Chronicling the vernacular and the middlebrow in post-digital culture.


Part III - Socialities of Softwarized Cultural Production

March 15, 2024
Frederik Lesage & Michael Terren

This post is a copy of the introduction to Section 3 from Creative Tools and the Softwarization of Cultural Production, edited by Frédérik Lesage & Michael Terren, from the book series Creative Working Lives. The section provides an overview of chapters by Brendan Keogh, by Maria-Nicoleta Petrescu, by Maxime Harvey and by Seth Scott-Deuchar.

The third part of this volume is dedicated to work dealing with the role that creative software tools play in the development and maintenance of complex socialities for cultural production. While many of the contributions in other sections do tackle some of the political dimensions of softwarization, these chapters grapple with how softwarization enables and constrains the politics of collectively creating music, games, images, or any other content. The works also highlight how any account of contemporary sociality for cultural production is incomplete without including its technological dimension. Brendan Keogh begins Chap. 9 by exploring the currently dominant model of digital game production based on platformization. This model is driven by a logic of value extraction that is epitomized by digital game development engines Unity and Unreal, both highly successful 3D game development platforms that have become industry standards. Instead of taking this dominant model as an inevitability, Keogh then considers examples of how some of the beneficial aspects of platformization for game design, like the development of shared standards within a community of practitioners, have been developed without falling into the kinds of monopolistic or exploitative models used by dominant players in the industry. Drawing on a conception of grassroots platforms, Keogh then elaborates a template for alternative game-making tools and speculates asto how they could be used as the basis for alternative modes of governance for game design and distribution.

One of the methodological advantages of taking creative tools seriously is that it provides a much more expansive, and therefore more inclusive, definition of what constitutes cultural production as the starting point for research. Chapters 10 and 11 perfectly demonstrate this advantage by investigating two communities of practice that have traditionally been overlooked by more mainstream research on cultural production. In Chap. 10, Maria-Nicoleta Petrescu develops a case study of a group of visualization specialists who work with Tableau, a data visualization platform. Her investigation details how members of this group share their work online a sa means of fostering a “beyond-the-default” narrative—finding ways to circumvent and overcome the basic default settings of the platform in order to reconfigure them as alternative functionalities. Petrescu showshow such collective enterprises have been undertaken for other similar research tools, suggesting that such practices may be important for the future of tool criticism. Just as Petrescu’s case study illustrates how groups of practitioners are able to find alternative uses within existing popular platforms, Maxime Harvey’s chapter explores how a diverse community of practice collectively negotiates the use of existing tools and standards. His case study is a detailed account of how professional and amateur astronomers have come to rely on a highly specialized tool for creating and sharing images of outer space. As Harvey explains, the data needed to create such images is made available in a digital imaging standard known as the Flexible Image Transport System (FITS), a format devised by the professional astronomical research community. This same community has since developed a tool known as the FITS Liberator, which enables professionals and amateurs alike to “liberate” said data so that it can be used as part of more conventional digital imaging workflows. Through his research,Harvey shows how arrangement of technologies and people can make such specialized scientific and technical knowledge available to a broader group of people.

While shared standards can serve as the basis for building a community of practice, standards can also be used to exclude or further entrench other kinds of social inequities. Chapter 12, by Seth Scott-Deuchar, considers music production through the new and disruptive technological developments around virtual sound spatialization, epitomized by Dolby Atmos. Atmos has been championed by the film industry, a few streaming platforms, and increasingly finely calibrated headphones as a revolutionary successor to conventional stereo music production. But producing music in Atmos requires a much greater investment in equipment and time than typical stereo productions. This overwhelmingly benefits music arising from major labels rather than independent musicians, the latter of whom are at most risk of getting no reward for their efforts to learn Atmos production. Scott-Deuchar assesses the risks of what could amount to a transient protocol that companies like Apple can withdraw support for in an instant.

Part II - Studies of Cultural Subjectivities After Softwarization

March 1, 2024
Frédérik Lesage and Michael Terren

This post is an introduction to Section 2 from Creative Tools and the Softwarization of Cultural Production, edited by Frédérik Lesage & Michael Terren from the book series Creative Working Lives with chapters by Catherine Provenzano, by Frédérik Lesage and Alberto Lusoli, by Michael Terren, and by Sze Tsang.

This section deals with the co-creation of subjectivities in relation to creative software tools. Each chapter explores how artists and creatives, ranging from the hobbyist to the professional, understand themselves and their practices in relation to creative tools and their disciplinary entanglements. Taken together, the chapters suggest a broad refiguring of cultural producers and notions of agency, technical skill, creative expression, collaboration, and artistic-conceptual inquiry, but each chapter complicates any straightforward narratives. Music and audio practices are perhaps overrepresented in this section. This bias may be linked to how musicians, and music studies in particular, have arguably had a more long-standing,explicit, and nuanced discourse regarding instruments and their role in enabling the production of sound. Nevertheless, these pieces are assembled because they all document a shift in how cultural producers understand themselves and their work.

Catherine Provenzano’s chapter considers MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) packs, an unusual category of music product that bundles dozens or hundreds of chord progressions, melodies, and other voicings that are designed to be dropped into a Digital Audio Workstation(DAW). Rather than being an anomaly, Provenzano traces their precedence in easy-playing instruments, like the autoharp and the chord organ,and considers the racialized and gendered politics of these instruments.MIDI packs, then, are a response to the notoriously steep learning curve of music theory, often rendered inaccessible by its alignment to university level music studies and a presumed white racial framing. In Chap. 6, Frédérik Lesage and Alberto Lusoli investigate the figure of the tool agnostic as a cultural trope for digital media work. Based on fieldwork conducted over more than a year in an educational institution training future digital media practitioners, Lesage and Lusoli show how these practitioners draw on the figure of the tool agnostic as a way to establish and to critique relations of power within project-based work. Practicing tool agnosticism, they argue, allows practitioners to reconcile their desire for creative control over software tools while also striving to maintain creative freedom from the entanglements that come with committing to using these same tools.

Chapters 7 and 8 deal with means of music production after softwarization and expressive cultural production within them, but from contrasting angles. Michael Terren proposes a framework that understands musical expression, a diffuse but important set of techniques in creating affecting music, as a subjectification, in which instrument makers seek to benefit from a social apparatus that privileges self-expression through cultural production above other modes of leisure or creativity. Two families of products made by the music technology company ROLI are analysed for the kinds of expressive subjectification they manifest: one which situates the budding musician as an active prosumer in creating an ever-expanding and never formally complete instrument, and one that encourages deeper and virtuosic engagement that ideally accrues long-term aesthetic value to that instrument. In Chap. 8, Sze Tsang provides an alternative lens for approaching softwarization: through artistic methods and practice-led research. Drawing on their audio-visual practice, Tsang perceptively questions artistic agency as it is delimited in the varied and unorthodox tools used in their practice, which include DAWs, Photoshop, and the esoteric visual sequencing program, IanniX. What emerges is a series of strategies for acknowledging the usefulness of the softwarised means of cultural production, particularly their capacities for constructing work that examines place in a more holistic, psychogeographical way.

Part I - Frameworks for Studying Softwarization and Cultural Production

February 22, 2024
Frederik Lesage and Michael Terren

An introduction to Section 1 from Creative Tools and the Softwarization of Cultural Production, edited by Frédérik Lesage & Michael Terren from the book series Creative Working Lives. This section provides an overview of chapters by Kaushar Mahetaji and David Nieborg, by Tom Livingstone, and by Stefan Werning.

Each of the chapters in this first section uses creative software tools as a reference point for developing theoretical and methodological frameworks for the study of contemporary cultural production. The specific software,their various uses, and the cultural content they are used to produce mayall be different, but all these chapters demonstrate in their own way how creative tools have become objects of strategic importance within a range of different cultural industries. This importance includes economic, aesthetic, and technological dimensions that cannot be adequately captured by a single framework.

Across the backdrop of the increasing platformization of cultural production, Kaushar Mahetaji and David Nieborg make a case in Chap. 2 for researching platform tools as software-based resources that are infrastructurally integrated with data-driven platform companies. Drawing from examples like TikTok, Mahetaji and Nieborg argue that platforms rely on creative tools to attract and retain various stakeholders into their digital ecosystems. By combining three fields of study—platform studies, business studies, and information systems—Mahetaji and Nieborg develop an innovative typology for the analysis of digital platforms based on their respective objects of study and their methodological approaches.

In Chap. 3, Tom Livingstone offers a comprehensive analysis and critique of an aspect of softwarization with increasing currency in video production: virtual production and in-camera visual effects (ICVFX). In video shoots augmented by virtual production and ICVFX, a massive LED screen acts as the background, its contents rendered in real time through Unreal Engine, while camera movements and directions are tracked in the programme to create more accurate parallaxes. Rendering backgrounds in a game engine reduces post-production work and cost-prohibitive location shooting, but as Livingstone shows via the history of Technicolor,there are some clear aesthetic commonalities in virtual production that perform the ideological work of naturalising the technology, which Unreal Engine has a near-monopoly on.

In the following chapter, Stefan Werning sets out to investigate the cutting-edge field of artificial intelligence (AI) in the digital games industry. Such an undertaking risks being quickly outdated given the continuous churn of technological change in this field. However, Werning convincingly argues that the way in which practitioners grapple with the sesame risks—the questions they ask about the future of their practice inlight of these new technological advances—constitutes its own technological imaginary for videogame design. By investigating such discourses,Werning is able to retrace how practitioners collectively imagine and negotiate the implications of using AI tools for digital game design: how they believe it will impact industry structure, game genres, and the practices of game-making.