[Air-L] CFP: Source Code Criticism: The Hermeneutics, Philology, and Didactics of Algorithms

Hannes Bajohr hannes.bajohr at unibas.ch
Thu Sep 23 00:39:11 PDT 2021

*CFP: Source Code Criticism: The Hermeneutics, Philology, and Didactics of

Algorithms determine our situation. From bubble sort to Google’s Page Rank,
credit scores, and predictive policing, the logic of algorithms intervenes
at every step in our lives. Some operate opaquely, shielding their inner
workings from curious eyes. Others strive to be transparent, are shared on
repositories like GitHub, and follow an ethics of open source
accountability. In both cases, however, a more than trivial effort is
required to understand the source codes in which algorithms are usually
written. The workshop “Source Code Criticism: Hermeneutics, Philology, and
Didactics of Algorithms” examines the various ways in which code can be
read, interpreted, and made accessible to current and future readers, and
investigates its role both as often impenetrable societal force as well as
a very particular type of text.

In the widest sense, any chain of operation including human and non-human
elements requiring symbolic operations is an algorithm. In a narrower
sense, however, when we speak of algorithms, we usually mean the texts of
higher-level programming languages like Python, Java, or C++. As text,
source code is anything but ordinary. It acts as an agent in complex chains
of operations and its effects are not confined to the computer alone but
impact social, legal, and economic relations in the real world. Algorithms
are thus social constructs functioning at the interfaces between humans and
machines, implemented in concrete platforms and written by actual humans. A
hermeneutics of algorithms has to take this social reality of source codes
into account in addressing such questions as: What is the ontological
status of algorithms? What is their social, legal, and economic agency? And
in what constellations is their apparent objectivity at odds with their
cultural embeddedness?

Codes are peculiar texts in other ways as well. They perform actions when
executed, reducing expressive language to pure imperatives applied to
otherwise inert data structures. They are thus at the same time more than
and less than ordinary language, requiring a philology that is equally at
home in computer science as in textual criticism. However, source code is
by its very nature already deeply philological: If philologists
contextualise and enrich the source text through commentary, programmers
habitually integrate such commentary into their source code. As
non-executable lines that are skipped by the compiler, comments are used to
elucidate the workings of the code to their current or future readers.
Computer scientist Donald Knuth first formulated the idea of software
development as a kind of philological critique and proposed that source
code should be as intensely documented as possible, thus rendering
algorithms self-explanatory, transparent, and comprehensible not only for
their authors but also for later readers and editors. The workshop wants to
ask what it would mean to take Knuth’s challenge seriously as a
philological practice. What could such a “source code criticism” look like?
And can we imagine it as a retrospective task for researchers to actively
intervene in the source code and add extensive commentary to it?

Finally, unlike ordinary text, the performative element of source code also
invites us to intervene in it and explore its scope, possibilities, and
affordances. Textual criticism and hermeneutics thus become practical and
interactive. Such interaction addresses one of the main tasks of the
current humanities – to develop a familiarity with coding as such that
bridges the gap between the computer sciences and the interpretative
disciplines. Code literacy is sorely needed in the humanities. At the very
least, as a passive skill: You don’t have to be a literary critic in order
to read a novel. Nor do you need to be a computer scientist in order to
understand and critically read software code. Yet digital literacy is a
critical faculty necessary to understand, disclose, classify,
contextualise, and explain code in order to counter the much-invoked power
of algorithms. In order to recognise how exactly a user is used by
software, it is necessary to decipher, comprehend and critically uncover
the design and construction of an algorithm.

The workshop addresses scholars within and outside fields such as Critical
Code Studies, Software and Platform Studies and media studies, and it
invites contributors to comment on the hermeneutics, philology, and
didactics of code. The papers should not exceed 30 minutes and should be
delivered in English.

Please send an *abstract* *of no more than 300 words* and a *brief
biographical note* to hannes.bajohr at unibas.ch by *October 31st*. The
workshop will be held on *March 25, 2022* as a hybrid conference in person
in Basel, Switzerland, as well as over Zoom.

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