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The Software Artists: The Value of Software

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Previous: The Software Artists: Introduction

Philosophy of Art and the Value of Software

Manufactured goods generally have a clear relationship between
cost, price, and value. In software, as in art, the value of the work
is more often completely unrelated to cost and price. Operating
systems provide a great example: the Windows audience for the
most part must use Windows regardless of cost or price. The
Mac OSX audience generally chooses to use OSX regardless of
price, and often explicitly because of the aesthetic experience of
using OSX. Linux has no cost at all, and a price that varies
wildly, and it also has a dedicated audience.

The value of software, like the value of an artistic performance,
lies in the ability of the software to attract and keep an audience.
The software industry would benefit immensely by turning the
tools of artistic criticism on software.

The 20th century in particular saw a great proliferation of critical
theory of artistic work. Among the most important ideas were
The New Criticism and Structuralism. Both provide fine tools
for evaluating software.

The New Criticism: The Intentional Fallacy and Aesthetic Value

The New Criticism was the most important school of literary
criticism in the middle of the 20th century. An essay this length
can touch only lightly on some key ideas of New Criticism, but
those ideas turn out to be quite valuable.

The New Critics believe that once the authors finish their works,
they disappear from the milieu in which the work exists. New
Critics do not involve themselves in what the author intended to
create; they concern themselves only with the work as it exists.
This principle is called the “Intentional Fallacy”: what the author
intended has no part in the value of the author's work.

Creating software can be seen in a similar light. Once the
software is released, the team that created it cannot control how
the software is used, nor who uses it, nor what it is used for. The
value of the software must lie in the software itself and in how it
is used, not in how it was created or in what it was intended to do.

The most important tool of the New Critics is a technique called
“close reading”. From Wikipedia: “close reading describes the
careful, sustained interpretation of a brief passage of text. Such a
reading places great emphasis on the particular over the general,
paying close attention to individual words, syntax, and the order
in which sentences and ideas unfold as they are read.”

Creating software has its own kinds of close reading: code
review, unit tests, and feature tests are all ways in which software
creators emphasize the particular over the general. But one of the
most important results of close reading, and one of the most
important aspects of value to New Critics, is to identify and
examine the works for ambiguity. These ambiguities are
examined for their value: some kinds of ambiguity add to the
value of the work; some kinds of ambiguity detract from the
value of the work.

Software whose ambiguous features allow the user to do more
than the developers intended will be more valuable-- think of a
wiki. Software whose ambiguous features stop the user in his
tracks has much less value-- think of the Windows Vista security

Aesthetic Value: Unity, Complexity, Intensity

Monroe Beardsley, who wrote “The Intentional Fallacy” along
with William K. Wimsatt, also proposed a way to measure the
value of a particular work. Beardsley states that the value of the
work resides in three criteria: unity, variety, and intensity.
Applying these criteria to software is an interesting exercise.
Software may be unified if all of its features support a central
activity or theme. Software may have variety if the features cover
a wide range of activity. Software may be intense if using the
software is a compelling experience.

Periodically examining a software project throughout the
development process using these criteria is a fascinating exercise.

Structuralism: Signs and Myths

Structuralism became popular later in the 20th century. Where
New Criticism seeks to examine particular works disconnected
from intent or affect, Structuralism is rooted in linguistics and
anthropology, and seeks to examine works in the context of their
language and of their culture.

Two aspects of Structuralism are of particular interest: the idea
that linguistic signs can be decomposed into the signifier and the
signified; and that works can have deep structures that reflect
cultural values that can be represented as myths.

Signs: Signifier and Signified

A linguistic sign is a speech act: a word, a sentence, a poem, a
book. It is not at all unreasonable to treat the use of a software
feature or a software user interface as a sign.

The signifier is the “sound pattern” of the sign. It is what
happens in the physical act of speaking, or in the personal act of
reciting to ourselves. Furthermore, signifiers are the tokens by
which people communicate. Signifiers are what people send each
other as they participate in culture.

The signified is the “concept or meaning” of the signifier. The
signified is the true act or true feeling or
physical/emotional/apprehended manifestation of the signifier.
With the ability to separate signifier and signified, the
Structuralists look for common deep elements and mythological
underpinnings of artistic and cultural works.
The value of any particular work, then, can be evaluated in
several ways. A work might have value to a Structuralist if:
  • Signs are rich and easily available
  • Signifiers in the work are rich and pleasant
  • Signified are deep and clearly delineated by their
  • The work reflects a rich understanding of the cultural mythology and milieu
Exercise: New Critical and Structuralist Evaluation of Browser Behavior

New Critics contribute the idea of close reading in order to
evaluate unity, variety, and complexity of a work, looking for
ambiguity in the service of a rich aesthetic experience.

Structuralists contribute the ability to separate signifier and
signified within a work, in order to evaluate the richness of both
the experience of the work itself and the extent to which the work
relates cultural mythology, either that of the work itself or that of
the consumer of the work.

As a thought experiment, use these tools to measure the value of
this behavior:

When Internet Explorer opens a web page that contains MPEG3
files (for instance
Nova/index.html), it by default prevents the user from loading the
page, and pops up a warning message that reads

(IE6 and IE7) Do you want to allow software such as
ActiveX controls and plugins to run?

(IE6) A script is accessing some software (an ActiveX
control) on this page which has been marked safe for scripting.
Do you want to allow this?

(IE7) This website wants to run the following add-on:
'Windows Media Player' from 'Microsoft Corporation'. If you
trust the website and the add-on and want to allow it to run,
click here...
A New Critic can use close reading on this behavior to see if it
exposes any ambiguities. If those ambiguities contribute to the
unity, intensity, and variety of the experience, then the behavior is

Since the only executable files on the page are mp3, the false
reference to ActiveX sends the reader down a false path. Since
there is no explanation for why an mp3 is considered to be
ActiveX, this falseness only detracts from both the unity and the
intensity of the experience.

Furthermore, since the software requires validation of behavior
that the reader requested anyway (the false “ActiveX control” is
in fact “safe for scripting”) this behavior can only detract from
the whole point of the work, which is to play the mp3 file while
reading the text of the page.

So a close reading of the the behavior in question in a New
Critical sense shows that the software reports false information.
Although the behavior could be construed as adding variety, it
does so for no good reason, and prevents the experience of the
work itself, which is to play the mp3 files while reading the page.

A Structuralist would have a different interpretation. The
references to ActiveX are a signifier, but it is unclear exactly what
is being signified, since the obvious signified (a real ActiveX
control) does not actually exist.

The Structuralist finds a clue in IE7, where under some
circumstances, when loading a page with mp3 files, warns “This
website wants to run the following add-on: 'Windows Media
Player' from 'Microsoft Corporation'. If you trust the website and
the add-on and want to allow it to run, click here...”

Microsoft itself is concerned about security, or at least about the
appearance of security. Perhaps the false warnings are intended
to warn about the possible insecurity of the Microsoft Windows
Media Player itself.

Looking at the wider culture, everywhere from airports to banks
to offices, there is a demonstrable trend toward what Bruce
Schneier calls “security theater”. Security theater is
“countermeasures that provide the feeling of security while doing
little or nothing to actually improve security”.

A Structuralist will see that the culture that produced this work
values “security theater” while providing only the appearance of
security, so the Structuralist will concede a certain value to this
Internet Explorer behavior that a New Critic would not.

Citations for part one