Code is the invisible force at the heart of contemporary digital media and games, routinely obscured by the gadget fetish of breathless tech marketing and scholarly focus on more visible social and technical interfaces. A recent wave of critical new media studies has focused attention on the complex politics of interaction and subjectification in online and videogame spaces, from the re-conception of the online prosumer as a form of consensual user labour and parallel debates regarding ‘playbour’ in the context of modding and participatory game culture (Kücklich 2005), to the critique of the growing corporate interests that now control and mandate a major section of the games industry and the web.
Concurrently, media studies has been reinvigorated by new approaches in software studies and platform politics. Software studies explores the processes of software and its deep interweaving with contemporary culture, analysing how the logics and materialities of algorithms, codes and data seep into and (re)build everyday life. Platform politics is a growing field of net theory that seeks to understand the specificity of the apps and portals that are becoming the dominant means of access to digital media today, which is often constrained to stratified and proprietary forms.
What these recent interventions and emerging approaches share is an emphasis on interrogating the material conditions, formal characteristics and technical specificity of contemporary media – taken together, they provide a strong impetus to go even deeper, to the underlying logical and technical architecture of the digital. The time has come to bring code out into the open.
And yet code is not inherently tied to the contemporary games and media apparatus. Implying both process and product, code can be defined in at least two distinct but complementary ways. On the one hand, code is an underlying technical process, a set of rules and instructions governing, for instance, the permutations of all those 0s and 1s obscured behind user interfaces in the case of computer code. But a code is also a cultural framework navigated and understood socially and performatively, which similarly governs action and interpretation at the semiotic level of communication and representation, as is the case with legal, social and behavioural codes.
As both a technical process and an operative principle, code’s significance thus extends far deeper and wider than its manifestation in particular technological assemblages, such as its current digital incarnation. Code permeates all aspects of society, now and then; from codes of conduct and practice to institutional orthodoxies, from semaphores and ciphers to digital hardware and software, from linguistic codes to legal codes and copyrights. This conference will explore code in all its diversity, as a simultaneously material and semiotic force that operates, often by stealth, across the wider cultural, social and political field, with a particular emphasis on media, games and art. We thus seek to understand the aesthetics and politics of code in tandem, and the way in which the political is increasingly controlled and disrupted through the design and programming of software and platforms.
The conference theme is also an opportunity to reflect on how, as academics and creative practitioners, we often participate in but can also challenge the disciplinary and institutional codes that can arbitrarily separate these conceptual and disciplinary domains. CODE will be a transdisciplinary event that brings media studies, media arts and games studies into dialogue through individual papers, combined panels, master classes and an included exhibition.
We welcome all submissions that engage with any aspect of code in all its diversity. The following themes are intended as prompts for reflection and engagement, but do not exhaust the kinds of discussion and debate that a detailed consideration of code generates.
Code and the in/visible
Here, we follow Wendy Chun (2004: 27) in asking, how is it that “the computer – that most nonvisual and nontransparent device – has paradoxically fostered ‘visual culture’ and ‘transparency’”? In other words, how it is that code – the operative logic, the executive power of computing – has become invisible? Chun argues that software, operating at the level of screen and interface, obscures the constant workings of code, which become opaque to ‘end-users’ – an argument even more dramatically stated in Friedrich Kittler’s (1997) claim that ‘there is no software’, or rather than software is a simulation which conceals the true locus of computing: hardware. Along with Matthew Kirschenbaum’s critique of media studies’ ‘screen essentialism’ (2008: 34), or preoccupation with formal appearance, such debates perhaps suggest that the ‘participatory’ or ‘interactive’ nature of networked new media is a fallacy, and that they are instead bound up in various forms of control (Galloway 2004; Galloway & Thacker 2007; Chun 2011).
We invite submissions that consider the various technical, ideological and academic aspects that thus work to obscure code, both digital and otherwise. Does the mystification of code operate analogously to ideology as Alexander Galloway (2006) and Chun (2004) argue, or is code ideological in itself? How might post-structuralist considerations of cultural codes illuminate these contemporary debates? Papers that explore the ways in which code is hidden are thus welcome, but moreover so are those that focus on how it is made visible. That is, what are the ‘thresholds of materiality’ (apologies to James Murdoch) at which code is exposed? Code’s invisibility be breached via the aesthetic strategies and accidents of glitch and error, for instance, but also through programming activism, DIY coding and game exploits, as well as a range of other measures.
Failures of code
Certainly, much of the power of code lies in its invisibility, a transparency that leads to a socio-cultural embedding as the ‘common sense’ of everyday life. But what happens when code fails, socially, culturally, politically or technologically? What happens when someone, or something, refuses to obey the rules? Comedy, subversion, disruption and even revolution all find their origin in their failure to adhere to certain codes. Such disturbances are informative precisely because they highlight the fragility and artificiality of the taken for granted, and we therefore welcome contributions that explore such failures across both technical and cultural fields.
Though code often serves to secure and obscure control and authority, it remains vulnerable. Hackers both compromise and contest the integrity of networked information, communication and entertainment environments. Systematic phone hacking by News International journalists in the UK stands alongside interventions into global affairs-of-state by Wikileaks to set the scene for rethinking established media codes of practice. Similarly, hackers associated with Anonymous have paved the way for new forms of software-based protest and agitation. In a different context the games industry has been shadowed by a history of hacks and cracks: for example, the recent compromise of PS3 console security for both ‘homebrew’ and piracy purposes, and the massive breach of Sony’s PlayStation Network (PSN) in April 2011 that resulted in data theft from 77 million users. These seemingly disparate situations signal the inherent vulnerabilities of data and code. They raise the spectre of a whole new form of risk society operating at the level of code and through its breaches and accidents. We welcome submissions that call into question the relationship between control, security and forms of hacking across media, gaming and other digital contexts.
The deeper history of code: analogue and digital
‘As sequences of signals over time,’ Kittler notes, ‘[codes] are part of every communications technology, every transmission medium’ (2008: 40). Whilst code today is overwhelmingly figured in terms of the digital, code as a principle of information exchange extends far beyond this contemporary manifestation. As such, we invite submissions that consider the critical role of encoding and decoding throughout the history of media and communications technology. In particularly, we welcome media archaeological excursions into the prehistory of digital code: what are the resonances or links between ‘old’ and ‘new’ forms of code? Can the emergence of various coded communications systems be traced back to a common source, perhaps the military-industrial complex? How do systems such as Morse code, semaphore, cryptography and cybernetics relate to computing? and how does the logic of code seep into everyday life through various technical and biopolitical regimes? Similarly, what is the theoretical and operative relationship between the ‘codes’ and rules of non-digital and pre-digital games and contemporary video games, in terms of their linguistic, behavioural and social codes? How might concepts such as protocol (Galloway 2004) and unit operations (Bogost 2006) offer us a way into these considerations?
Code and other laws of media
In any given context, multiple technical and cultural codes frame action, and this situation raises questions about the continuities and discontinuities of various codes. Lawrence Lessig’s Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace (1999) presciently argued that digital code, as instantiated in technical protocols such as digital rights management, may disastrously overextend the limited protections of copyright and intellectual property as dictated by legal codes. In doing so, Lessig called attention to the incongruity or contradictions of different codes as they come into contact. Similarly, we invite submissions that explore the way in which different codes meet, overlap, extend and contradict one another. In particular, we welcome consideration of these issues from the perspective of copyright, intellectual property and distribution and analyses of what happens when the digital reproduces, alters or fails to approximate legal, social, behavioural and other such codes.
Code and public/private
Contemporary media theory argues that emerging forms of socio-technical practice reconfigure the public and private spheres to produce what has been called ‘public privacy’ (Senft 2008; Boyd 2010; Lovink 2011). This term gestures to the ways in which subjects use public signifying systems, such as social networking sites and the diverse media forms of celebrity production or reality programming, to articulate highly personal messages. Yet such rhetorical strategies are not unique to distributed digital platforms. After all, the eighteenth century epistolary network, often called ‘The Republic of Letters’, was responsible for reformulating the public and private domain (Goodman 1994; Cook 1996). We invite submissions that respond to the questions generated by these intersections between public and private, historical and contemporary. For instance, what are the historical, legislative, technological and cultural settings for the emergence of a public privacy? Does the ‘intimate public sphere’ (Berlant 2008) obscure women’s political and cultural agency? And after Haraway (2007), to what extent does the @ sign and other networked avatars function to locate meaning, destination and geopolitical identity?
Code and agency
Interactive media, games, art and cultural practice can all deal with the relationship between the interacting participant and the coded system. What aesthetics and politics are at work when the participant’s presumed agency and the coded constraints are in tension? Topics for consideration include the aesthetics of code-based media; interfaces; participant experience; emergence/counter-play; proceduralism and performativity.
Bodies in code
Whereas early cyberculture theorists dreamed of a virtual reality freed from the constrains of materiality, more recent theory demonstrates the centrality of embodiment and the material to media both old and new (Hansen 2006; Munster 2006; Milne 2010). For this conference, we ask not only how interfaces and devices, but more specifically information and code, reconfigure various bodies – social, political, corporeal – and vice versa. Relatedly, how might we conceptualise the materiality and ontology of code – flat, folded, linear, or otherwise – in relations to phenomenologies of embodiment and new or ‘vital materialism’ (Bennett 2010)? And what is the connection between fantasies of information as liberated, immaterial data and dreams of disembodiment (Hayles 1999)? And are mechanistic principles such as genetic code the only resort for understanding how bodies get into code, and code into bodies?
Recoding the disciplines
Code is also what we live out as academics and creative practitioners, in terms of the disciplinary and institutional frameworks and regulations that often constrain us but can also occasion new forms of connection. In the context of media studies, media arts and games studies, we are particularly interested in asking how these closely related disciplinary formations account for the conditions of their existence and distinctiveness. At the same time, nascent approaches and debates such as software studies, platform politics, digital humanities and computational methodologies might provide a common ground from which to begin transdisciplinary work. We invite submissions to consider, exclusively or in passing, some of the questions the notion of disciplinary codes raises:
- What ‘common codes’ might media, media arts and games share and at which points do they depart?
- What epistemological and methodological insights might they contribute to one another?
- What aspects of their disciplinary code might exclude certain forms of inquiry or subject areas?
- Can we ‘transcode’ media, art and games, as cultural and intellectual objects, or should they remain distinct?
- What are the theoretical and methodological tools needed to ‘transcode’ these disciplines?
The CODE conference incorporates an exhibition of creative works that respond to the artistic challenge of code and the themes outlined above. Code operates, as if by stealth, beneath the materiality of networked media performances, software art, games, mobile apps, locative and social media. But code also presents artists, performers and creative practitioners with opportunities to construct innovative hybrid media forms that can extend our understanding of contemporary art practice. From video installations in the 1960s, through to sophisticated interactive media and augmented reality applications, artists have arguably been at the forefront of innovation, adopting the language of the computer to forge new creative frontiers. We invite contributions that examine the creative potential of code, including but not limited to, the implications of code for contemporary art/ists, code as art and/or performance, code as avant-garde, virus and anti-art.
For works referenced above and a further readings related to the conference themes please view the ‘Reading List’ tab above.