← The fourth wall in software
The move away from manual crafts towards on-screen counterparts has been ongoing since the first generations of software, in the late 1940s. It is a regular phenomenon in this day and age. Computer and software technologies promise —potential— for accessibility, flexibility, scale and speed of innumerable tasks. Many types of software are available for ranges of jobs, from every day actions to very complex and specific professional needs. This study first presents an understanding of what craft means today, now that different professions —say electrical circuit designers and photo editors— use very similar utilities. We look at how the practices and cultures that stem from manual crafts have been affected by their transformations to work within an operating system. It becomes clear that some labours have improved, while others have only —at best— been accelerated by the morphing. Therefor this study puts forward that a confusion between efficiency and efficacy when transforming a craft into a computer program can put severe weight on the origins and traditions of that field, and ultimately make the tool feel hermetic. This observation drives the inquiry toward the user and the (re-)learning —curve. What is the users position in the new scheme of actions that is software? Is s/he supposed to know all of the reasoning's and practices or is one to accept that this is the order of things without any context? Then, we note that the workplace has also been shifted, first out of physical tools, onto personal computers, and now again onto ‘the cloud’. What is the reasoning behind this third step? Is it necessary? Who is this helping, and what extra barriers does it place between practice and field knowledge? Finally, this study posits that a few re-considerations, of the user and the way s/he is talked to by the software —and it's makers—, could be a very simple but important change towards a broader understanding of what is happening and why, with huge benefits for all involved.
My goal with this dissertation is to lace together some thinking points that often resurface in my research. Broadly speaking, my work during my time at the Piet Zwart Institute has been about investigating the use of computers and the knowledge that is or isn't transferred. I'll skip the historical / contextual paragraph about the entry of computers into modern life by saying this; information systems, operating systems, computers, it's very very hard to go without, even to avoid them in the world today. It's near impossible to buy a phone that isn't more interested in your email address than your sim card. In some places, you can't park a car without invoking a city wide networks of computers and other parking meters that will know lots about you and your car. The ‘tech’ industry at wide is fast, plentiful and rich, offering more products, services and solutions than ever before. I'm not attempting a sociological understanding of what is going on in ‘tech’, what I mean is that in many ways, products, services, solutions, none of these are new to the world, they existed way before personal computers and networks.
What is new, is the way they are leveraged in ‘digital network’ models. Entrepreneurs, digital entrepreneurs, seem to me to be seeking the next innovation, not for the sake of genuinely making something new or better, or contributing to a field or industry, but rather to get into your phone, or into your email account. I'm painting a very fast and distopian picture of ‘today’. Of course, not all tech is out to get my ‘data’, but I'm concerned about the lambda user. The willing, enthusiastic user that doesn't question what s/he's signing up for, what s/he's installing on his/her phone. Who's given access to all media, all sms, all searches, all contacts, location and cell information to all his/her apps. But of course s/he hasn't questioned it, because all that was required was to make an account, or better still, ‘sign in with facebook and I get this awesome service for free’, and it syncs across laptops, phones, tablets and browsers, and it's always there and it always works. I'm concerned, therefor, with the premises of how all this affects the self, his & her privacy and the fact that we more often than not simply cannot find out what is being done with all this collected information. Ultimately, I'm concerned with the way these services are presented to us. I'm bothered by the lovely lifestyle that is sold in the facade, and the sneaky untold proceedings that go on in the background. I hate that these developments in tech are presented to us as solutions, so that we don't need to worry, care or learn any of the proceedings —or technology, or culture, or knowledge— that the service will take care of for us. I hate that creating distance in understanding is a repeated way that giants make money nowadays. This is nothing like pre-network services or products.
Now, I'm not anti-technology. I'm also not saying that everybody needs to learn programming languages and use the shell. I'm hoping to be able to point at something in the middle. And it will stay within existing schemes, just adjusting some parameters. The ones that existed before tech. I don't think the wheel needs to be reinvented or that something needs to be blown up, I just think it's time for our (common) cultures to incorporate more understandings of how computers work, what they can enable, and the practices that they require. Of course, this is happening, despite me. I'm just going to argue that all of the people involved in (commercial or not) digital making, should make more efforts towards accessibility, making sure they can be read, in all planar dimensions, being generous with information and the proceedings. I'm going to argue that there is nothing to be lost by a more open approach, but before I can get to that, I will need to make a case to highlight the spoken language that is used by the systems, solutions and products. I think it's in the legible language that is used to speak to us in the software that we need to go back to.
I am working this dissertation with one central research question: Why must static visual production software technologies transfer the knowledge and skills of the craft they virtualise? This question is made to challenge my opinions, and ensure a logical progression through the themes that are needed to answer it, but I'm choosing not to refer to it often in the actual text —introduction excepted— as I fear that writing only to answer a question —that I'm asking myself— could contradict my end goals. I hope that by choosing a tone that is closer to speech (as opposed to academic writing) and by building up notions piece by piece I manage to keep the themes cross-referenceable, and relatable to your areas of interest and expertise. I hope that with this tone, I speak in a similar manor that I would if we were sitting together talking out loud, and I keep my opinions clear and engaging.
For all this I can only speak from my perspective, from my experiences, and from research. My position is better detailed in this text: ‘Position statement’. I will speak about what technologies can do and has done for craft, and work my way towards the people the technologies were designed for, and the space between how they were expected to use, and what they had to learn. Then we will get back to the language that is left in the two faced machines that are software program interfaces, and how I think they can be made better, in very simple ways.
This text aims to inform and answer a research question about software, culture, and their current relation; Why must static visual production software technologies transfer the knowledge and skills of the craft they virtualise?
Some terms need specifications from this question, and this is where we will start:
- visual production software: tools that are enabled by PCs to create and produce static visuals. This subset includes both vector graphics creation and bitmap image production, covering the tools that a visual designer could use, big or small, on a computer.
- static: isolated here to not include animation or moving image intended visual tools
- technologies: best understood as detailed by Morozov:
Technology is typically seen as a problem-solver, and well-designed technology is supposed to follow an according aesthetic of efficiency, ease and—ultimately—automation.
To Save Everything, Click Here — Evgeny Morozov, ch 9
- craft they virtualise: the digital version that results from transforming a a manual craft into a software one
What is a digital craft? When is on computer practice a craft? Is all production work on screen therefore the work of a crafts-person? Where do the actions come from? What or who determines the order of the proceedings? What are the models?
To attempt to understand some of the notions of software technologies for craft, beyond the early socio-historical contexts that explain why software came to be at all, we will look at the notion of efficiency and efficacy (Chapter 2). What influences have they had on our understanding of software practices as crafts.
Later, the place of the user will be in question. Who is s/he, a user, a person, a worker, a link in a chain, an artist? How can s/he learn this environment? What is needed by a newcomer to understand the practice that is enabled by the software?
Finally, we will try and imagine what could happen to crafts that got and are getting virtualised. The workplace for practice is currently being shifted out of physical spaces, then onto personal computers, but now onto cloud computing services, what is the reasoning behind this third step? Is it necessary? Ultimately, a suggestion will be made, one that points towards tone of speech as a medium to be able to view modern practices as a transformation and not a loss.
← The fourth wall in software
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