DERC RAW [Researchers @ Work]“Software Studies: A Conversation

Please join us for our regular series of DERC RAW, a series of informal research workshops presented by RMIT’s Digital Ethnography Research Centre.  Dr Pradip Sarkar, Dr Yaron Meron and Ben Morgan from the School of Media and Communications will lead our next series on software studies.

What is “Software Studies”?

According to Lev Manovich (2013), “Software Studies” aims to “investigate both the role of software in forming contemporary culture, and cultural, social, and economic forces which are shaping development of software itself.”

Essentially, Software Studies is the scholarly examination of software (includes all digital artefacts), drawing concepts and epistemologies from the disciplines of media and cultural studies, digital humanities, social sciences, as well as computer science. In this regard it bears strong relations to Internet Studies, Platform Studies, and Digital Cultures.

As part of this RAW session, there will be brief presentations by three HDR researchers from the School of Media and Communications – Yaron Meron, who has just completed his PhD; Pradip Sarkar, currently undertaking his PhD; and Ben Morgan who’s approaching the finishing line. Following their presentations, there will be an informal discussion, to explore and examine ideas around research into digital tools, platforms, algorithms, and digital cultures.

Ref: Manovich, L. (2013). Software takes command (Vol. 5): A&C Black.

The abstracts of their presentations:

Yaron Meron Graphic design in its current professional form emerged during the 1980s, alongside and as a result of the electronic publishing revolution, of which Apple, Adobe and other software companies were key players. Acting as a disruptive technology, these software tools enabled graphic designers to almost entirely control the creation of their designs, taking over some of the roles that were previously occupied by commercial printers, typesetters and others. Later on, with the advent of the web, developers began to produce software tools that allowed graphic designers to also enter the interactive design medium. In the 21st century, with the gradual ‘democratisation’ of the design process, graphic designers’ own hegemony over the visual creative process is being increasingly challenged. The huge drop in cost for design software such as the Adobe CS toolset, the increase in prevalence and effectiveness of online design tools, as well as the universal hegemony of the PDF format, have allowed many organisations to bring everyday communication design production in-house. This ironic decline in technological hegemony for professional graphic designers, has led to a cultural crisis for them and their relationships with stakeholders. But it also presents opportunities for graphic designers, as in-house design teams come up against the everyday challenges of managing the communication, procedural, creative and stakeholder aspects of the design process. With the potential challenges and opportunities of artificial intelligence, this discourse will only become more complex.

Ben Morgan Music streaming services such as Spotify feature multiple socio-technical tools of recommendation which suggest songs to users, and this talk will summarise some key ideas I am using in my qualitative research of how producers of popular music in Australia are reacting to what Robert Prey calls the “datafication of listening” (2016). These ecosystems create and use metric representations of both audiences and song catalogues in order to “monitor, mine and mediate the use of digital cultural products” in a process Jeremy Morris refers to as “infomediation” (2015). Certain elements of how these socio-technical intermediaries operate are known, while much is opaque. A brief overview will be given of what is and isn’t known about how the algorithmic recommendation system within Spotify operates. While datafication and infomediation are automated procedures, we will also discuss how conceptualising these ‘algorithms’ as purely non-human actants or external authorities might be an incomplete narrative.

Pradip Sarkar FL Studio (formerly known as “Fruity Loops”) is considered as one of the most popular digital music production (Digital Audio Workstation – DAW) tools in the world. Initially designed as an adult video game by Belgian software company, Image Line, the software tool began to gain prominence within various DIY music scenes in the early 2000s and came to be associated with the early hit songs of celebrity performers, such as Kanye West and Drake. Furthermore, it is claimed to have been instrumental in spawning certain genres of contemporary urban music, such as Grime and Dubstep in the UK, Trap in the US, and Batida in the African enclaves of Lisbon. The DAW’s appeal, especially amongst young amateur musicians, has been largely attributed to its affordances, manifesting through its enticing user-interfaces and bundling of plug-ins (“all in the box”), and the pirate economies through which it has been accessed. Moreover, the informality of the digital distribution channels through which FL Studio has travelled, coupled with its compatibility with relatively inexpensive PC devices, has proliferated its use within the vast markets of the Global South, where its “democratising” effects have influenced and recreated new practices and cultural meanings amongst both proletariat folk and young cosmopolitan musicians. Thus, FL Studio is the de-facto digital tool, or DAW, for large sections of the music industry that lies under the radar of the corporate entertainment infrastructure. Drawing from my own research from the DIY music cultures of one of the most populous and ethno-linguistically diverse nations of the Global South, namely India, I will explore the ecology of the software tool, the business model of its designer, Image Line, and how it has stimulated new cultural practices, meanings, and imaginings surrounding youth culture in the 21st century.

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