Jeremy Douglass and Mark C. Marino reflect on the activities of the Critical Code Studies (CCS) Working Group 2020.
Editor's note: This introduction was originally published on the CCS website in January 2020 as “Week 1: Introduction to Critical Code Studies”.
Welcome to the first week of the 2020 Critical Code Studies Working Group. During this week, we’ll be introducing critical code studies in general by means of the introductory chapter to the forthcoming book Critical Code Studies (The MIT Press). We’ll also take this week as an opportunity to introduce newcomers to the field but also to take stock in where the field has come and to look forward to where it is headed next.
Critical Code Studies (CCS) names the applications of hermeneutics to the interpretation of the extrafunctional significance of computer computer source code. (Extra here means not outside of or in addition to but instead growing out of…). CCS holds that the lines of code of a program are not value-neutral and can be analyzed using the theoretical approaches applied to other semiotic systems, in addition to particular interpretive methods developed specifically for the discussions of programs.
But what does it mean to explore culture through code?
Mark answers this question in the book, reading code as varied as the leaked software from the Climategate scandal to code written by media philosopher Friedrich Kittler. He reads art objects like the Transborder Immigrant Tool, variants of electronic literature works like Taroko Gorge, and code languages like the English-like precursor to COBOL, FLOW-MATIC. He explores low level to high level languages, from ASSEMBLY to Inform 7, including languages in Arabic (قلب or ’alb), Hawaiian (in the ʻAnuʻu project), and Cree. (For much more on Indigenous Programming, look forward to our Week 2 discussion). In a medium most consider to be merely an operationalized mathematics, readings of code lead him to discuss issues of racial and ethnic bias and the gendered bias he calls encoded chauvinism. These readings have grown out of and reference discussions from past Critical Code Studies Working Groups because these collectives, these gathering of such varied minds, have the ability to identify so many complex meanings.
In the epilogue to the CCS book, Mark claims we have reached a moment where “philosophers process, poets publish, and curators collect code knowing scholars will interpret it as discourse” (227) – in other words, where the basic tenets of critical code studies, that code is meaningful, have been widely accepted. How does that acceptance change the culture of code? How does that facilitate what we are trying to do here?
Because code has become accepted as a means of expression, we now have new works choosing code as one of their communication channels. Consider: Eugenio Tisselli's “Amazon” webpage, released over Twitter. Created in response to this summer’s devastating fires, Tisselli’s code articulated his despair over the environmental effects of globalized capitalism. Code was able to serve as his language of expression because, as Geoff Cox and Alex McLean have written, code speaks.
see related discussion: amazon.html by Euguenio Tisselli
Code is a social medium and its meaning is also social. The “critical” aspect of critical code studies looks to explore, among other aspects, this social dimension, especially as it pertains to power relations, across differences of race, gender, sexuality, and socio-economic status or class. “Critical” code studies is not technological history at the service of digital industries, it is an exploration of human culture in code complete with biases, abuses, inconsistencies, and injustices. CCS is an alternative to “uncritically documenting military-industrial-academic artifacts on behalf of those who created them to the benefit of their creators’ self-regard” (238). We aspire to more.
At the same time, it is worthwhile to look to critical theories and philosophical paradigms that you have found useful or would like to apply but perhaps can’t see how. Or maybe you have come across some code that you can’t read or can’t find a critical hand hold on. (This is a good time to introduce some of your code critique threads).
Programming has continued to evolve. New and strange languages have emerged. With the advent of contemporary machine learning algorithms, more code is being generated by software, code that programmers may never deal with directly. How does meaning change in such contexts? As more people discuss algorithms, what can the study of code add to those conversations?
So we invite the CCS community to begin this week of the Working Group with a broad, reflexive conversation, a thread that invites you to look back and forward, that invites you to express your thoughts about the potential obstacles for critical code studies as well as your own insights and inspirations.
- What do you want to know about CCS?
- What are the next challenges for Critical Code Studies? Current puzzles?
- What projects would we like to launch in the coming years? An edited collection? Conference?
- How has CCS been most productive?
- What are some current questions or problems that CCS is uniquely suited to addressing?
- What are the lacuna or blindspots – what should CCS be addressing that it is not currently?
Cox, Geoff, and Alex McLean. Speaking Code: Coding as Aesthetic and Political Expression. MIT Press, 2012.
Marino, Mark C. Critical Code Studies. MIT Press, 2020.