This special gathering collects reflections of the Critical Code Studies Working Group 2020 (CCSWG ‘20), a biannual meeting to explore the intersections of humanistic inquiry and computer code studies. Coordinated by Mark Marino (USC), Jeremy Douglass (UCSB), and Zach Mann (USC), the 2020 Working Group was held online from January 20 to February 3. It brought together more than 150 participants from around the world to share ideas, populating dozens of discussion threads with hundreds of comments, critiques, and critical readings.
The need to attend to code could not be more urgent. Code exerts a regulatory effect over society and culture: it can influence how we interpret the world and even structure the ways we move through it. Over the past few years, critical theorists and new media scholars like Zeynep Tufekci, Safiya Noble, Shoshana Zuboff and Ruha Benjamin have described the ubiquity of code in political, legal, medical, social, and educational fields, to name a few. They and countless other scholars, artists, and programmers have shown the myriad ways that code, and the systems built on code, can influence everything from our emotional states to the perpetuation of systemic racism. Given the social and cultural power of code, Marino explains,
we need to develop methods to account for the way code accrues meaning and how readers and shifting contexts shape that meaning. We need to learn to understand not only the functioning of code but the way code signifies. We need to learn to read code critically (5).
electronic book review (ebr) holds a storied history with Critical Code Studies (CCS). In 2006, ebr published Marino’s proposal for the field of Critical Code Studies. This argument was then presented at the 2007 Modern Language Association meeting, attended by scholars who have played influential roles in software studies, among them Wendy Chun, Alan Liu and Lev Manovich. (For a more thorough overview of this history of the origins of CCS, see Marino pp. 18-23.) The essay, recently republished as the second chapter of Critical Code Studies, challenges humanities scholars to critically evaluate code to understand its significance. Just like a traditional text, code functions as a semiotic and cultural system; code is a medium that reproduces its systems in the ways it signifies. With code, there is an additional need to consider its technical contexts, including the way that hardware and software influence its structure and display.
Given this seemingly infinite scope, the Critical Code Studies Working Group aims to grow and nurture critical code scholarship as CCS continues to adapt and respond to changing cultural contexts, anticipates future applications, and embraces new critical perspectives. The point of this special gathering is to collect and highlight the conversations of the 2020 Working Group. Each week’s discussion threads have been introduced by specially appointed CCSWG ‘20 participants. These thread editors – or “threaditors” – situate these discussions within CCS and previous Working Groups (see, for instance, the first CCSWG published on ebr), identify the main themes of each week’s discussions, and, most importantly, push CCS in important and inclusive directions.
Co-Organizer Mark Marino begins this ebr gathering with a recent reflection on the 2020 CCS Working Group, and leads into the original introduction to the 2020 event. In the Week 1 essay, Meredith Finkelstein surveys key methodological aims of CCS, and considers the ways attending to code can enrich understanding of digital works, looking specifically at digital artist and programmer Eugenio Tisselli’s code for Amazon.html. In Week 2, Kalila Shapiro discusses the problematic supremacy of English in global programming, and explores ways that Indigenous programming languages, including Jon Corbett’s Cree#, have sought to break down this “cultural coding barrier”. In Week 3, Patricia Silva explores the impact of Google’s Search algorithm on BIPOC and queer cultures and highlights the iconoclastic work of the Feminist.AI collective, a community of academics, artists, and designers who seek to empower people with ethical ways to store, use, and search information.
Marino, Mark C. Critical Code Studies › Electronic Book Review. 31 Jan. 2012, http://electronicbookreview.com/essay/critical-code-studies/.