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Software rot, infrastructure decay – unruly bodies of code in time

Fri, September 1, 2:00 to 3:30pm, Sheraton Boston, Floor: 3, Hampton A


No software company, platform, or language is immune to the problems of legacy. Software companies that a decade ago were considered cutting edge, now wonder how to avoid “drowning in their code.” Migration services promise to “buy time” for institutions running on legacy systems. Digitalization efforts in the public sector seek to actively “obsolesce” existing work practices. In essence, innovation practices actively coin new legacies. While the performativity of code and politics of the algorithm have been much discussed, less attention has been given to the political implications of how software life cycles are disciplined – how institutions grapple with code’s unruly body over time. In practice, the temporal work of software is multiply figured: as evolvability, legacy, decay, and rot. This raises the question not only of how systems evolve, but about which evolutions are desirable, what counts as regressive decay and what counts as progressive adaptation? In tracking these concerns ethnographically across multiple sites of software work, I note how conversation inevitably turns to the question of vitality - what does it mean for bodies of code to remain vital and lively? Drawing on the work of software maintainers, I work to reclaim the notion of legacy as a generative form of making time with code.