“Code on a Grecian Urn”: Humanists attempt to articulate the cultural value of programming

One of my favorite comments from last year’s communal exploration of the source code for Colossal Cave Adventure. Stephen Ramsay writes:

I’m going to call it the “Code on a Grecian Urn” problem. Let me begin by calling attention to Nick Montfort’s wonderfully pithy note at the end of Week 1:”Hm, I don’t know. The concept appeals to me, but the technique itself just isn’t doing it for me yet.” I think that captures a lot of peoples’ reaction. The concept appeals. But how do we do it? What does it mean to do it? And what is the concept again?

From the start, I have accepted the premise of CCS because I feel as if I can say the following: humanistic study is the study of the artifacts of the human experience. Code is one of those artifacts. So if we can study books, and sculptures, and designs, and railway timetables as objects that do cultural work, then surely we can also undertake critical study of code. I’m not trying to limit the definition of critical study or the humanities. I’m just trying to convey a simple idea about why the critical study of code makes sense to me. It makes sense, I think, because it shares something with the other things we typically study. Human beings create novels. They also create code. It might be legitimate to say that these critical practices should be methodologically distinct in some way (pace game studies versus literary studies), but we’ve come together because we think the critical practices we engage in with other human artifacts might also be useful in the study of code.

So the concept appeals. But when we try to do it, I think we fall into one of two modes of speaking – neither of which seems quite right to anyone who wants to talk about CCS as something distinct. The first mode really wants to talk about the *software* and its role in the culture (and really, I’m using phrases like “role in the culture” to signify an extremely ramified set of diverse methodological practices). So we can talk about Adventure as part of game history, as part of the culture of the 70s, as a form of virtual reality, as an interactive narrative, as part of my childhood, and so forth. This is all fine. Many of us come from disciplinary backgrounds that engage in one or more of these kinds of “readings.” Most of us were trained to do them, are comfortable doing them, and we are generally convinced of the utility of this kind of practice.

But then, none of this (we are told) is critical code studies. CCS really tries to *read the code*.

via electronicbookreview.com – Critical Code Studies Conference – Week Three Discussion – Dennis Jerz.