Soft Focus: How Software Reshaped Technical Vision and Practice 
Evan Hepler-Smith (Harvard University)
William Deringer (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
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Saturday 3 September, 11:00-12:45 (UTC+0)

Short Abstract:

The practices involved in producing technical knowledge are now frequently carried out by means of discipline-specific software. On a variety of scales, from entire disciplines to specific research groups, such specialized software programs have reconfigured technical vision and practice.

Long Abstract

Over the last few decades, in a wide variety of technical fields, the practices and judgments involved in knowledge production have been carried out by other means than they previously had been: by means of discipline-specific software. Such specialized software programs have both embodied and reshaped particular modes of vision and practice. This panel will examine five specialized programs that have reconfigured technical vision and practice on a variety of scales, from entire disciplines to specific research groups.

William Deringer will investigate how VisiCalc, a program for spreadsheet-based modeling, allowed certain financial professionals, especially investment bankers, to imagine the space of possible financial action in radically new ways. Stephanie Dick will discuss MACSYMA, an early symbolic and algebraic mathematical system designed to preserve paper and pencil symbolisms and the intuitions they supposedly afforded in automating algebraic work. Evan Hepler-Smith will address ChemDraw, a molecular drawing program that at once supported chemists' development of idiosyncratic visual rhetorics and reinforced a particular standardized form of representation that stripped away such variation. Nadine Levin will discuss XCMS, a cloud-based program for metabolomics at Scripps Research Institute that integrated different forms of statistics and enabled scientists to see biology in new ways. Rebecca Woods will address FlockBook, a software system for managing livestock pedigrees that reconfigured the kinds of vision implicated in making claims about animal breeds.

Accepted papers: