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Confronting the Software-ization of Media

“Now that software lives in our pockets, runs our cars and homes, and dominates our waking lives, ignorance of code is no longer acceptable.”

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Software was bathed in bright white light in June.

Businessweek, Bloomberg’s business magazine, printed “The Code Issue,” including Paul Ford’s 38,000-word essay on the craft and culture of computer coding. The reason for this big, double edition, according to its editor, Josh Tyrangiel:

“Now that software lives in our pockets, runs our cars and homes, and dominates our waking lives, ignorance [of code] is no longer acceptable.”

He’s right. And yet, ignorance still rules digital media. We keep talking about Internet video, Internet ads and Web pages as if they exist. They don’t. There’s just one thing that exists in the realm of computing — computer code.

We keep talking about Internet video, Internet ads and Web pages as if they exist. They don’t. There’s just one thing that exists in the realm of computing — computer code.

Welcome to “the software-ization of media.” Over the last 20 years, media has transformed from a brush stroke into a sort of software. We sketch structure with CSS today, code functionality with JavaScript and transcode content into binary. Then we merge it all together into a big package of computer code. Fact is, media is a code-based medium now — and the time has come to face it.

As a creative art, media is defined by the tools that produce it. For instance, we use big presses to create broadsheet newspapers, and sophisticated transmission systems to create 24-hour news networks.

Digital media is no different. It’s defined by the tools that produce it. The better the tools, the more we can do, and the more easily we can do it.

The question is, as Internet publishers, what kind of tools do we want at our disposal?

We have two options: Use tools that abstract our control of media from the code beneath it, or use code-level tools that manipulate code directly. The first option is king right now. Most publishing platforms want us to build and customize media without writing or editing code. This is a great idea — but it exists in a vacuum.

The market has yet to confront the software-ization of media.

We rarely discuss the 1s and 0s that lurk beneath YouTube videos, New York Times Web pages and Facebook ads. As a result, code-level publishing tools are hard to imagine — unless we read the handwriting on the wall.

We rarely discuss the 1s and 0s that lurk beneath YouTube videos, New York Times Web pages and Facebook ads.

Code is the lingua franca of an increasingly computerized world. Our use of code determines whether we actively shape this world or passively observe it. That’s why we spend so much time with Amazon Web Services (code-level control of servers), Twilio (code-level control of telecommunications) and New Relic (code-level view of analytics). Their popularity offers a crucial lesson about our code-driven world.

It’s best controlled by working with code directly.

This casts Internet publishing in a whole new light. If digital media is made of code, then code-level publishing tools are the best way to manipulate our media. They should allow us to customize and control this media (videos, ads and more) in more ways than we ever thought possible — both before publication and afterward, in real time.

We can go further: Code-level publishing tools are the key to a completely open-ended publishing platform.

If digital media is made of code, then code-level publishing tools are the best way to manipulate our media.

We’ve never had such a thing. Think about it. Most publishing platforms work with one type of media at a time. For instance, YouTube works with a YouTube video and Pinterest works with a Pinterest widget. And yet, they’re both made of code. So, why couldn’t we use one platform to customize and control both at the same time?

We could. It’s just unconventional.

Fact is, a code-driven publishing platform can customize and control any sort of media in any sort of way, before or after delivery. Flexibility like this is very valuable. Publishing platforms are hard to build. They take a lot of time and money. So, we tend to rely on other people’s platforms. As a result, we have to bend our editorial and commercial plans around their ideas.

This doesn’t just stifle our creativity and inventiveness. It also puts technologists such as YouTube, Facebook and a whole lot of startups in the driver’s seat when it comes to the media we publish online.

Tyrangiel, editor of “The Code Issue,” calls this natural. “The world belongs to people who code,” he says.

Maybe. Or, in the case of digital media, maybe the world belongs to people who control code.


James Abels is the founder of Three Minute Media. A lawyer, Abels has covered digital media as a reporter for Forbes.com and Mergermarket. Reach him at james@pub-os.com.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.