How to . . .

buy a computer
search Google maps
take a bad photo and make it good
distribute music
disseminate a message
make a music video
create a webpage

All while being completely unaware of the software that commands it.

I was going to post a really cool photo to show how Lev Manovich is right on the money in Software Takes Command (Bloomsbury 2013) when he discusses how software does not keep track of itself–its history is gone with the update. Who would want a 2009 version of the street view of Edith Boulevard in Albuquerque in Google maps? You see, I am a Google maps junkie. I could spend hours looking at different layers of the maps in Google Earth. I wanted to share with you a picture of me canvassing for votes just before the 2008 election taken by one of Google’s cars. Instead, I will entertain you with two photos of the beautiful house in Martineztown that we used to own. One is from 2011, the other from 2007. I am sure you can tell which is which, just by forensically examining the shrubbery.

Copyright 2013 Google

Copyright 2013 Google

The problem is that Google writes its user interfaces the same way that Adobe does: it appeals to our desire to have the newest, the best, the most updated, and the old, outdated images are scrubbed. Who wants to have the oldest version of Adobe Photoshop or Premier? The old software that compiles layers of data and algorithms scrubs the history of the place clean.

Copyright 2013 Google

Copyright 2013 Google

I am replaced by the Madrid brothers who prowl our neighborhood for a hit of heroin.

Copyright 2013 Google

Copyright 2013 Google

What is lost? Well, not only an image of Google Street View that I was in, which was, I have to say, pretty cool, but also an image of a moment in time, canvassing before an election, getting to know my neighbors, and being part of a physical history of a place. The software has assumed that I need the newest information, without anticipating the other information that it has scrubbed away. Manovich laments not only the loss of historical software, but the loss of the products created by this software.

What was I hoping for, besides a droll image of me? I was actually hoping for a remediated experience: “digital computers imitate older media” (58). Remediation is “the representation of one medium in another” (59). Not only can I use a computer to recreate a real experience (a drive through Martineztown), but I can also use a computer running software to simulate a filmed or recorded experience of driving through a neighborhood. And I don’t even have to understand how the software works. I probably wouldn’t understand anyway. This is the simulation machine, but in this case, it failed me slightly.

The medium, software, is the message. We have entered a new world of seamless GUI displays, where we hardly agonize over the software running in the background. Tablet computers, Manovich reminds us, are the ultimate in seamless interface: we are seamlessly linked with our media, but also with our tablets’ purposes. The purpose is to create new opportunities not to create, we are warned, but to consume. In order to create much of anything original with a tablet computer, advanced skills are needed to jailbreak the device and then to reprogram it. The purpose of this, alas, would just be to download more apps that are not on the official stores, not to create anything or write anymore interesting programs. The medium, then of the tablet, has a message: download and consume, but do not create. And make sure to download and consume only remediations of what media already does: show movies, make a bad selfie good, read a book, edit a video.

Leave that hard stuff to someone else.

3 thoughts on “How to . . .

  1. Mmh, Courtney, this is a super interesting post to read from my perspective — and you probably know why 😉
    If I understand your point correctly, you are saying that advances in technology (specifically tablet computers) are perhaps more stifling to creativity than previous (older) versions precisely because of the “flattening of history,” or, the loss of a view of the computational and simulatory building blocks from which they originate? This is a very interesting point — and one I myself couldn’t help thinking of when reading Manovich. A few weeks back, for example, Kirschenbaum explained how the interface of “Afternoons” had been built in an environment that doesn’t exist anymore (due to the very software updates you mention), and that a recreation of the non-marked doors and links would be very hard in contemporary software. I certainly would agree with Manovich in saying that media hybridize, forming ever new technologies, but (!), not unlike you, I was also wondering if the extension of his biological metaphors would also lead us to think a bit more of media species in turn running “extinct.” Should we be said about that? Perhaps yes, perhaps no, but it certainly leads to a loss of cultural history as expressed by now-extinct (or endangered) media species. And, as your post seems to express, it also perhaps limits media creativity to a select few (who know what they’re doing).

  2. I’m kind of revulsed by the whole tablet thing myself largely because of the dynamic you assume here: there’s not really any meaningful way to program them. They are, in essence, dumbed down consumption devices. I think it may be because I grew up with computers that you could potentially program, and the modes of education that were employed to beat computers into my head involved a sort of low-level programming. Playing Candy Crush isn’t really that exciting when you could actually make something.

  3. Awesome stuff Courtney. Your tale of losing yourself (literally and figuratively) in Google Earth reminded me of a story I read a few months ago about a British MP who got into some trouble after he was captured in a Google Earth street-view image carrying official government documents into a hotel or some such place where he shouldn’t have been carrying official government documents. I’m betting in that case, he wished that Google would update and overwrite their old maps sooner…

    But you make a very good point, that we often don’t think about what is lost with each new tech release until it is (sometimes) too late to do anything about it. Luckily, in the case of your search last week for Mystery House, it wasn’t too late.

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