Keeping Software Present: Software as a Timely Object for Digital STS

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This chapter considers how STS might study software as a timely object—that is, an object subject to continuous change and lived with over time as it evolves. As software engineers well know, code is lively and changing. Designs are criticized for being “frozen” if they cannot adapt and evolve alongside code as it changes. Yet at the same time, code persists. Legacy systems, while given little attention in social analyses of software, are the majority of the software that we rely upon. Much STS literature on software has emphasized code’s promiscuous evolvability, how its mutability and dynamism lead it to its inscrutability. However, this difficulty to pin down code sufficiently in order to represent knowledge about it belongs not only to the STS analyst but also to engineers who work closely with code, particularly the software maintainers who deal with software as a continuously evolving object over the long dureé. While STS has done much to unmask the presumed neutrality, immateriality, and automaticity of software, revealing instead the highly imbricated social relationality of software-in-the-making, less attention has been placed on how coders working to maintain legacy systems grapple with this relationality as part and parcel of the nature of working with code. It is this sensibility towards temporality that I argue should guide STS approaches to software, its lifecycles of change, its lifetimes within organizational practice, and the lived experiences of its dynamism over time. This chapter argues that the significance of software’s materiality for the politics of computational work lies not only in its present performances—however hard these may be to trace—but also in its forms of duration, the entangled lifetimes of careers, professional identities, and programming languages and paradigms, all of which come and go. This of course still requires an STS understanding of code as a relational assemblage but also emphasizes that these entanglements have duration—that the relationality of code exists not only in the evocative present of runtime but also in the shared histories and anticipated futures that a body of code binds together.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationDigital STS: A Field Guide for Science & Technology Studies
EditorsJanet Vertesi, David Ribes
PublisherPrinceton University Press
Publication dateMay 2019
ISBN (Print)9780691187075, 9780691187082
ISBN (Electronic)9780691190600
Publication statusPublished - May 2019


  • Digital STS
  • STS
  • Software Studies
  • Lifetimes
  • Representation
  • algorithmic media


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