Friday, May 9, 2008

Assignment #4 - Code in the Linux subculture

As technology continues to integrate itself into our daily lives, we are confounded by the translation of language into its digital parallel: code. Code complicates language by mediating modes of communication and what they aim to communicate. I aim to examine how the Linux community exploits this coded mediation to a utilitarian purpose. As Hayles argues, code exceeds speech and writing in its capability because it possesses characteristics beyond a representative sign or a functional signifier; code can represent the relationship that exists between the two. 1 This notion of code serving a dual (or multiple) purpose was previously alluded to by cultural theorist Dick Hebdige, who examined social codes as formative for subcultures, which utilize these codes to recognize and verify authenticity. The obvious problem is that these codes are then often broken by their very identification and translation. Linux, as a digital subculture, stands to reconcile this contradiction. Because of its unifying open source ethos, Linux is able to identify its own codes, both cultural and binary, as well as adapt to the translation into other languages, thereby transcending the inherent contradictions in the relationship between sign and signifier that traditionally undermine subcultural models. The utility of code is what enables Linux to proliferate; that proliferation reinforces code as functional language.

The presence of code in daily life often goes unnoticed; digital mediation is nearly assumed present in oral and written communications. From Saussure’s claim that “the spoken word alone constitutes the object”2 through Derrida’s assertion that it exists as but a signifier to the actual sign itself, observable problems arise in the development of the relationship between speech and writing. Code functions to reconcile the two by acting as both sign and signifier, both interpretable and applicable—but as this reconciliation is translated to code through digital mediation, the in-between becomes truly revealing. Katherine Hayles states the need for “nuanced analyses of the overlaps and discontinuities of code with the legacy systems of speech and writing, so that we can understand how processes of signification change when speech and writing are coded into binary units.”3 If code can theoretically assume roles of both speech and writing, how can it do this practically? What are the implications of code as a hybrid language system?

Alexander Galloway points out that “code is the only language that is executable,”4 in reference to computer codes; but this evaluation is not entirely complete. Not dissimilar to the way varying dramatic, legal and sacred texts can be performative, code can be executable when its functions parallel speech or writing. Subcultures exemplify this execution of code. Subcultures exploit the disconnect between sign and signifier to encrypt the underlying meaning. “In this way, its very taken-for-grantedness is what establishes it as a medium in which its own premises and presuppositions are being rendered invisible by its apparent transparency,”5 writes Stuart Hall. This act of rendering invisible the essence of code, code as dual meaning, 0is itself the execution of code as language.

Yet as Hebdige approaches this subcultural appropriation of code, there is an immediate contradiction in bestowing authority upon constitutive, authenticating signs and signifiers to serve as an alternate parallel language to speech or writing. Citing Barthes’ cultural appropriations of the linguistic method, Hebdige interprets that “it was hoped that the invisible seam between language, experience and reality could be… rendered meaningful and, miraculously, at the same time, be made to disappear.”6 However, this is indeed a hope. The codes adopted by subcultures as significant pose themselves an inbred problem in execution: to execute subcultural code is to activate a signifier by identifying its sign, which breaks the code by oversimplifying the relationship between the two.7 Trying to execute the unexecutable is possible, but defeats the purpose.

Linux inverts this subcultural model by taking advantage of this oversimplification. The Linux community evolved in direct response to dominant operating systems, such as Mac and Windows8, whose code was all closed source. The initial desire for modifiable open source codes led to an interactive collective of programmers who were not rebelling against, but adapting to, the programming of Mac and Windows. Yet in its adaptation of computer code, Linux indirectly outlined social codes identifying and structuring itself as a digital subculture, codes that emphasized the unifying facet of Linux as code translatable to every person and operating system in order to be truly utilitarian. This essential tenet, from where Linux’s subcultural identity stems, is that open source code is free9 for everyone to use, modify, reprogram, republish, and distribute.

By making these links within its functioning transparent, Linux not only identifies the function of its subbcultural codes but also exploits the utility of coded language by adapting to the detrimental sign/signifier relationship of speech and writing; it does not exist parallel to, but interactive with speech and writing to transcend inherent barriers and absorb the linguistic exchanges into its function. Essentially depending on coded language for both adaptation and cultural identity, Linux thereby inverts the traditional subcultural model that is undermined by translation because the language of code is adaptive enough to do so.

The rift between speech and writing, sign and signifier, is deproblemetized with code because it is able to function as both. Florian Cramer summarizes that: “Read as a net literature and a net culture, Free Software [like Linux] is a highly sophisticated system of self-applied text and social interactions. No other net culture has invented its computer code as thoroughly, and no other net culture has acquired a similar awareness of the culture and politics of the digital text.”10 Whether Linux can endure upon this awareness of codes is yet to be seen, but as it exists, its codes are its essence.

1. “The exchanges, conflicts, and cooperations between the embedded assumptions of speech and writing in relation to code would be likely to slip unnoticed through a framework based solely on networked and programmable media, for the shift over to the new assumptions would tend to obscure the ways in which the older worldviews engage in continuing negotiations and intermediations with the new… [in] the reverse operation of trying to fit the speech and writing systems into the worldview of code… here too I expect the discontinuities to be as revealing as the continuities.” Hayles, Katherine. Speech, Writing, Code: Three Worldviews, My Mother Was A Computer. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2005. p45
2. As cited by Hayles, p42.
3. Hayles, p39.
4. As cited by Hayles, p50
5. Hall, Stuart (1977) as cited by Hebdige, Dick, From Culture to Hegemony, Subculture: the Meaning of Style. New York: Routledge Publishing, 1979. p11. Hebdige continues: “Notions concerning the sanctity of language are intimately bound up with ideas of social order. The limits of acceptable linguistic expression are prescribed by a number of apparently universal taboos. These taboos guarantee the continuing ‘transparency’ (the taken-for-grantedness) of meaning.” [p91]
6. Hebdige, p10.
7. Hebdige uses punk as a prime example. When you identify something (spiked hair, nose piercing, etc.) as being “punk” or replicate it as punk, its authentic quality (“punkness”) is reduced.
8. Raymond notes that Linux code was written to operate on PCs, yet its open source nature is also inclusive and adaptable. Raymond outlines “lessons” in Linux, examples that prove such: “2. Good programmers know what to write. Great ones know what to rewrite (and reuse).” “7. Release early. Release often. And listen to your customers.” “10. If you treat your beta-testers as if they’re your most valuable resource, they will respond by becoming your most valuable resource.”
9. Free as in speech, not as in beer.” Torvald,
10. Cramer, Florian. Free Software as Collaborate Text. Berlin: Freie Universit├Ąt Berlin, 2000.

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