Content Aware: Labour, Software, Media-Specific AnalysisThis essay presents an analysis of Photoshop icons through the theories of Wendy Chun and Katherine Hayles, who argue respectively: The visuality of software deceptively empowers users, and hypertext media contain citations of other media and must be read as such.
In her text On Software, or the Persistence of Visual Knowledge, Wendy Chun argues that software simultaneously hides and reveals computation, which is inherently non-visual.1 Operating systems create a certain subject who is empowered to take ownership of their actions, even though they actually have little control of the computer itself. This visualization and subjection of hardware is largely taken for granted–in any mainstream OS, the intended way to engage with the computer is through a personal desktop. Each OS has particular qualities and stylizations associated with it, but they are modelled similarly–the Mac Trash and the Microsoft Recycling Bin both represent the limbo where files could either be restored or permanently deleted. Within the OS are potentially many kinds of software intended for different uses: browsers, text editors, and video suites partly live together in the space of the screen. These software reference one another, each one borrowing signifiers for similar and different actions: the magnifying glass icon can mean to zoom or search or both depending on the software. This network of icons becomes a reliable standard for sharing meaning across platforms, but it is also hegemonic. Why was the magnifying glass decided as the most widely accessible referent for “looking closely”? What other perspectives does this visualization ignore? Nonetheless, these icons seem to take on a hyper-specific meaning within the OS and become detached from their physical context. The point Chun makes is that these icons abstract functions of the computer, and it is through the abstraction that we are empowered to use it. However, visual abstraction seems to only empower if it is relatable, intuitive to use, or aesthetically pleasurable.
Sometimes when software updates include new functions, there is not a shared referent for it and one must be created at the same time. For example, the content aware tool in Adobe Photoshop was released within the last decade as a possible function of AI. The tool works by algorithmically filling in missing patches and seams out of the image itself. The icon that represents it is made up of two diverging arrows that criss-cross in the centre–not very indicative of much. Its crudeness is perhaps because the function does not mimic an analog technique to draw a gestural comparison–it is representing an action that is not grounded in human experience. While the creation of it came out of the possibilities inherent in computation and AI, it presumably also came out of the way Photoshop is used as a tool of mass image production. This aspect of software isn’t addressed by Chun, that there is a kind of symbiotic relationship between labourer, computation, and the market in the development of certain functions. If Chun is arguing against the obfuscation of hardware by software, it is possible to draw a comparison to the modernist design aphorism “form follows function”, which she might critique similarly. This ethos has been largely refuted, and long since transformed by the post-modern position that design cannot predict how people will use objects or interpret images. Chun is not claiming that software follows hardware, nor should design and computation be taken synonymously. However, software as a visual signifier belongs to a network of contexts at the same time that it represents a computational task. To introduce software to Katherine Hayles’ medium specific analysis (MSA) positions it in relation to other media and how it might be read through them.2
While Photoshop tools without an analog comparison become increasingly difficult to represent, many of them reference darkroom tools, art supplies, and gestures of the human hand. As mentioned previously, the icons are best able to hide computation when they abstract through something familiar, and what is familiar is contingent on cultural and historical circumstances. In order to read icons in multiple ways, re-contextualizing them through multiple media is essential. For example, comparing Photoshop icons to past versions might happen in a book, where it is relatively easy to combine text and image in a sequential way. It is the medium specificity of the book that offers a method of interpretation. Through Chun’s ideology of software and Hayles’ MSA, how might Photoshop icons be read? What do they reveal through what they hide? How might the medium of print change how they are read? This task is best carried out through icons with clear and multiple referents; the rectangle tool might not be the most fruitful icon to read because it is too abstract. An icon abstracts best when it is the clearest, and an icon is clearest when it resembles a tangible tool or widely understood concept. The clone stamp and the magic wand icons are easily recognizable as a rubber stamp and a wand, which point to clear processes and ideas outside of the software. Furthermore, like many functions in photoshop, they are made to hide doubly: the labor of the computer from the photo editor and the labor of the photo editor from the consumer.
Like the content aware function, the clone stamp is intended to make the construction of the image seamless. The icon masks computation by invoking the human gesture of physically stamping a mark on a surface. What else does it invoke? Materially, it points to the feel of rubber, wood, and ink, which all have different textures and weights. Rubber stamps have commonly been used in office work to add a date or signature to a document in a streamlined way. Firstly, this connotes the mechanical labor of bureaucracy, a kind of labor not dissimilar to the use of the clone stamp itself. Secondly, it connotes a benign legitimacy. An institutional stamp or seal is meant to sanction a document as official, but is often perceived as a nuisance to seek out rather than a meaningful step in the process. Editing an image can be tedious and numbing, but it corresponds to an ideal of how the image should look, which can be personal or directed by a client. Furthermore, the ability to successfully “hide” how an image is constructed is an industry standard in which most images are compared against. Chun’s reading of software might suggest that it is not exactly the skill of the editor hiding the construction of the image, but that the software makes it appear that way by hiding the work of the hardware. The creation of an image may very well need a human’s aesthetic judgement, but many functions in Photoshop are already automated and point to one possible future of image production. Using the clone stamp to conceal also suggests that it can go in the other direction, that it can intentionally reveal an image as edited or reconfigure it into an entirely different one.
The magic wand tool works by selecting areas of an image with the most contrast in a single click. On the surface, it seems to be named for its ease of selection, although it is often not very accurate. In another sense, the icon is an exaggerated and comical manifestation of Chun’s concept. However, when we say that something is magic, we acknowledge that it works so well but that we might not want to know how. For some tasks, we just want them to be completed, not get lost in the specifics of how, or even complete them ourselves. The icon also connotes fantasy and fiction, the ability to be generative and imagine a theory for how something works. As Chun has stated, the software intends to place the person operating the tool in a position of power through not knowing. More accurately in this case, it is relinquishing power to the function through the spectacularity of it. As some software functions are tiresome and boring such as the clone stamp, others are entertaining and arresting. Both visually mask computation through different kinds of experience. While the magic wand tool is not particularly astonishing, the task unfolds instantly, and the dotted lines of the selection are animated to sparkle in a seductive way. This form of obscurity works through aesthetically pleasing (or confounding) functions, rather than functions that relate to a physical process. When software is spectacular, we know that we are not doing the work ourselves, but the immediacy of the function barely registers; we are always one step ahead, already thinking of the next task.
For Hayles, media-specific analysis is about both the specifics of the form and citations of one media in another. As shown to an extent, it is clear how MSA is important to Chun’s argument and a reading of Photoshop iconography: the citation of various media in the software make it recognizable while concealing how it actually works. For MSA, it is important to remember that software such as Photoshop is always doubly mediated. It has to exist within an OS container, which itself has particular media citations that may or may not differ from the citations inside Photoshop. In another medium, it is also doubled; software icons in print point to the computer, but also live in a particular form of logic separate from the computer. Part of the medium-specificity of print is the labor and tools used to make it, and how a poster depicting software was made with software. Hayles addresses the importance of labor in MSA by stating that publishing was historically divided by creation and production, but is now brought into a cohesive process through desktop publishing. She stresses that this shift is primarily a material one, and that perhaps the medium can make certain conditions of labor possible. Humans and computers co-create, which is identifiable to varying extents. The content aware tool, automated email, and predictive text messaging may point to the significance of distribution over creation in contemporary media, but MSA encourages thoughtful intervention in how one might work with computation to generate meaning.