Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Coding Labour

Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Coding Labour

Article excerpt

Code is an elusive object of analysis for media and cultural studies. It is perhaps already over fetishised, and often thought of as the exclusive property of computer science, engineering or bioinformatics. Of course, code has come to name a diverse range of objects and processes.1 For instance, while it has become synonymous with computer languages, the commands that put information technologies to work, code is more than software.2 Code encompasses the laws that regulate human affairs and the operation of capital, behavioural mores and accepted ways of acting, but it also defines the building blocks of life as DNA. In this way code refers to the operational technical systems and instructions that configure and govern machines as well as bodies, and also designates the cultural techniques and protocols that affect and are affected by social relations.

What continues to make code such a pressing topic for exploration and analysis is that in each of these domains it has become central to the question of what it means to live digitally. The articles comprising the 'coding labour' section of this issue are concerned in different ways with the diffusion of code across the material contexts of everyday life, in the objects and tools of our mediation, in the systems and practices of organisation and cultural production and, ultimately, in the material conditions of labour. As well as introducing these articles, we wish to explore the increasingly familiar connections between code and labour, with particular attention to the codification of affect, as intensity, through the technologies and practices of management within the contemporary work organisation.3 Our aim here is not only to reaffirm the complexities of code for emerging fields such as software studies, but to also consider some of the ways code moves between media, software and computation, through labour into social life and global capitalism. In the following sections we illustrate the everyday work of code within the contemporary organisation, in the 'grey literature' of forms, spreadsheets and workload models, and in the routinisation of the organisational crisis. These are key sites and practices through which code and labour interconnect.

As part of a recent 'material turn' in media and cultural studies, attention to code follows an emerging interest in the proliferation of devices and media platforms as they figure the conditions of our communicative, cultural, political and economic formations. Those at the forefront of software studies have made what may be a significant political shiftby expanding beyond the technical understanding of code as a rule that transforms a message from one symbolic form into another, to incorporate, as Adrian Mackenzie puts it, 'all the forms of contestation, feeling, identification, intensity, contextualizations and decontextualizations, signification, power relations, imaginings and embodiments that comprise any cultural object'.4 Communication and the 'immaterial' domains of electronic media and its production are most fruitfully understood through attention to their materiality.5 So we might think of code as the object that best offers a glimpse of the material stuffthat coordinates everyday life, defines the structure and operations of machines and software tools, drives the routines of logistical systems and even defines and thus controls the obligations, rights and responsibilities of individuals, organisations and institutions of governance.

But it doesn't take much digging to find that code problematises its own status as an object of analysis, and indeed troubles notions of action and agency. A slippage between code as object and act becomes most obvious in the sense of code as law. As a way of elucidating the often obscured role of computer code and internet protocols in the governance of human affairs, Lawrence Lessig argued in the late 1990s that 'code is never found; it is only ever made'.6 Lessig's work is worth flagging here because it emphasises the interconnections between social life, institutions of governance and technologies at the level of code in ways that move between object and act. …

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