Platform studies, antidefined

Ian Bogost recently shared “Platform Studies: Frequently Questioned Answers” (link is PDF), co-written with Nick Montfort for DAC 2009. On the one hand, the goals of this conference presentation are modest: differentiating “platform studies”–Bogost and Montfort’s name for a line of intellectual inquiry, as well as an MIT book series–from technological determinism and a strict orientation towards the hardware side of thinking about computing. On the other hand, in doing so, they make explicit their balance of influences such as hardware, software and culture, via approaches like media studies, history, and rhetoric–goals I’ve long shared. Two passages, in particular, stand out. First, after making an argument for the value of soft technological determinism, they observe that critiques of deterministic thinking are often overstated:

technological determinism objection has become fashionable or even old hat, a stock answer anytime the lid comes off the box. . . . many objections to determinism thus arise from a misperception that any attention paid to the material construction and use of a technology automatically amounts to “hard” determinism, an extreme position that technology arises and evolves of its own volition, carrying humans away like the ebbing tide.

I’m reminded of a similar qualification: Stuart Hall’s remark that poststructural approaches to determination often mistakenly shatter the base-superstructure relationship, assuming “necessarily no correspondence” between them, when “no necessary correspondence” is a far better representation. Similarly, acknowledging the influence of hardware doesn’t mean that influence is rigid and absolute, or that concerns with hardware trump all others. You could substitute “technology” for “hardware” here, I think.

Bogost and Montfort also argue for increased awareness of code, of programming, of the nuts and bolts of computing, but not at the expense of the traditional aims of the humanities. Again, I’ve long agreed with this sort of thinking:

the time has come for digital media scholars, and particularly the ones still undertaking their formal education, to learn more about the ways computer hardware and software are designed and programmed. … To greatly emphasize such training could even be detrimental to the particular interests of the digital media scholar, who also needs a deep engagement with the humanities. But just as the serious scholar of film might choose to learn about film production in order to understand the methods by which his chosen medium is created, and a serious scholar of the book might study bibliography, printing processes and technologies, and how binding and paper-making is done, so the serious scholar of digital media might need to delve deeper into the material construction of software and hardware.

The extensive analogies to film and books imply there’s a good bit of persuasive work left to be done. I’m not so sure that’s the case. Regardless, the next time I need to make either of these arguments, here’s a nice place to turn.

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