Interview with Adrian Mackenzie and Theo Vurdubakis on Code and Crisis

As a supplement to our Special Issue on Codes and Codings in Crisis (TCS 28.6, Nov 2011), Simon Dawes interviewed Adrian Mackenzie and Theo Vurdubakis on the relationship between code, crisis, performativity and language, as well as some of the other themes explored throughout the issue.

SD: Rather than elaborating a general theory of code, the special issue restricts itself to bringing out the ways in which code and crisis are coupled in the contemporary world. For this particular collection of articles, how have you understood the terms ‘code’ and ‘crisis’, and could you summarise for us the ways in which their coupling is considered by the authors in the issue?

AM: We tried to work against any overly narrow identification of code with software. Partly because we are not sure what software ‘is’ (this is under debate), and partly because code has a much richer and longer history than that of software code. Like many others, we were aware too that ‘crisis/crises’ are both abundant and endemic, and that the very term is highly performative.

As for the couplings of code and crisis, the articles in this issue offer various takes. Some of them see code, especially software code, as crisis prone. The temporalities of code affect the timings of decision, and crises urgently demand decision. Many of the articles focus on particular forms of crisis – in finance, in online media, in civil engineering, in memory and subjectivity – in order to see how code orders and disorders states of affairs.

SD: In attempting to transcend this reductive reading of code as software or machine language, you bring out the ways in which it is part of broader (moral/legal) phenomena. To what extent are these different types of code linked or distinct?

AM: At the moment, it would be hard to deny that they are strongly linked. As we point out in the introduction, it is difficult to find any domain of contemporary culture, economy, science or civic society where machine codes are not in play. But if we move beyond the consensus position that code is pervasive, we might find interesting variations and tensions in their linkages. There has been a tendency to read machine-based codes rather homogeneously, as if they were all the same. The implication of our plea for attention to the coding of code is that there are divergent and diverse tendencies linking different kinds of code.

TV: It is itself an interesting characteristic of contemporary culture that questions of ‘code’ are seen to span different orders of being: from software to ‘life itself’. This conviction, as commentators from Donna Haraway to Paul Virilio have noted, fuels the hope (and the fear) that all questions of existence are ultimately problems of coding.

SD: Moving on to questions of identity, what type of subject is produced by code (articles in the issue refer to the ‘inferred consumer’, the ‘yet to be terrorist’ and the ‘plagiarist’), and what are the consequences for agency?

AM: A range of subject positions appear in and around code. Within contemporary software code, the prevalence of tropes and figures of service and management, security and control, suggest that subject positions articulated in code are hegemonically articulated in terms of consumers, customers and potential offenders. Again, however, some of the articles in the issue (e.g. Munster, Chun) seek to enunciate hitherto unnamed minoritarian subject positions that seem to us to offer at least slender hope for our times.

SD: What about the more fundamental relation between code and language? To what extent can we see code as language, or how difficult is it to oppose code and language or speech?

AM: In many ways, this question has long exercised critical theory, media theory and software studies, as well as by much post-WWII cybernetics-influenced theory ranging across psychoanalysis, anthropology, linguistics, psychology, sociology and neurology. In many cases, language and its correlates in culture, subjectivity, consciousness or social structures, were reformulated in terms of computational or code processes. Code and computation was for instance taken by McCulloch and Pitts to be immanent to all neural activity. Today, the question of the fundamental relation is harder to appraise partly because the notions of code and language have both splintered in various ways.

TV: One often cited definition states that ‘code is the only language that is executable’ (Galloway). This, however, brings to the fore new questions such as: Where does this execute-ability come from? Where does it reside? Such questions are explored by a number of articles in the collection including Chun, Introna, Knox & Harvey. Of course when I say ‘new questions’ this is not quite true since these issues have a long pedigree. For instance, Aquinas asks similar questions of the performativity of magic spells (another ‘executable’’ language): Where does this performativity come from? From the signs themselves? From God? From the magician? Or from spirits who do not serve God such as Satan and his demonic host?

SD: Could you tell us more about the importance of performativity for linking code with crisis?

AM: There has been much analysis of software code in terms of performativity. By analogy to accounts of corporeality or publics, code has been regarded as machine-based speech acts. This brings the analytical resources of speech acts and discourse analysis to play in relation to code, and this is especially useful when it comes to understanding the proliferation of code. We have some reservations about seeing code in terms of performativity too. Performativity works, to the extent that it does work, because of pre-existing codes. Its iterability, to use Derrida’s terminology, depends already on codes. Hence any analysis of code-like situations has to pay attention to the codes that are being coded. The coding of code is nowhere near as executable as the coded code.

TV: We are by now used to the language of code being used to talk about the various crises that afflict our world. We are, in other words, used to the idea that climate models, military, financial and environmental simulations, render crises visible and tractable. But the languages of code are at the same time the means through which ‘crises’ are performed. An example currently very much on the front pages is the way in which, what we might call, the different codings of corporate or state credit-worthiness, as operated by credit rating agencies such as Moody’s, Fitch and Standard & Poor’s, tend to take the form of self-fulfilling prophesies, thus bringing about the crises they pre-dict. (The recent spat between the French and UK governments over whose credit rating deserved to be downgraded first is symptomatic of this process).

SD: So how do you see the role of code in managing the global economic crisis? To what extent does code manage order and stability? And how significant is the relation between code and control in this context?

TV: Code systems and coded conducts have featured centrally in endeavours that seek to limit the randomness of events, making some outcomes more probable whilst making others more im-probable (Bauman). Atlantic modernity, we might say, is in many ways coterminous with the desire, or even the expectation, of deliverance from the workings of tyche and from the dramas of chance. The complex inscriptive economy of code-mediated financial derivation and the sites where the seemingly endless cycles of valuation and de-valuation are enacted, could be seen as a key manifestation of this fantasy of control. In the opening decade of the 21st century this was a fantasy of a financial system where risk has been diversified away and where the cycles of ‘boom and bust’ have been smoothed out. Instead, the codes and algorithms which underpinned the techniques and practices of financial innovation of recent decades are now widely seen as triggering, and deepening, the current financial crisis – and therefore as being ultimately responsible for the present economic instability. The complex code-mediated practices of ‘financial engineering’ – such as those employed in the creation and circulation of Collateralised Debt Obligations (CDOs) – are now widely understood to have set the stage for large-scale systemic breakdowns, ‘normal accidents’ in Perrow’s sense. Codes and codings, to paraphrase Donald Mackenzie, now appear as engines of financial and economic crises as well as a means for their resolution.

Adrian Mackenzie (Centre for Social and Economic Aspects of Genomics, Lancaster University) researches in the area of technology, science and culture. He co-directs the Centre for Science Studies, Lancaster University. He has published books on technology, including Transductions: Bodies and Machines at Speed (2002/6), Cutting Code: Software and Sociality (2006), and Wirelessness: Radical Empiricism in Network Cultures (2010), as well as articles on media, science and culture. He is currently working on the circulation of data intensive methods across science, government, and business in network media. [email:]

Theo Vurdubakis is Professor of Organisation and Technology in the Lancaster University Management School, where he is currently Director of the Centre for the Study of Technology and Organization (CSTO). A graduate of Athens University, he gained his doctorate from the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology where he taught for 15 years. His research focuses on the role of technologies in social organization. [email:]

Simon Dawes is the Editor of the TCS Website and Editorial Assistant of Theory, Culture & Society and Body & Society

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