Review of ‘code/space: software and everyday life’

This review was published in Environment and Planning B last year. I really loved the book and think that it’s a powerful reminder of the importance of context in thinking about how code does work in the world. 

Code/space: Software and Everyday Life By Rob Kitchin and Martin Dodge; MIT Press, Cambridge, London, 2011, 290 pages, ISBN: 978-0262042482

codepsaceKitchen and Dodge’s important new book,  Code/space: Software and Everyday Life,  opens with the crucial phrase – “software matters”. It matters, they argue, because software increasingly mediates our everyday lives – from the digital trail that extends just that little bit further when we order our morning coffee, to the data which is sent to a remote location about our electricity and gas usage from so-called “smart meters”, and the airport security databases that determine whether we are allowed to travel or not. The power of software is its ability to make our lives easier, improve efficiency and productivity; but such efficiencies come at the cost of pervasive surveillance, a feature that is producing a society that “never forgets”.

The key premise of the book is that there are two key gaps in the way that we talk about technology and society. The first critique is aimed at social science and humanities approaches that deal too much with the technologies that software enables rather than explaining the particular code that affects activity and behavior in different contexts. This is akin, the authors argue, to looking only at the effects of ill health on society, rather than also considering ‘the specifics of different diseases, their etiology (causes, origins, evolution, and implications), and how these manifest themselves in shaping social relations’ (p13).

Software studies, on the other hand, is a nascent research field that seeks ‘to open the black box of processors and arcane algorithms to understand how software – its lines and routines of code – does work in the world by instructing various technologies how to act’ (p13). The problem, they write, is that the majority of software studies are aspatial, presuming that space is merely a neutral backdrop against which human activity occurs. Here, Kitchin and Dodge’s critique is directed at scholars such as Lawrence Lessig, whose book Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace (Lessig, 1999) refers to code (in the form of software) as having the ability to automatically regulate activity online. But code, argue Kitchin and Dodge, is not law. It is neither universal nor deterministic, but rather contingent and relational. And space is not simply a container in which things happen but rather ‘subtly evolving layers of context and practices that fold together people and things and actively shape social relations’ (p13).

Kitchin and Dodge formulate two important concepts in arguing for a spatial approach to software studies. The first is ‘code/space’, or the moment when space and code are mutually dependent on one another (a check-in desk at an airport, for example) and ‘coded spaces’, on the other hand, which do not entirely depend on code to function (the use of Powerpoint slides during a presentation, for example). After detailing the types of software employed in the areas of home, travel and consumption, Kitchin and Dodge conclude with a Manifesto for Software Studies that sets out an agenda for software studies to produce ‘detailed case studies of how software does work in the world’ as well as ‘theoretical tools for describing how and explaining why, and the effects, of that work’ (p249). Here they propose studies comparing effects of code in rural Ireland and urban Manchester, for example, where code is analyzed in a manner that is sensitive to place and scale, cultural histories, and modes of activity (p249).

The concept that code is not universal or immutable but contingent and contextual is powerful, but Kitchen and Dodge have a tendency to analyze code in home, travel and consumption without any reference to differences in code’s impact in different places or spaces (the use of international passenger record databases when traveling from Rio de Janeiro, or trying to buy books on Amazon.com from Johannesburg, for example). Although they maintain that their intention is to provide a broad field for future research, the book would have been stronger with some analysis of the different ways in which code codes differing practices and how they are understood, used, and the different moments of its instantiation in places and/or spaces.

Where the book succeeds, and makes its most useful contribution, is in its lucid explanation of how detailed analyses of code are essential to understanding how software is becoming ingrained into our everyday lives, and how it has both an empowering and disciplining effect. Kitchin and Dodge are charting new disciplinary territory here, bringing together the fields of computer science, social science and spatial studies in highly promising ways. Theirs is an inspiring approach to how we might come to unveil the hidden choices behind the code that governs our everyday lives, and how we might come to understand a phenomenon that has an increasingly powerful role in society.

References

Lessig, L, 1999 Code: And Other Laws of Cyberspace (Basic Books, New York)

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