Powers of code: software cultures

This panel is located at the interface between social studies of science and technology and the emerging area of ‘software studies.’ Code, from binary machine language to its readable form, takes on numerous powers in the information society. It structures, orders, and governs relationships between humans and amongst technologies, allowing certain actions while preventing others. While information technology and software development have been the focus of intensive study in STS work over the last few decades, the area of software studies has emerged in response to a proliferation of code or software-related cultural and political processes. These include wide-ranging changes in the character of media and communications, the mobilities of code across legal, institutional, economic, national and infrastructural boundaries, the proliferation of discourses of code in many different domains, and the way in which code has become the tool of a comprehensively transnational knowledge class identified in part by the relationship to code in everyday life.

The panel will coalesce around questions concerning the modes of change associated with software, computer code in various senses, and its adjacent practices. It conceptualises code as a hybrid, mobile construction of a technical-culture industry. Code is understood as a political and empowered social construction, which is not purely focused on the enablement of a singular group or social movement, but is systematically distributed across networks spanning nationalities and cultures. The increased visibility of code as cultural-technical entity, and as an object of public attention will be one focus. In the context of massive proliferations of unwanted or ‘junk’ code (viruses, operating systems, ‘bloatware’), the legal struggles over the difference between code as speech and code as technology will be a second focus. Finally, the panel will explore questions concerning the increased visibility of software or code (understood in a range of different ways) as cultural, political, economic and technical entities. Among questions to be addressed by the panel: how have code, programming, ‘cutting code’, hacking, scripting, etc. moved from technical practices carried out in ‘centres of calculation’ to generalised, popularised and politicised techniques? Do code objects challenge existing ontologies of technology and politics? How can we understand the mobility of code and coding practices without reducing them to standard accounts of ‘information society’?