[NetBehaviour] Code Is Not Literature

Alan Sondheim sondheim at panix.com
Fri Jan 24 01:06:02 CET 2014

Well, there are a number of issues here. In the first place, they're 
looking at code for particular reasons, to understand it in particular 
ways; code as literature or as part-objects within literature (codework) 
is not meant to be decoded the same way. Think of counting the number of 
"t"s for example in a poem - that's also a way of decoding it, but is of 
course different than literary reading. I think there's a hermeneutics 
involved here, as well as the Wittgensteinian idea of "family of usages" - 
so who is looking at the code/codework, for what purpose, and so forth? 
It's problematic; since code is primarily originating with programmers, 
they're interested in its functionality, taking it apart, but that's not 
it's only function, certainly not within the aegis of literature. An 
interesting aside to this of course is reading a mathematical text, which 
I think _can_ be a work of literature fairly directly - for example 
Einstein's theory of relativity. One's reading speeds and slows, and the 
formulas require decoding as well, but of a different sort, I think; I 
also feel that, say, cosmological formulas are denser and more layered, 
more difficult to unravel perhaps, than most programming code - but I may 
well be mistaken here (and should take this whole sentence back!).

- Alan

On Thu, 23 Jan 2014, marc garrett wrote:

> Code Is Not Literature - or is it?
> I was browsing Slashdot as one does and found a link to an article called 
> ?Code Is Not Literature?.
> As I was reading this I was thinking of Mez and Alan Sondheim, and thought to 
> myself - surely, if someone turns it into literature, then it is literature?
> Anyway, have a read and see what you think?
> "Hacker and author Peter Seibel has done a lot of work to adopt one of the 
> most widely-accepted practices toward becoming a better programmer: reading 
> high quality code. He's set up code-reading groups and interviewed other 
> programmers to see what code they read. But he's come to learn that the 
> overwhelming majority of programmers don't practice what they preach. Why? He 
> says, 'We don't read code, we decode it. We examine it. A piece of code is 
> not literature; it is a specimen.' He relates an anecdote from Donald Knuth 
> about figuring out a Fortran compiler, and indeed, it reads more like a 
> 'scientific investigation' than the process we refer to as 'reading.' Seibel 
> is now changing his code-reading group to account for this: 'So instead of 
> trying to pick out a piece of code and reading it and then discussing it like 
> a bunch of Comp Lit. grad students, I think a better model is for one of us 
> to play the role of a 19th century naturalist returning from a trip to some 
> exotic island to present to the local scientific society a discussion of the 
> crazy beetles they found.'"
> http://developers.slashdot.org/story/14/01/21/1847217/code-is-not-literature
> Here?s Seibel?s original text on his blog
> http://www.gigamonkeys.com/code-reading/
> wishing you well.
> marc
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