Marisa Leavitt Cohn

Download Full EssayKeeping Software Present

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This chapter addresses how we might treat software as a temporal object, subject to continuous change and lived with over time as it evolves. While much of STS literature has focused on software’s mutability and dynamism, less attention has been placed on how coders working to maintain software systems grapple with this changeability over the long dureé. Drawing upon ethnographic fieldwork with an outer planetary space science organization, I examine how its engineers work to maintain a decade-old infrastructure and to keep software ‘present’ – both visually represented and accountable to the organization as well as up-to-date and aligned to shifting institutional expectations. I argue that the significance of software’s materiality for the politics of computational work lies not only in its present performance, but also in its forms of duration – the entangled lifetimes of careers, professional identities, programming languages and paradigms. The case of an aging and obsolescent legacy infrastructure foregrounds the lived temporalities of software.  These are temporalities of decay, obsolescence, and legacy-making, which can only be understood through relationships to code across time. Thus the relationality of code exists not only in the evocative present but also in the shared histories and anticipated futures that a body of code binds together.