Reviewer biography

Current Reviews

Review Articles

Book Reviews Archive

Cutting Code: Software and Sociality

by Adrian Mackenzie
Peter Lang, New York, NY, USA 2006
216 pp. Paper, $31.95 USD
ISBN 0-8204-7823-7.

Reviewed by Rob Harle


Very little serious scholarly research has been done concerning the notion of software as a powerful cultural process. This book redresses this situation in a rigorous, penetrating way. Given the ubiquity of software and its associated code, the dearth of social, cultural investigation is rather surprising.

Code is embedded in most devices we use today, not only personal computer software. Each time we fill our cars with fuel, do banking, buy groceries at the supermarket or undergo medical procedures, code and software are directly involved. As Mackenzie points out, code does not simply handle instructions but is dynamically involved in creating new and modifying existing social and cultural relations and processes.

Cutting Code: Software and Sociality has eight chapters with an excellent Reference section and Index. The titles are as follows: 1 – Introduction: Softwarily, 2 – Opening Code: Expression and execution in software, 3 – Algorithms, 4 – Kernel: Code in time and space, 5 – Java: Practical Virtuality, 6 – "Pits" and "traders": Infrastructures in software, 7 – Extreme programming: Code as prototype for software, 8 – Conclusion. The book is not especially complex in respect of computer technology or programming language, and any reader familiar with basic Internet procedures and general software knowledge will have no problems in this area. However, as mentioned, this is a serious and complex work in the discipline of social and cultural communication studies and as such is written with this specific readership principally in mind.

Code is a phenomenon that tends to remain opaque or hidden behind the scenes, the stage is the user (friendly?) interface of software. Most of us never see the actual code that runs the word processor or sends the instructions to the printer to print out our favourite photos. If you are intrigued to see what an example of real code looks like, load any web page from the net, click on View in the menu bar of your browser, then click on Source. This will reveal the actual HTML code that runs behind all the buttons and graphics and text of the web page.

Adrian Mackenzie researches and teaches at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom. He has degrees in science and philosophy and a PhD in philosophy. He defines code as: "…a multivalent index of the relations running among different classes of entity: originators, prototypes and recipients. These classes might include people, situations, organizations, places, devices, habits and practices" (p. 169). This book helps us realise just how important, entrenched, and powerful a few lines of letters, word, and symbols are in defining our new existence in the digital age. Just as the introduction of the clock and electricity into society dramatically and permanently changed how we live our lives, so too has software and its associated code. "It explores the social forms, identities, materialities, and the power relations associated with software, and it asks how software provokes the re-thinking of production, consumption and distribution as entwined cultural processes".

The publication of this book is timely and it will surely become an essential reference work for all students and scholars in the disciplines of social and cultural studies.



Updated 1st March 2007

Contact LDR: ldr@leonardo.org

Contact Leonardo: isast@sfsu.edu

copyright © 2007 ISAST