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Response to Fun with Software

October 15, 2010

I’ve been asked, along with Jon Dovey and Helen Kennedy (both from the Digital Cultures Research Centre), to give a response to the current installations entitled ‘Fun with Software’ at the Arnofini art centre in Bristol. There are a number of installations there spread over three floors.

My response is that the works are as much about hardware as they are about software. Indeed several of them are running minimal to non-existent software processes. Those that are running software are in the main, deliberately sparse examples of coding. However there is something really important about the reductionist and physical collection of installations – that for those who do not engage with technology at a development level, it informs them of the underlying systems that modern life is built upon. To explain: much of the development of digital technology that we see as users over the last few decades, especially over the last five years, it about making our interactions with technology as comfortable to us as possible. Technology development is delving into the functionality of our bodies to seek ways in which we can handshake with technology in a human-centric manner and be oblivious to the underlying structures that power it all. Take for example computer; home computers were originally sold as kits that hobbyists built. The user had to engage with the physical technology before they could engage with the software. Then came pre-assembled computers, but these initial systems still had operating systems that were close to the machine language they parsed on our behalf. To move a file in MS DOS required us to type in commands instructing the machine of what file to move, where it was located to where it needed to end up. Once visual overlays were developed, it became more ‘user friendly’, more human-centric. To move a file now we simply dragged and drop it, as we might move an object in the real world. Even the icon becomes a little hand while the movement is in process. Yet underneath the pretty graphics, the same machine coded functions are at play….

If we look at Loveletters_1.0 by David Link, it features a Ferranti Mark 1. This an amazing project that in running on a rebuilt a primitive computer from 1954. Here we can see its interface, a bank of switches, requires us to move the switches into set positions to create the input for each letter. Within the computers brain, there are no such things as letters – there are strings of binary switch positions. When the correct binary positions are set with an input node at the end, that instructs the computer to draw that letter to the screen. Modern day systems give us keyboards and voice activated inputs rather than banks of switches to input letters and words with a rapidity that has become ubiquitous – yet under the layers of systems that carry our orders to the computer’s brain is the same binary functional concept where the letter does not exist and only rows of binary switches – albeit virtual now rather than physical – are lined up to represent the human world in machine codes.

If you are interested in knowing more, from a Perl version of William Bake’s poetry to connectivities of flesh and machine, then join us tomorrow at 2pm for a tour of the works…

Free – All Welcome, meet in the Gallery Foyer

For more information on the exhibition:

See you there!

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