Hack #3: Subjunctive Software Invasion

Overview

The play and critical play hacks mostly depended upon physical objects. This project focuses on the virtual side of our world, on software. It also introduces the idea of “subjunctive practices,” which Kari Kraus defines as speculative work that inhabits “the possibility space of the ‘what-if.'” Kraus calls this work subjunctive because it’s knowledge about “what might have been or could be or almost was.”

Your mission for this hack is to demo subjunctive repurposing of some existing software tool or platform. In other words, take a real piece of software and imagine “what if” that software served some other purpose, had some other use, a different kind of user, and so on. At the simplest level, you’re going to take over a piece of software and make it do something it’s not supposed to do. In the process, aim to reverse, challenge, or complicate the cultural politics or assumptions of the software.

To see the cultural biases of software at work, you need only look at the metaphors ingrained in our applications: you use Office on your desktop, you drag files to the recycle bin, you browse the web. These metaphors suggest computers are for neat and tidy white collar office work—even when they’re not. Every piece of software privileges certain forms of knowledge, power, and authority, while obscuring other forms of knowledge, power, and authority. To complete this hack you’ll have to consider the implicit or explicit ideology of some piece of software, and then figure out a way to challenge it.

Also keep in mind Dunne and Raby’s approach to A/B design, where “A” represents the way an engineer or conventional designer might approach a problem, while “B” represents the way an artist or speculative designer sees the problem:

Conventional Design (A)

  • Affirmative
  • Problem solving
  • Provides answers
  • Design for production
  • Fictional functions
  • For how the world is
  • Applications
  • Innovation
  • Concept design
  • Consumer
  • Make us buy
  • Ergonomics
  • User-friendliness

Speculative Design (B)

  • Critical
  • Problem finding
  • Asks questions
  • Design for debate
  • Functional fictions
  • For how the world could be
  • Implications
  • Provocation
  • Conceptual design
  • Citizen
  • Make us think
  • Rhetoric
  • Ethics

The actual mechanics of this assignment are entirely up to you. Any kind of software is up for grabs: mobile apps, MS Office, Adobe creative apps, video games, social media, and so on. Whatever you do, think of your hack as an intervention, which can take place on any number of levels. Borrowing from the growing field of platform studies, we can imagine software having at least five layers—or to use Kraus’ term, “fault lines”—surrounded by the overall cultural context:

The layers of platform studies

I’ve provided an explanation of these various layers elsewhere. The point to make here is that any of these layers are ripe for intervention. And the subjunctive reimagining of the software need not be strictly digital. Given that the operation and the social context of software is a key part of its identity, changing the context or operation can be a conjectural practice.

Expectations

This hack is a solo project. As usual, you’ll create an exhibit on your domain that includes an artist statement of about 1,000 words. In this statement you’ll delve into the more theoretical elements of your hack, drawing out your meditation on your software intervention.

In addition to the software invasion itself and the artist statement, you should also document the development of your hack. Post still images, short videos, sketches, etc. onto your domain.

We’ll present the hacks in class on March 14, and the artist statement and documentation will be due by Monday, March 18.

Criteria

I’ll approach your hack using the following criteria:

  • Unexpectedness (the extent to which the project defies expectations or produces surprising results or reactions)
  • Craft (the degree of style, technical virtuosity, and craftiness, as well as digital representation)
  • Intention (the sense of intentionality and deliberateness of the work)
  • Theme (the level of engagement with the concepts of speculative design, conjectural practices, and so on)
  • Argument (the degree to which your project acts as an intervention or subversion of software)

Works Cited

Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, “A/B” and “Design as Critique” from Speculative Everything: Design Fiction and Social Dreaming (2013), pages vii and 33-45

Kari Kraus, “Finding Fault Lines: An Approach to Speculative Design” from The Routledge Companion to Media Studies and Digital Humanities (2018), pages 162–173