Software and the Digital Humanities, Paris-IEA (November 4)

Atelier organisé par Warren Sack et Nachum Dershowitz, résidents à l’IEA de Paris

What is software and how should we read and write it? In this workshop we will address these questions as they pertain to the emerging field of the digital humanities and the closely related endeavors of digital studies (Stiegler, 2014) and digital methods (Rogers, 2013).

Within the human sciences, questions about software are relatively new. For example, historians of computing have only recently begun to write about software in addition to hardware (e.g., Mahoney, 2011; Priestly, 2011). Moreover, until now, the human sciences have largely conceptualized software as tools that come from computer science prepackaged and ready to use. Do there exist humanities-based approaches to software that acknowledge that software is sometimes not a tool, but rather a condition or a problem?

Computer scientists, of course, are more practiced in their writing about software but what alternatives exist to computer science’s approach to software? There are at least two from contemporary, French, human sciences: “deconstruction” and the “sociology of translation.” In a recent book Software Theory: A Cultural and Philosophical Study (2015), Federica Frabetti draws from Bernard Stiegler’s rereading of Jacques Derrida’s writings on opacity and technology. Key to this approach is an understanding that software – and technology more general – exceeds the instrumental. When we assume that software is just an instrument or tool, we forget that software can produce unexpected results in the form of errors, “bugs,” or calculations that cannot be anticipated in any way other than through the means of step-by-step computation (e.g., we cannot anticipate the results of a simulation of global climate change). Software has unanticipated implications, unexpected consequences. Thus, for Frabetti, “…to think of technology … we must first and foremost remember that technology cannot be thought from within the conceptual framework of calculability and instrumentality.”

An approach complementary to deconstruction is one based in an analysis of translation that has been widely employed by scholars of science and technology. The approach can be indexed to the writings of historian and philosopher Michel Serres (Hermès III: La Traduction, 1974) and has been extended under the rubric of a “sociology of translation,” alternatively, and more commonly called “actor-network theory.” (cf., Akrich, Callon, Latour, Sociologie de la traduction: Textes fondateurs, 2006). One might say that a sociology of translation is appropriate to an analysis of computer science since computer scientists describe much of their work as translation.

Deconstruction and translation are two complementary approaches of the contemporary, French, human sciences that may be reasonably imagined to provide a humanities-based alternative to reading and writing software: alternatives that differ markedly from computer science approaches to software, like those developed for the analysis of algorithms, the theory of computation, or software engineering. In this workshop we will explore these – and possibly other – humanities-based approaches to software.

This is a closed workshop. If you wish to participate, please contact Warren Sack

Confirmed participants:
Nachum Dershowitz, computer science, Tel Aviv University
Warren Sack, University of California, Santa Cruz
Anne Alombert, philosophy, Paris Ouest Nanterre
Daniel Stökl Ben-Ezra, philology, EPHE
François Chateauraynaud, sociology, EHESS
Dominique Cunin, art-design, École des Arts Décoratifs de Paris
Françoise Detienne, psychology, Télécom ParisTech
Dana Diminescu, sociology, Maison des sciences de l’homme
Gilles Dowek, computer science, INRIA
Everardo Reyes Garcia, art-design, Paris 8 Saint-Denis
Juan Luis Gastaldi, philosophy, ENSBA de Lyon
Paul-Emile Geoffroy, philosophy, Centre Pompidou
Gérard Huet, computer science, INRIA
Yuk Hui, philosophy, Leuphana Universität (Germany)
David-Olivier Lartigaud, art-design, ESAD de Saint-Étienne
Jean Lassègue, philosophy, EHESS
Simon Lincelles, documentary, Centre Pompidou
Patrice Maniglier, philosophy, Paris Ouest Nanterre
Jean Ponce, computer science, ENS Ulm
Vincent Puig, philosophy, Centre Pompidou
Christian Retoré, computer science, CNRS/Université de Montpellier
Bernard Stiegler, philosophy, Centre Pompidou

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