Critical Code Studies

While writing some commentary on chatbot code, I realized that I was implementing some of the textual analysis techniques literary studies promotes, a kind of close reading engaging in exegesis and extrapolation. It occurs to me that this line of analysis parallels my reading of scientific documents, and I’ve been wondering if we shouldn’t set up another category for this type of scholarship.

One model is Critical Legal Studies, although I’m not sure these readings would necessarily involve political subversion, though I wouldn’t be disappointed if they did. But they would be examinations of the code as a text that is not value free.

Two proposals:
Critical Code Studies & Critical Science Studies.

Critical Code Studies: The application of critical heuristics to the interpretation of computer code. Code (Aarseth’s textons) would be studied as text (scriptons). Analysis would address, but not be limited to:

  • the text of the code itself
  • coding structures, architecture, flow
  • documentation

CCS would include all critical approaches to the code, though within the field techniques for discussing elements of the code could be standardized and shared.

Critical Science Studies: The study of scientific discourse through the lense of critical theory.


5 Responses to “Critical Code Studies”

  1. 1 Christy Dena

    Fascinating stuff Mark. Perhaps add ‘visualisation’ to the list of objects to study in CCS? I’d like to tease out more about CCS — so the analysis errs on the side of experience with applying it? What about analysis of code you haven’t used? I guess this is like reviewing a book you haven’t read! But aren’t there 2 levels to code analysis: commentary on an approach (that you may or may not have tried) and commentary on the actual code (which is rampant in developer lists)?

    And by scriptons — does this mean code is studied as a performance of sorts too?

    And CSS is a methodology that someone somewhere must have broached. I’d love to find out…Anyone?

  2. 2 Mark Marino

    I see great potential in the commentary on potential code (code not yet put into application). In terms of “commentary,” I want to emphasize that this would be an interpretive process rather than a proscriptive or descriptive process. You would read something out of the code rather than map out its features. Or better said, this approach would see all code as signifying more than its functions.

    Re: scriptons. If I follow your question, yes– as a performance (although this word may have a certain hermeneutic specificity that I don’t want to limit CCA to just yet.

    N. Katherine Hayles seems to perfrom CSA regularly and perhaps “Lexia to Perplexia” suggests that the lins between science and creative, code and text, is dotted at best. I’m sure there are others: Bolter, for example? Perhaps all of us New Media types. But I’m not sure I’ve seen the approach articulated as a methodology, as a critical approach. Jeremy?

  3. 3 Christy Dena

    I must say that beyond the code of bots is the code of any online or digital work. Whenever I review or explore an online work I check the code and do a web-suck (I use Internet Researcher software) of all the sites associated with it. I find out the sites that are meant to be surprises, but for me that is part of a ‘game’. I get to outsmart the author but have the joy of seeing how the sites are integrated into the work. This sneaking around, or jumping the gun, is what ‘gamers’ who follow ALG (Alternate Reality Games) games do: the ‘detective’ urge to discover what happens moves beyond the ‘inside the skull’ deduction to ‘outside the skull’ hacking. Designers of such games anticipate and encourage these ‘hacks’: leaving clues and messages in the source code. Where do we draw the line then: what is really metadata and what isn’t? Critical Code Studies says all data is relevant and pivotal to the ‘reading’. Or does it?

    Over to you…

  1. 1 Critical Code Studies in ebr at WRT: Writer Response Theory
  2. 2 Critical Code Studies, the blog at WRT: Writer Response Theory

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