’re Writing a Letter: Microsoft Word,” a well documented critique of the Microsoft Word application. Fuller looks at the Microsoft Word application and how it shapes the production of text and the experience of producing a text. He exposes the presumptions about the drives and norms of writing of the imagined user by analyzing the design of the application and the functions it offers. Fuller rightfully notes that Word’s configuration is still dominated by business-oriented models of work which correspond to the initial use of computers in large corporations, thus universalizing this type of use. In an ironic tone, Fuller notes that the excess of functions, serving to improve the ranking of the product rather than the productivity of its user, is established as a standard in word processing, thus undermining the autonomy of the user.
Whereas Hayles analyzes code in terms of its determination of the outputs of media (a text’s physical characteristics), Fuller further emphasizes the notion of software as determinant for medium specificity by proposing to look at the level of software from the moment of its installation, to the licensing agreement, the user interface and its functions. Whereas he acknowledges all these elements, his main focus is the user interface and the offered functions.
Not only autonomy but also creativity is inhibited by Word. Would Fuller consider Notepad, a basic text editor which comes for free with the Windows operating system, an alternative to Word for creative, multiple purpose writing, not as much constrained by standards shaped by the needs of the business world as the Word application?
By choosing to discuss the role of a Word processor in producing text, Fuller inscribes his work in the emerging field of software studies, which applies critical theory to software. Fuller mentions the role of hardware, e.g. keyboard and mouse, in his analysis only in passing. A comprehensive analysis of the politics of writing technologies would however document the role of hardware as well in shaping writing practices.
Lev Manovich takes up cultural software as the sole object of study of Software Takes command. He defines cultural software as “software programs which are used to create and access media objects and environments.” To take into account not only the text but also its material instantiation, the book is a first draft published online under a Creative Commons license. Thus the text adheres to the principles of the online media which are its object of study. As the author explains, “Like contemporary software and web services, the book can change as often as I like, with new “features” and “big fixes” added periodically.”
Throughout the book, Manovich takes an obvious technological deterministic approach to culture in claiming that the features of contemporary society that determined theorization of it as “information society” or “knowledge society,” have all been determined by software. He gives much less consideration in his book to the fact that technologies are equally causes and effects of an existing social order and that their emergence is determined by the social forces, structures of power and needs of a society.
By relying without critical interrogation on a selection of works on computer media that have been designated as pioneering in one of the first books on new media, The New Media Reader, he puts together in the first part of his book a genealogy of computer media as “metamedium” from the 1960s to the 1980s.
In spite of some limitations, Manovich’s approach is valuable to media studies in its insistence on the specificity of computer media lying in software. He argues that it is software which enabled techniques and tools specific to different physical and electronic media to “meet” in a software-based environment and be remixed. He coins the term “deep remixability” to describe this characteristic of media in a software-based environment that allows not only remix of content but also of techniques and methods. Manovich argues that cultural software, by allowing techniques, languages, interfaces and content to be appropriated and remixed, has turned media into metamedia. Whereas Fuller and Hayles argue for medium specificity, Manovich attempts to conceptualize the specificity of the computer media taken together as “metamedium”, thus shifting the theorization of medium specificity from media taken individually to “a techno-social ecology as a whole.”
In trying to make software visible and particularly looking at it as the engine of culture in the case of Manovich, all three authors make use mainly of a method originating in literary studies, namely interpretation. This might leave invisible some aspects of software. A research question which should have an importance place in the establishment of software studies should be that of method. What should be the methods for making software visible? As technology becomes more and more seamlessly integrated into everyday life, we seem to become aware of it only when it fails. Taking into account the failures of technology and particularly of software, I suggest could be one approach to the study of software.
Fuller, Matthew. “It Looks Like You’re Writing a Letter.” Behind the Blip: Essays on the Culture of Software. New York: Autonomedia, 2003. pp.137-165.
Hayles, Katherine. “Print Is Flat, Code Is Deep: The Importance of Media-Specific Analysis.” Poetics Today. 25.1 (2004): 67-90
Manovich, Lev. Software Takes Command. unpublished ms. 2008. http://www.manovich.net/.
Wardrip-Fruin, Noah and Nick Montfort (eds.). The New Media Reader. Cambridge and London: MIT Press, 2003