BLOG: Language and meaning in software (Unlike Us #2, 2012)

[originally published on the UnlikeUs #2 conference blog]

6823244236_11c75824b9_zSoftware Matters, the first session of the second day of Unlike Us #2, was introduced and chaired by Korinna Patelis, who underlined that software can be read and interpreted as a text, which has extraordinary implications for social media analysis. Users of social media read this text over and over again on a daily basis, while scholars debate whether reading should stop at the interface or continue deep into the intricacies of code. Ganaele Langlois (pictured right) presented her work-in-progress on language and meaning-making in software, based on a theoretical framework that combines the perspectives of Italian autonomists and Bernard Stiegler’s pharmacology.

Interested in sites of encounter between software and users, Langlois talked about language as interface, as a tool of meaning-making. She focused on the conditions, consequences and effects of meaning-making along a human-software continuum. Meaning can be created by human actors who input all types of text (or content), through the collaboration of software and human users or entirely by software and algorithmic processes, such as Amazon’s recommendation system.

The central question that guided her presentation was: What happens to language and meaning-making in commercial social media such as Facebook? To answer it, she drew on autonomist perspectives of immateral labour and examined language as a form of capitalist investment, as a new way to sell commodities using emotion and affect. Her frame of thought was inspired by a remark made by Matteo Pasquinelli, who recently described language as a means of production at the center of contemporary economy.

Langlois identified three stages of meaning-making, namely signification, subjectivation and making sense.

Signification, to her mind, is not the traditional notion of  Sausurre, but a problematic concept that has been highly impacted by technology. In the line of Guattari, Langlois looked at signification in terms of social roles in cultural contexts and the modes of material expression that are available.

Applying signification to software, the first example mentioned by Langlois is the average online recommendation system, which operates like this: there’s a set of data (material layer), generated and ordered by algorithmic processes (the set of rules that governs the material layer) and a cultural contexts in which the system functions (the articulation of the rules). Amazon’s rec system, for instance, could be infinite as, if one buys something, one can receive more and more recommendations.

As for what happens on social media platforms, meaning is less important than meaningfulness. Langlois took the audience back to when Gmail was first launched and touted as the first free email service, which contained a piece of software that “reads” the content of a user’s emails and produces targetted advertising. An outcry about invasion of privacy followed, but Google said that there’s no need to worry about that since software does not care about what you say; software is not a human agent, it just needs information.

Meaning itself becomes less important than ranking huge amounts of information according to various cultural logics. Another example is the targetting of advertising on Facebook, which, unlike Amazon’s expansion-oriented rec system, is based at looking at the network and closing in on certain particularities and preferences.

Langlois did not – due to time constraints and the complexity of the matter – devote the same attention to subjectivation, which she connected to psyche-capitalism that contains all processes of signification on social media platforms and deals with current conditions of existence and the possibility of predicting future ones.

She emphasized the need to move away from content and to follow the Guattarian logic of focusing on the collective assemblage of frames. That is, not on messages repeated over and over again, but on how they resonate. The repetition of messages socially positions us, as users and consumers, and ultimately incorporates certain messages into our beings, such as a catchy  chorus.

Rushing to tie everything into the idea of  making sense, Langlois concluded that social media platforms are about creating conditions of existence formatted by commodification and cognitive capitalism. Feelings of panic paranoia and stress are bound to arise as users strive to actualize themselves in a capitalist framework that perpetuates a sense of lack.

Written by Catalina Iorga


Ganaele Langlois is Assistant Professor in the Communication Program at the University of Ontario, Institute of Technology and Associate Director at the Infoscape Centre for the Study of Social Media. Her research interests are influenced by software studies and Autonomia. She has a forthcoming co-authored book on Online Politics 2.0 with Greg Elmer and Fenwick McKelvey (Peter Lang, forthcoming). Her articles have been published in Culture MachineFibrecultureNew Media & Society, and the Canadian Journal of Communication.

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