Beating the “Software Boss” and Claiming Back Our Soul

Mario Brothers

Who tells you what to cook for dinner?

Who tells you what to get your sister for the holidays?

Who tells you what to buy on Instagram?

Who tells you what jobs to apply for?

Who tells you how to vote, and what to believe?

It’s frightening. We are beginning to resemble blocks of code — tagged, categorized and archived for the purpose of enriching companies, electing politicians, and maintaining the status quo, or normalization — pushing everyone towards the identical degree of sameness.

Software as it is designed rules our lives. It is integrated into our daily experience in ways that are profound and a little bit concerning.

At zzyw we explore computation (how software is designed) and its effect on human consciousness. We question harmful and reductive design principles in computing, and build digital experiments and artworks that center human agency and creativity.

What do you mean by the “Software Boss”?

Megaman

For those of you who aren’t avid gamers, let us explain: in video games, a boss is a significant computer-controlled enemy. A fight with a boss character is commonly referred to as a “boss battle” or “boss fight.”

Bosses take strategy and special knowledge to defeat, such as how to attack weak points or avoid specific attacks.

Put simply, most of the software we interact with on a daily basis is a computer-controlled set of protocols that we don’t have access to or the privilege to modify, but deeply affect our lives, like a video game boss.

For example, you may feel like you’re in control when you do an online job search because you are compiling search terms that represent the companies, titles and responsibilities you’re looking for in a role. You clean up your LinkedIn profile so that the platform’s algorithms will push you to the top of hiring managers’ lists. You craft your social profiles in a way that potential teammates and bosses will respect, like or be intrigued by. Meanwhile, the work you want to do, the role you want to create, and your inherent creativity, recedes farther into the background.

This is what it’s like to fight a video game boss. You need special knowledge and tools to defeat the boss, and the way to the defeat the boss is set in stone. You can only take actions that have already been prescribed. At least, with a video game, you can just stop playing.

Unfortunately, software is not confined to video games.

Software is ubiquitous and deeply intertwined with our lives, and has a huge impact on major life choices, like where we’ll go to school, where we’ll live, what we’ll do and whether or not we’ll remember how to play.

So why is our experience with software like this?

Software is based on computation. Historically, computation has been defined by a single design element — the loop, which is a repeatable, controllable and scalable process, appealing to economic structures that prioritize profit over other forms of value.

Today, software is designed to redefine you (and us) as a target for advertisers and companies, and in some cases, institutions and government agencies. Software aims to package you as an effect — an economic, societal or social unit that can be measured and relied upon.

How does zzyw try to beat the “Software Boss”?

We’ll show you. Please meet our friend, ThingThingThing👇

ThingThingThing is a computational system that invites audiences to take part in collective world-making. It is built with easily-accessible tools and interfaces, allowing everyone to contribute a computational object of their own.

All computational objects created by audience members are integrated automatically by the software algorithms. The result is an ever-evolving, never concluding, three-dimensional system of instantiations, created by everyone yet owned by no one, like you see in the gif above.

Cool right?

What did you learn from ThingThingThing?

ThingThingThing was our first, huge foray into what computation might look like if we thought about it in a more holistically human way. It was created working with hundreds of audience collaborators in museums and galleries across Shanghai and New York.

Participants were super psyched that designing computational objects could include ambiguity and poeticism. Watching ThingThingThing evolve and grow gave participants (and us) a deep sense of satisfaction.

We believed our open-sourced, anarchist game, with its complete authorship would mean complete freedom.

But we were wrong about that last part.

Many of our participants expressed a sense of loss and frustration, that ThingThingThing was an illusion. In the real world, they don’t have that same agency, nor do they feel they can work and code to change all the bad effects of software they experience daily — like which jobs are available to them, which news stories are presented to them, and how they themselves are packaged up and sold to companies.

Our participants’ actual lives had already become a game, but without the privilege to override the rules.

So what did zzyw do after ThingThingThing?

We dove into computation conceptually, focusing on its current design of paring down and whittling away at anything that is unique or different, its supreme goal of eliminating “noise,” and how that design decision relies on our affinity for symmetry and certainty.

We then began working with this prompt: “How can we help our audience block computational effects temporarily, so it’s possible to rethink and rework these effects imaginatively?”

And so we embarked upon our second major project, Computational Haze.

Computational Haze is a series of experiments that seek to disrupt our typical online experience.

We started experimenting with the concept of digital haze, creating a temporal, virtual space that makes the computational object simultaneously output both signal and noise, in order to trigger the creative faculty of our audience members.

With this project we want to achieve a kind of computational brokenness, so that participants can reconnect with their ability to be curious and creative.

We currently have two experiments running, the Hazy Chatroom and the Hazy Chrome Extension.

The Hazy Chatroom borrows one of the most primitive and familiar form of online communication — sending a message or leaving a comment on a public website.

Hazy Chatroom, zzyw, April 2020

Inside the chatroom, every message sent goes through a special filter. Through this filter, some words are masked and destroyed. Messages become incomplete, fragmented, irreparably broken. The filter algorithm runs blindly, without bias or human manipulation.

We spend a lot of time online persuading and being persuaded, shouting and being shouted at, and we wanted to disrupt that experience entirely, and allow people to engage with words more poetically online. Go here to input your own message!

The next experiment we built is the Hazy Chrome Extension, which can be installed on any chrome web browser. It is powered by an AI algorithm that is trained based on the top five most popular international news websites according to Pew Research Center, ranked by level of use.

Hazy Chrome Extension, zzyw, November 2020

Once installed and turned on, it will reformat the current website on view, and decentralize the original cultural perspective.

  • Background Color: All the articles on the website will be assigned a different background color, mapped to how the AI algorithm classifies each article, as opposed to anthropocentric ways of classification, ie., conservative vs. liberal, right vs. left.
  • Text Blocking: Words associated with frequently appearing patterns are blocked by black color stripes.
  • Image Swap: Images covering top news stories are swapped with user contributed gifs crowd sourced from the internet.
  • Hyperlink Swap: Hyperlinks to popular stories are swapped with less popular stories on the site.

With the Hazy Chrome Extension experiment, we aim to change people’s perception of what news is, and to help them question which stories are written and how they’re presented to them.

Beating the ‘software Boss’

We care that people understand that software design today is built entirely on the loop (read our piece about looping in TheStartup), and that their instincts are right in trying to beat it back, and not give into the invisible protocols and rules behind it.

But, our long-term goal is to redesign computation, and put looping functionality in a more holistic context.

Just because complex human faculties, like creativity, are difficult to understand and fall outside the value system of profit and monetary wealth, doesn’t mean that software and computation design shouldn’t include them.

Ideally, we want to invent a pedagogy and design discipline that transform our relationship with computational environments and objects, from a combative one, to a reciprocal, collaborative one.

Then, together, we can finally vanquish the “Software Boss”!

Zhenzhen Qi is an educator, researcher, mathematician, and technologist based in Brooklyn, New York. She is a candidate for Doctor of Education(EdD) at Teachers College, Columbia University. She holds a master’s degree from ITP (Interactive Telecommunication Program) at NYU. She is also a technology resident artist at the New York based art institution Pioneer Works and a member of NEW INC.

Yang Wang is a computational media artist, graphic designer, and software developer based in Brooklyn, New York. He works as a Creative Technologist at architecture firm Rockwell Group. He holds a master’s degree from ITP (Interactive Telecommunication Program) at NYU. He is also a technology resident artist at the New York based art institution Pioneer Works and a member of NEW INC.

zzyw is an art and research collective producing software, installations, and texts examining the cultural, political and educational imprints of computation.

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