THE ABC OF NEW CULTURE: Back to M, as in Malfunction
photo: Nick Webb, flickr, CC BY 2.0 license

Back to M, as in Malfunction

BY Mirek Filiciak / Alek Tarkowski

Despite the lack of a ‘liberated computer language’, software itself has a tendency to rebel against its creators, thanks to a wide variety of bugs and defects in the source code

2 minutes reading left

Yes, failure, a bug, a malfunction. We’ve already had an entry for the letter “M”, but where new technologies are concerned, there must always be room for malfunction.

The road of technological progress is paved with broken devices and failed projects, which certainly outnumber the successful ones, but die rather unspectacularly (albeit in massive numbers: according to a controversial report published by ObjectWatch, failing high tech projects cost the global economy a whopping 500 billion dollars per month). We won’t dwell upon the risk inherent in every high tech investment. Instead, let’s take a favourable look at the malfunctions that unmask just how illusory our control over technology is. There lies a certain beauty in the demonstration of malfunctions — perhaps even a political manifesto.

Malfunctions, errors, and imperfections are a fascinating subject, both during sporting events (part of the excitement in motor sports is, after all, the underlying anticipation of a crash), as well as shows that seem to have less in common with the Roman circus. Heiner Müller, the celebrated 20th century German playwright who was second only to Bertolt Brecht, once claimed that the uniqueness of theatre hinged on the possibility that the actor could very well die on stage. The only malfunctions we will be examining (in a favourable light, as mentioned above) are the premeditated variety. Most projects of this type have been born in music, which, next to computer programming, is probably the most interesting creative field of recent decades.

It probably started with the damaging of records. László Moholy-Nagy wrote at the start of the 20th century that vinyl records could be cut, “turning the gramophone from an instrument of reproduction into an instrument for musical performance”. Moholy-Nagy’s use of the phonograph as an instrument predated musique concrète as well as turntablism, which employs the record player as a full-fledged musical instrument. Contemporary devotees of malfunction-based music include Christian Marclay, who cuts up and re-joins pieces of several albums into new records, and whose Record Without a Cover is intended to be shelved with no protective sleeve. Then there’s Yasunao Tone and the German trio Oval, who damage CDs with sharp objects and tape. Emphasizing the sound of a skipping CD, the crackle of vinyl, and even short-circuited low-voltage electronic devices or software bugs gave rise to a whole new genre of music known as glitch, which blossomed throughout the 90s. It is the music that Kim Cascone famously described as “post-digital” in her essay “The Aesthetics of Failure”.

Glitch — a genre of music belonging to an era in which the computer serves as both the primary gateway into culture and a tool with which culture itself is made — emphasises that which normally remains hidden: the fact that technology is not always “transparent”. This is most easily observed when technology breaks down. Similar projects can be found outside the world of music: we can intentionally “break” films downloaded off the internet, causing “the original images to dissolve into pixels, thus making the hidden data structure visible”. The exposure of that which is hidden is obviously more than just a transformation of consumption into creation, it also demonstrates a deft way of naturalizing ideology.

There is also political significance in emphasizing malfunctions. Ever since capitalism learned to profit off of rebellion and (as some claim) the concept of subversion has run its course, malfunctions remain the only option for destabilizing the system. This can be in the literal sense as well as at the “meta” level, as Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker propose in The Exploit: a Theory of Networks, which describes the need to “break” (or liberate) programming languages, which have an increasingly significant influence on our lives, and which — in their current forms — are subject to the demands of usefulness and efficiency. The authors wish to replace them with a “liberated computer language” which will “favour an ethos of creative destruction.” If the limits of our programming languages are the limits of our world, to update Wittenstein’s famous quote, then we need languages that have a word for “rebellion”.

Despite the lack of a “liberated computer language”, software itself has a tendency to rebel against its creators, thanks to a wide variety of bugs and defects in the source code. The instability of Windows, the world’s most popular operating system, has turned the “Blue screen of death” (the error message displayed when the system crashed) into a legend. There’s something odd about computer bugs: it turns out that they can be useful, as long as there’s someone who knows how to use them. The “exploit” mention in Galloway and Thacker’s book is a special code snippet that takes advantage of a software bug to produce unintended results. The webcomic below demonstrates one such exploit (non-geeks are asked to treat this in-joke as a malfunction in the essay).

XKCD, Exploits of a mom, CC BY-NC

The exploit is thus the missing piece of the puzzle: the puzzle itself, as it turns out, differs from what was originally created by the authors of the program or system. To use a different metaphor, the exploit is like a spell: apparent gibberish that has the power to change the reality described by computer code.

Easter eggs, in a sense, are another (harmless) form of malfunction. These hidden software functions are usually slipped into the code as a joke by the programmers. Those in the know thus have the power to do entirely novel things with a program, as long as they can find a backdoor left open (intentionally or otherwise) by its authors.

Ultimately, malfunctions are often brought about simply by using a piece of technology. Users have an unfailing tendency to come up with new and unintended ways to use a program, device or object. Regardless of how carefully a piece of technology has been designed by its inventors, the users must always figure the functions out for themselves, far from the watchful eye of the creators. On occasion, they succeed in doing something unexpected. This song, for example, features a beautiful malfunction 3:30 into the track.

Similarly, technology designed to increase the power of research computers, or even facilitate communication in the event of a nuclear attack, is now being used to swap funny pictures of cats. Culture 2.0 has turned out to be the result of a series of malfunctions that happened to the internet at the turn of the century. Let’s just hope no one tries to “fix” them anytime soon.

“Exploits of a Mom” by xkcd

translated by Arthur Barys