Soft Tool Culture

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Way back in 1967, Marshall McLuhan noted, "The suddenness of the leap from hardware to software cannot but produce a period of anarchy and collapse, especially in the developed countries." This sounds unpleasantly familiar, doesn't it!

The special technological and sociological attributes of software are at the root of how computers have risen so quickly to such primacy in our lives, at a speed and to a depth that are out of proportion to historical norms for new technologies. Looking at software and the business of software production with sociologist’s eyes, I conclude that the key to understanding software is to inquire into its role as a medium. I have studied the literatures of language and tools, media theory, technology and society, and cognition. My investigations led me to ideas, old and new, about extending mind. The extension process hinges on reflexivity of mind and of mind's product, media.

Reflexivity of mind is a given: we think about ourselves, we think about thinking, we think about ourselves thinking about thinking, and so on. In fact, this behavior largely defines reflexivity. It makes sense that this reflexivity extends into the products of our minds because we are communicative beings that think out loud through various arts and industries – media – which augment and amplify communication. We also build language with language and tools with tools, manipulate language with tools, and understand tools through language. One would think, then, that reflexivity of mind and how it operates cognitively in and through media, including language itself, would be a distinct focus of media studies. Not so.

I have given much thought in recent years to figuring out how to explain my findings and ideas. For example, I coined a term, the toolshop effect, to encapsulate the idea of highly-accelerated reflexivity phenomena mediated by software itself, especially within software engineering organizations. If you consider how both tools and language play heavily in culture, when they are unified into a single industrial artifact, there is an intense feedback effect noticeable in the progress of software development and on software-born media. The term toolshop is based on the idea of a machine shop where substantial hardware is manufactured and where dies and patterns, made in the same shop with the same tools used to actually create products, are used to induce cost savings and product consistency and quality. The line between tool and product blurs.

As a matter of practice in machine shops, workers adapt acquired dies and tools for particular uses, then transmit those adaptations and embodied knowledge to other workers and other shops as new tools to use in their processes, both enhancing and constraining their capabilities. The toolshop, the generalization of a machine shop, is a place where process and product, product and process, mingle and feedback on one another to mediate in the creation and transmission of knowledge, technique and patterns through products used to manufacture other products. Software – the information tool that can and does act on itself because it is, itself, information – is profoundly susceptible to the action of mediated reflexivity as generations of software developers and users live under its sway.

Since starting my sociology training in 2006, I have searched for others who understand all this about software and reflexivity, especially those who concern themselves with extension of mind through media. It would appear that the phenomenon is largely unobserved, although software engineers are deeply aware of its technological value. They use languages like machinists use metals and dies, but few are conscious of software’s sociological attributes and its special effects on software-borne media. Outside of the software industry, there is no common notion of the unique modes of thinking employed routinely in software engineering, even among those who know something about computer programming.


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