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The Philosophy of Software

The Philosophy of Software: Code and Mediation in the Digital Age

by David M. Berry
Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, UK, 2011
200 pp., illus. 28 b/w. Trade $80.00
ISBN: 978-0-230-24418-4.

Reviewed by Jussi Parikka
Winchester School of Art
University of Southampton

Probably no one who reads Leonardo publications needs to be convinced of the centrality of software for modern art, culture, or academia. Yet, outside these circles, I think there is demand for such books as David Berry’s The Philosophy of Software: Code and Mediation in the Digital Age. At times, software studies still gets some of the crowd squirming in their seats in academic conferences, and either slightly worried or bemused reactions from representatives of more established academic disciplines. Surely code cannot be read and written like Shakespeare, appreciated the way you do Milton or object of such cult as Austen – or the cinephilic attachment in film studies to certain genres and films? However, despite being a newcomer, software studies may not turn into another media studies, which continuously is ridiculed in the UK by the media (the irony) and politicians as a lesser discipline; software (studies) still has that aura of being closer to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects so adored by current policy makers. Yet, as Berry shows, software studies is a good way of smuggling in (my words, not Berry’s) the good ol’ humanities’ way of critically and inventively investigating philosophical and social contexts in which code is executed and executes the world. This is not to implicitly say that STEM is uninventive, and that arts and humanities are the only experimental disciplines – but it is true that we need a stronger articulation of how we can sustain some of the better heritages of arts and humanities topics.

Berry’s book is less one specific philosophical argument of what software is and what code does, but consists of chapters that illuminate different ways one can approach software and software culture philosophically. It gives a broad way of looking at the way in which code mediates and media is nowadays coded. As such, it indeed is good in tapping into various fields of philosophy: ontology (what is code as mode of abstraction from voltage differences to assembly languages), aesthetics and phenomenology (algorithmic art and how do we experience code), epistemology (how do we understand, make sense of code and how does code alter ways of knowing) and politics (e-politics). In politics, Berry asks a Latour-influenced question of how running politics works now through running code with an important insight into their entanglement: “I think of the technical-political as a subset of political rights that can be coded and materialised into specific technical functions” (107). Indeed, the social is not always hardwired, but at least soft-wired, and politics works also through technical, non-human assemblages.

What Berry does well is introducing and mobilizing effective examples. He has great insights into software culture that range from the Obfuscated C Code contest to reading voting software, from Masahiro Miwa’s performance-compositions, to high frequency trading enabled by software. For a short book there is a lot in it. In terms of theoretical references, it is slightly disorienting at times when Berry moves swiftly between various philosophical traditions a bit too smoothly: in a matter of pages we encounter ideas from earlier Heidegger and later Heidegger, Lyotard, Guattari, Foucault, Kittler, Harman, and others. This is why I think The Philosophy of Software is more suggesting various possibilities and ideas of how to approach code, than just executing one sustained book length idea.

I like the general aim of the book, which proves its usefulness, indeed. In the midst of the enthusiasm for the epistemologies offered by science or, for instance, the digital humanities --which too is still to me looking for its singular potential-- such books that establish continuums between traditions of philosophy and traditions of writing/reading software are exciting. Berry actually offers digital humanities as one context for this mode of theoretisation. Berry gives a quick intro to some of the background assumptions of digital humanities and visions of it as part of the future post-disciplinary universities where access to knowledge is enabled so that it is “disregarding and bypassing traditional gatekeepers of knowledge in the state, the universities and the market” (20)/ Yet, quite many would be quick to point out that in the midst of P2P enthusiasms, etc., quite a lot of reverse is happening, too, and in the midst of the public funding crisis universities are actually even more now clutching to the IP they own and use as productive force (knowledge, teaching, research). This political economic side to universities in the digital age is not so much addressed by Berry, who, however, is not unfamiliar to political economy of code (as his previous book, Copy Rip Burn, demonstrated).

What Berry wants to propose in the midst of the subchapter on digital humanities is to use Heidegger to think about the current university environment and relations between computation and philosophy. To quote Berry: “I want to argue that there remains a location for the possibility of philosophy to explicitly question the ontological understanding of what the computational is in regard to the positive sciences. Computationality might then be understood as ontotheology, creating new ontological ‘epoch’ as a new historical constellation of intelligibility” (27). This task of assembling philosophy and computation in common key is worthwhile elaborating, indeed, even if it does not extend its critique at some of the digital humanities itself becoming a positive science, and if the place of philosophy itself is being marginalized in current university environment (not only in the UK). A positive evaluation would say that this is the task and possibility of philosophy becoming embedded in Computer Science –  but institutionally, we know that it does not work that easily and, instead, university managers looking at profitability are hardly enthusiastic about adding a bit of time consuming Sein und Zeit and Was heißt Denken? to their intro to computing classes.

But this is just to elaborate and think about the academic environment in which Berry  (and us all) writes. The book is warmly recommended: His understanding of software is fantastic. It reaches out to so many discussions and has so many implications that it is an engine in itself: it produces ideas.

Last Updated 1 September 2011

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