Software is a layer of control and communication that permeates contemporary culture: the engine that drives cyberculture, new media, games, and digital art, as well as the work of businesses and militaries, typesetters and DJs. Platforms are the layers of hardware and software relationships that enable and constrain software expressions. Software studies and platform studies are related interdisciplinary fields of research that approach these topics both as technical artifacts and from the perspectives of the social sciences, humanities, and arts. What are the histories, cultures, and aesthetics of software and platforms? More specifically, for the papers collected here, to investigate the logics of visualization, simulation, and representation in contemporary digital arts and culture is to engage in software and platform studies.
Critical engagements with software and platforms are always interrelated, although the emphasis can change significantly. Platform studies sometimes situates itself within a "levels" model of new media, in which the lowest level, platform, underpins code, form/function, interface, and reception/operation. The platform exerts creative constraint on the levels it supports through design specification. Consequently, platform studies investigates the relationships between the hardware and software design of computing systems and the creative works produced on those systems. These investigations can be bottom up or top down, running from the history of a specification to the consequences for enabled productions, or from a particular digital work back down to the platform that provides context and constraint for its unique implementation.
Software studies investigates the interrelated questions of how software is implicated in culture at the macro-level and how software signifies at the micro-level. Different investigations have emphasized the data, execution, or source code aspects of software. The Cultural Analytics research agenda asks how software society (big data, network culture, etc.) functions as a whole, and seeks answers to large-scale cultural questions through the application of data-driven methodologies such as exploration, mining, and visualization. Expressive Processing investigates what specific software processes express, both in the concepts embodied in their designs and in the intellectual histories of their algorithms. Critical Code Studies emphasizes how those articulations are made and circulate in their pre-compiled state: the aesthetics of the programmer and the significance of the keyword or the comment.
Current approaches to software studies and platform studies are richly varied in their different initial emphases, but all tend to lead in to a shared interdisciplinary emphasis on holistic study that brings cultural / historical vantage points to hardware and software, data and execution, production and reception.
Jeremy Douglass, PhD. Researcher in Software Studies at UCSD.
Noah Wardrip-Fruin, Assistant Professor, Computer Science Department, University of California, Santa Cruz.