Notes for Matthew Fuller Behind the Blip: Essays on the Culture of Software

Key concepts: tactical software.

Related theorists: .



(11) First, what kinds of critical and inventive thinking is required to take the various movements in software forward into those areas which are necessary if software oligopolies are to be undermined?
(11) Second, what currents are emerging which demand and incorporate new ways of thinking about software?

(12) The way the computer makes available such use, and the assumptions made about what possible interactions might develop, are both fundamentally cultural.

Criticism of systems perspective very clear in examples by designers (Norman) and user-centered thinkers (Johnson and Barker).

(13) IT seems clear that the vast majority of research and production in this area remains concerned with imposing functionalist models on all those systems that cohere as the user. . . . This is the fatal endpoint of the standard mode of HCI. It empowers users by modeling them, and in doing so effects their disappearance, their incorporation into its models.
(14) What would it mean to incorporate an explicitly wider notion of such processes into software – to reinfuse the social, the dynamic, the networks, the political, communality (perhaps even instead of, or as well as, privacy) – into the contained model of the individualized user that HCI has us marked down for?


Identifies accounts by programmers for insights into understanding software as culture, collected by Lammers and others.

(15) Another pre-existing area that offers insights for an understanding of software as culture is the tradition of accounts of their work by programmers.
(15) These accounts of programming are somewhat at odds with the idealist tendencies in computing. . . . But more crucially, they are a direct route to the cultural backbone of classical idealism. . . . Access to and understanding of this beauty is allowed only to those souls that are themselves beautiful.

(16) In general, critiques of technologies, particularly media, are made on the basis of a category or class of objects, rather than specific instances of that class. Perhaps the timescale of literary production precludes anything else, but it is also a question of pretensions to timelessness.

Interesting suggestion of alternate timescales of alien phenomenologies.

(17) That timescales need also not be determined by corporate release schedules in producing an analysis of software is suggested by Donald Knuth when he proposes a deceptively simple task for computer scientists: Analyze every process that your computer executes in one second. . . . Why not contaminate this simple telling of the story of what goes on inside a computer with its all-too-cultural equivalent? The transcript of the contents of a mind over one day.
(18) Such a focus on the unfolding of the particular . . . buts the locks on the tastefully-interiorized prison of stratified interdisciplinarity . . . to step outside of its over-eager subordination to one end of the schematic of information theory: reception.


Deleuze and Guattari connection for software as form of subjectivity, aversion to the electronic.

(19) The conceptual personae that Deleuze and Guattari so suggestively propose in What Is Philosophy? can be read as a proposal for an understanding of software as a form of digital subjectivity – that software constructs sensoriums, that each piece of software constructs ways of seeing, knowing, and doing in the world that at once contain a model of that part of the world it ostensibly pertains to and that also shape it every time it is used.

Computers as assemblages; reject notion that a particular level is definitive, and accept combination with other systems as aspect of variable ontology.

(21) Computers must be understood already as assemblages. . . . What is contended here is that any one of these levels provides an opportunity for critique, but more importantly forms of theorization and practice that break free of any preformatted uniformity. Since it is what they are further assembled with that determines their metamorphosis, it is the task of such practical and theoretical work to open these layers up to the opportunity of further assemblage.

Delueze and Guattari thought synthesizer.

(21-22) That is the 'thought synthesizer' that they suggest? By assembling modules, source elements, and elements for treating concepts (oscillators, generators, and transformers), by arranging microintervals, the synthesizer makes conceptualisable the philosophical process, the production of that process itself, and puts us in contact with other elements of matter. In this machine composed by its materiality and force, thought travels, becomes mobile, synthesizes.


Instead of looking for software criticism in traditional areas, look to software production itself that is out of whack.

(22) Instead of criticism, then—software criticism per se—what I want to suggest is that we pay attention to some practices within software production that emerge and through thought out of whack with its simple reproduction.


Similar to critical software, critical programming illuminates default forms of human computer symbiosis by complementing passive, consumer technology use in the service of philosophical thought with active production of code.

Critical software designed to foreground normalized understandings of software; how can its partner critical programming stake a claim for attention by digital humanities?

(22) One of the ways in which the currents described here first became manifest is in the creation of pieces of software designed explicitly to pull the rug from underneath normalized understandings of software.

Gives examples of A Song for Occupations mapping Microsoft Word and Richard Wright Hello World CDROM.

(23) First, by using the evidence presented by normalized software to construct an arrangement of the objects, protocols, statements, dynamics, and sequences of interaction that allow its conditions of truth to become manifest. This is the mode of operation in the installation “A Song for Occupations,” which simply maps out the entire interface of Microsoft Word to reveal the blue-grey labyrinth in which writing is so happily lost. Richard Wright's CD-ROM Hello World takes a similar tack in making a comparative analysis of the interfaces and data structures—and consequent ways of knowing, seeing, and doing—of various video-editing and -effects packages such as Quantel, After Effects, and Flame.

Would be interesting to examine early hacks of simple software such as Apple 2 games, and software that reveals datastream for secret life of devices: note the guy who redesigned the Doom or Quake game engine to make it a learning platform as an example of somewhat reflexive critical programming.

(23) The second way in which Critical Software may be said to exist is in the various instances of software that runs just like a normal application, but has been fundamentally twisted to reveal the underlying construction of the user, the way the program treats data, and the transduction and coding processes of the interface. Much of this work has been achieved in terms of games. Jodi's work on Wolfenstein and Quake is paradigmatic here. . . . What this work does is make apparent the processes of normalization operating at many scales within software—the ways in which, for instance, millions of separate writing acts are dedifferentiated by the various layers of a word processing program.


Social software defined: for those outside narrowly engineered subjectivity of mainstream software, developed through user interaction, especially in Free Software (think Feenberg deep democratization).

(24) Primarily it is software built by and for those of us locked out of the narrowly engineered subjectivity of mainstream software.
(24) It is software that is directly born, changed, and developed as the result of an ongoing sociability between users and programmers in which demands are made on the practices of coding that exceed their easy fit into standardized social relations.
(24) I would like to suggest that Free Software can be usefully understood to work in these terms.

Important point about internalist tendency of free software to keep in mind for my own work.

(25) But this has also formed a blockage to wider uptake of such systems. Free software is too internalist. The relation between its users and its developers is so isomorphic that there is extreme difficulty in breaking out of that productive but constricted circle.
(25) Free software taps into the dynamics of mutual aid, of shared resources, code conservation, and plagiarism, to get itself made. Now it needs to begin to set technico-aesthetic agendas which open and set flying the ways of sensing, knowing, and doing built into proprietary software.
(26) The challenge to free software is that although it has massified user base to some extent it faces the danger, not yet the actuality, of becoming conceptually stalled.
(27) There is a far more important need to recognize and find ways of coming into alliance with forms of intelligence that are excluded from the depleted culture of experts.

Poetics of connection.

(27) One of these, I would like to argue, is a poetics of connection.
(27-28) All of these subsist and thrive on their powers of connection, of existing in a dimension of relationality rather than of territoriality. It is in their capacity to generate a poetics of this connection that they have reinvented this technology.
(28) Such a dynamic has also formed the basis for the development of a piece of software, Mongrel's Linker. . . . Here, the poetics of connection forms a techno-aesthetic and existential
a priori to the construction of a piece of software.
(28) Such an activity should not be understood as safely giving vent to an essential human need. It is pathological as much as anything else. But it is in paying attention to the way these dynamics work in particular instances, in acknowledging the intelligence built into them, that the potential for another form of software comes into view.

(29) The best fiction is always also attempting to deal with the crisis of written language, in the way that it asks itself about the legacy built into text as the result of its birth in the keeping of records, in the establishment of laws, in assembling and managing tables of debt and credit. It does this perpetually, at the same time as reinventing and expanding upon the capacity of language to create new things. Speculative software fulfills something of a similar function for digital cultures.

Be sure to investigate Ullman Close to the Machine on the lived experience of programming.

(29-30) Ullman's book [Close to the Machine] is the best account of the lived experience of programming that I've read, but I'm not quite sure who this “we” is. . . . The “we” is an attempt to universalize rather than identify more precisely definable, albeit massively distributed and hierarchised, sets of conflictual, imaginal, and collaborative relations.

The Big Other replies in software as science fiction mutant epistemology; compare to my philosophical investigations threaded into programming sessions as enacted speculative software.

(30) Elsewhere, speculative software has been suggested as being software that explores the potentiality of all possible programming. . . . Software as science fiction, as mutant epistemology.

Opening a space for reinvention of software by its own means in its own places.

(30) Speculative software can be understood as opening up a space for the reinvention of software by its own means. That is to say that when, as Ullman suggests, the computer has “its own place where the system and the logic take over,” this is a place that can be explored, mapped, and messed with by a skewed application of those very same means.

Compare blips as events in software to the units Knuth implies, as well as Bogost unit operations.

(30-31) These blips, these events in software, these processes and regimes that data is subject to and manufactured by, provide flashpoints at which these interrelations, collaborations, and conflicts can be picked out and analyzed for their valences of power, for their manifold capacities of control and production, disturbance and invention. It is the assertion of speculative software that the enormous spread of economies, systems of representation, of distribution, hiding, showing, and influence as they mesh with other systems of circulation, of life, ecology, resources – themselves always both escaping and compelling electronic and digital manifestation – can be intercepted, mapped, and reconfigured precisely by means of these blips.
(31) What are these blips? . . . They are not merely signifiers of an event, but integral parts of it. . . . They have an implicit politics.
(31) There are certain ways in which one is supposed to experience these blips.
(31) The capacity of computers to perform these operations is what provides the fuel for speculative software – that is, software which refuses to believe the simple, innocent stories that accompany the appearance of these blips.

Mention should be made of the implicit requirement to teach prospective philosophers of computing who utilize speculative software enough about the constituent technologies in order to engage in the first two stages.

(32) What characterizes speculative work in software is, first, the ability to operate reflexively upon itself and the condition of being software – to go where it is not supposed to go, to look behind the blip; to make visible the dynamics, structures, regimes, and drives of each of the little events which it connects to. Second, it is to the subject these blips and what shapes and produces them to unnatural forms of connection between themselves. To make the ready ordering of data, categories, and subjects spasm out of control. Third, it is to subject the consequences of these first two stages to the havoc of invention.


(39) Whereas computer build up from the scale of electrons rather than that of giant lumps of stone, and the tasks they complete are abstract and changeable rather than specific and singular, both computers and architecture remain physical instantiations of abstract logic into which energy is fed in order to produce results to one or more of a range of potential calculations embodied in their structure.
(41) Some of Matta-Clarks word could only have been produced by someone deeply familiar with the strange reality of reality.

Could find evidence of time by examining revision control systems and social history concretized in other tools of large, organized software projects; dry-cleaned, atemporal impression most fitting for error-free, compiling versions.

(43) Software lacks the easy evidence of time, of human habitation, of the connotations of familial, industrial, or office life embedded in the structure of a building. As a geometry realized in synthetic space, it is an any-space-whatever, but dry-cleaned and prized out of time.
(44) To provide the skewed access to the machines that such an investigation requires we can siphon some fuel from the goings-on of Gordon Matta-Clark; use faults; disturb conventions; exploit idiosyncrasies.
(45-46) Cracking open technical situations with the wider social conditions within which they occur is an increasingly necessary task. Doing so in a manner that creates a transversal relationship between different, perhaps walled-off, components, and that intimately works the technical with other kinds of material or symbolic devices is something that remains to be developed. Tracking the faults, the severed surfaces, of technology is one way in which this can begin to be done.
(46) Interface design is a discipline that aspires to saying nothing. Instead of trying to crack this invisibility, one technique for investigation is to tease it into overproduction.
(46-47) In any other social context, what appear as protocols because of the arbitrary nature of the machine would be revealed as mannerisms. (Take a fast taxi through the ruined neighborhoods of cyberspace by traveling through emulators of old computers: Punch a hole in the surface of your shiny new machine by loading up the black hole of a 1K ZX81.) . . . Software as an aggregate of very small sensory experiences and devices becomes an engine, not just of connotation, but of transformation.
(47) Some of those transformations in occurrence can be sensed in the sheer idiosyncrasy of much software.
(47-48) Idiosyncrasies can also develop when a software system is applied to a situation in toto—perhaps most obviously, databases. . . . It is in the application and development of those schemes with all their inevitable biases and quirks that the aesthetics of classification lies.
(48) At these shifting, transitory points, where sensoriums intermesh, repel, clash, and resynthesize, are the possibilities for a ludic transdimensionality. Knock through a wall, and beyond the clouds of brick dust clogging up and exciting your eyes, tongue, palate, and throat, there's another universe: an empty, unclassifiable complex seething with life.


(51) The nature of the proprietary-software economy meant that for any side, winning the Browser Wars would be a chance to construct the ways in which the most popular section of the internet—the world wide web—would be used, and to reap the rewards.
(52) The internet has been called a rhizome, but if it is one, it is one that is also wracked by organs: by backbones, by hosts, by shells, by thin filaments of cable under the waves; by its mirroring into recording devices that go under such names as Echelon.
(53) What determines the development of this software? Demand? There is no means for it to be mobilized. Rather more likely, an arms race between on the one hand the software companies and on the other the development of passivity, gullibility, and curiosity as a culture of use of software.
(54) However, one effect of net-commerce is indisputable: Despite the role of web, designers in translating the imperative to buy into a post-rave cultural experience, transactions demand contracts, and contracts demand fixed, determinable relationships.

Subjectivity as raw material of web design studied by the Web Stalker.

(54) Web design, considered in its wide definition—by hobbyists, artists, general-purpose temps, and specialists, and also in terms of the creation of web sites using software such as PageMill or Dreamweaver—is precisely a social and communicative practice “whose 'raw material' is subjectivity.”
(55) A key device in the production of web sites is the page metaphor. . . . Use of metaphor within computer-interface design is intended to enable easy operation of a new system by overlaying it or even confining it within the characteristics of a homely-futuristic device found outside of the computer.
(55) Whilst things have gone beyond maintaining and re-articulating the mode of address of arcane journals on particle physics, the techniques of page layout were ported over directly from graphic design for paper. This meant that HTML had to be contained as a conduit for channeling direct physical representation—integrity to fonts, spacing, inflections, and so on.
(56) Another metaphor is that of geographical references.
(56) It is the technical opportunity of finding other ways of developing and using this stream of data that provides a starting point for I/O/D 4: The Web Stalker.
(56) Once you become unfaithful to page-description, HTML is taken as a semantic markup rather than physical markup language.
(57) This data stream becomes a phase space, a realm of possibility outside the browser. . . . Programming is a question of teasing out the permutations within the dimensions of specific languages or their combinations. That it is never only this opens up programming to its true power—that of synthesis.

Functions are Crawler, Map, Dismantle, Stash, HTML Stream, Extract.

(58) A brief description of the functions of the Web Stalker is necessary as a form of punctuation in this context, but it can of course only be fully sensed by actual use. . . . For each function put into play, one or more boxes are created and specialized.
(59) The Web Stalker performs an inextricably technical, aesthetic, and ethical operation on the HTML stream that at once refines it, produces new methods of use, ignores much of the data linked to or embedded within it, and provides a mechanism through which the deeper structure of the web can be explored and used.
(60-61) The majority of web-based art, if it deals with its media context at all, can be understood by four brief typologies: incoherence, archeology, retro-tooling, deconstruction.
(61) The Web Stalker is art. Another possibility, therefore, emerges. Alongside the categories art, anti-art, and non-art, something else spills over: not-just-art.

Tactical software related to critical software, but has basic function of developing street-knowledge of the nets.

(63) In a sense, then, the Web Stalker works as a kind of “tactical software,” but it is also deeply implicated with another kind of tacticity—the developing street-knowledge of the nets. This is a sense of the flows, consistencies, and dynamics of the nets that is most closely associated with hackers, but that is perhaps immanent in different ways in every user.
(63) Synthesis is explicitly not constitutive of a universe of synchronization and equivalence where everything connects to everything.
(63) Synthesis incorporates representation as a modality.
(65) This is a poetics of potential that is stringent—not just providing another vector for perpetually reactive opportunism—yet revelling in the possibility always also operating within the most intensified sounds: a hardcore methodology.


To Ulmer the net is a pre-broken system with no centralized backup.

(69) As what Gregory Ulmer has usefully called “a pre-broken system,” the net has no centralized backup.


Definition of interface by Brenda Laurel.

(99) What are the terms of this interrelation, and what do software interfaces have in common with other forms of interface? A working definition is provided by Brenda Laurel. “An interface is a contact surface. It reflects the physical properties of the interactors, the functions to be performed, and the balance of power and control.”



Microsoft Office preempts McLuhan society defined by amalgamations by providing tools and paths between them.

(138) If contra McLuhan, “a society is defined by its amalgamations, not by its tools,” then Office is an attempt to pre-empt this amalgamation by not only providing what rationalist programmers are content to describe merely as tools but also the paths between them, how they intermix, and the boundaries and correlations between their different functions, the objects they work on, and the users that they amalgamate with.

Fuller, Matthew. Behind the Blip: Essays on the Culture of Software. Brooklyn, NY, USA: Autonomedia, 2003. Print.