16 November 2018
Slow Software: an alternative story of how our digital infrastructure gets made and maintained
Beyond the speedy whirlwind of the Silicon Valley, behind the Zuckerbergs, Musks and Thiels and their 80-hour work weeks and save-the-world-with-technology mentality, lies a different story of the corporate software developer. These are the men and women that build our everyday technologies, in old companies that move at snail speed. They don’t want to save the world, but rather revel in living the good life. They come to work at 10am and leave at 5pm. They don’t know the exact purpose is of their work, yet they embrace the process in the meantime. They produce a slow software that breeds a sort of positive, stable mediocrity that they’ve come to enjoy.
My research looks at life inside a slow software company - how this type of software - with its legacy and latency - influences its workers and their corporate environment (and vice versa). Based on nearly 2 years of ethnographic research in a mapping and navigation software company in Berlin, I will describe the way in which building within slow software environments goes wrong – the way data is leaked, software gets buggy or shuts down, and the way human error is written into code. As Nathan Ensmenger underlined in historical account of the professionalization of programming, software is history, organization, and social relationships made tangible (2007). As I will explain, a piece of software holds decades of development and design, ways of organizing, and ways of working and being together. Through unpacking slow software development’s culture, we can also come closer to understanding how our everyday digital media are built and maintained, both in their limitations and possibilities.