Wednesday, February 11, 2009

King for a Day

In his talk "Society as Software," John L. King dissected a number of glossy new media titles, such as Lawrence Lessig's Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace and Gert Hofstede and Gert Jan Hofstede's Cultures and Organizations: The Software of the Mind, that depend on the analogy between human procedures for cultural organization and lines of machine-readable code despite the absence of the term "software" in their indexes. He also expressed his disappointment in the Cartesian critique of Richard Rorty's "The Brain as Hardware, Culture as Software" despite his respect for the recently deceased philosopher. Although he didn't meantion Cultural Software by J.M. Balkin among what he calls his "list of frauds," he argued that the analogical concept has "traction" but little substantive analysis about how the comparison actually works.

Chiefly he argued that the claims of these humanists and social scientists have far too little to do with the discipline of computer science with which he has associated himself and reflect a vernacular sense of the "loose notion of society" that has little to do with machinery. As he put it, understanding software can be challenging but understanding society is even more difficult. In contrast, King asserts that there is a lot to be learned from mothballed works in information science on the topic, such as the 1975 book Computing an Introduction to Procedure and Procedure Followers or the 1987 article by Leon Osterweil "Software Processes are Software Too." King pointed out that Osterweil even compared the law to software years before Lessig made this same rhetorical move.

Although he illustrated his talk with everything from film stills from Rocky IV (to illustrate Cold War ideas about man and machine) or historical photographs of steam engines, King's main example had to do with the computerization of air travel procedures that is still dictated by the three aging IBM databases designed to calculate the number of meals needed in-flight. In taking the audience through his own experiences booking a flight on Northwest to his speaking engagement, he explained how -- just as computer scientists grapple with attempting to remake the Internet in initiatives like GENI and avoid the pitfuls of the "bricolage" that we currently have, which is characterized by unanticipated uses and purposes -- integrated systems for air travel show the impossibilities for testing the system as the events of September 11th did. King also offered a hopeful message about how even during "runtime" the passengers on United Flight 93 were also able to exploit affordances and attack the attackers during their unanticipated combat mission.

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