Reading Processes: Groundwork for Software Studies

Abstract (in English): 

Rev. of Expressive Processing by Noah Wardrip-Fruin:

Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s book inaugurates a new publication series by the MIT Press, one of Software Studies, and does it in an impressive way. Wardrip-Fruin states right in the beginning of the book his main impetus: “…it isn’t just the external appearance and audience experience of digital media that matter. It is also essential to understand the computational processes that make digital media function.” (p. xi) To emphasize his stress on the computational processes, Wardrip-Fruin has developed the notion of expressive processing. Under this umbrella, he is discussing things like artificial intelligence applications, simulations, story generators, computer games, and electronic literature.

Expressive processing carries two separate meanings. When creating works for digital media, authors define rules for the system behavior. That is, computational processes are a means of expression for authors. The authorial take may be even more importantly located on this process level, than on the directly observable surface level. On the other hand, the computational processes express, through their design and form, decisions which may be connected to larger cultural contexts. Close examination of the processes may, in some cases, reveal quite different functionalities than the common descriptions of the systems may claim (even the authorial descriptions may prove quite misleading, as Wardrip-Fruin frequently demonstrates). Wardrip-Fruin stresses the importance of this latter approach for understanding digital media, and even more importantly, to understand software in general. This he sees as particularly important for the current information society, where it is crucial for people to understand, on the level of principles, the logic of software-based systems in such areas as surveillance.

Wardrip-Fruin is extremely well read and familiar with the relevant theories in the field, but he is not a grand theory builder himself. His main strength lies in his ability to analyze, interpret, and explain works, by himself or others, in a way that reveals their processes and how the processes bear both authorial intentions and contextual influences. Also, his wide interests and expertise ranging from early computer games to the artificial intelligence experiments and most sophisticated electronic literature works, enable him to demonstrate the general value of the notion of expressive processing throughout the various cultural and academic fields. As such, this book is the perfect volume to begin the new publication series in the software studies. Rather than building the theory for software studies, it works as a model of how to do software studies. The wide variety of materials discussed, however, may be the Achilles’ Heel of the book. As we are all influenced by endless array of information technologies and their software processes,Expressive Processing is, in a way, including everybody in its audience. Still, restricting the target group by modestly limiting the topics covered might have made this book even better.

(Source: Author's introduction)

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Record posted by: 
Scott Rettberg