Ethnographies of Code Workshop Report

by John Rooksby

Ethnographies of Code - Lived work of Computer Programming

March 30-31 2006
University of Lancaster, UK

The Ethnographies of Code workshop was held at Lancaster University on the 30th and 31st of March 2006. It attracted about fifty participants, and featured sixteen full papers and eight position papers. It was a very international affair, and featured a good mix of computer scientists, sociologists, psychologists and philosophers. The proceedings of the workshop are published.

The idea behind the workshop was to provide a forum for researchers who are trying to bring social analysis beyond its usual sticking points of 'human factors' or 'culture', and into a position where it can be brought to bear on technology design. The title 'Ethnographies of Code' might not seem to make a great deal of sense (Ethnography being a term that literally means writing about people) - unless you accept that code is saturated with, and indivisible from social phenomena. The subtitle 'Computer Programs as the Lived Work of Computer Programming' borrows from Eric Livingston's writings on mathematics (see for example his book The Ethnomethodological Foundations of Mathematics), using his notion of 'lived work' to stress that the program is never free from the practices of programming.

The keynote speakers were Adrian Mackenzie from Lancaster University and Tom Rodden from Nottingham University. Adrian Mackenzie is a lecturer in cultural studies and is well known for his work on 'cultures of code'. His talk covered diverse themes from code-art, to representations of programming in films, to the commodification of code and formations of communities of programmers. He has recently published a book called Cutting Code. Tom Rodden's talk was on mixed reality games and players' development of strategies. He described the problems for ethnographers of observing these games and discussed 'technology probes' as being useful means of investigation.

The first paper session began with a presentation by Dave Martin, one of the workshop organisers. This was on the practical knowledge of programmers in finding and working their way around a large code base. Monika Büscher, also from Lancaster then presented a video of finding and fixing a networking problem and discussed how technical resources are made palpable by the workers involved in order to achieve this. The final paper in this session was by Steinar Kristoffersen from The University of Oslo on how programming entails certain kinds of design decisions and on how an 'epistopics of design' might account for this.

The second session began with Christian Greiffenhagen and Wes Sharrock from Manchester University discussing video of a maths lecturer working at the blackboard. Barry Brown from Glasgow University discussed how it is that programmers work from line to line. Stuart Reeves from The University of Nottingham then presented an ethnography of himself (much in the style of Livingston) as he developed a program.

The third session began with Julia Prior from the University of Technology in Sydney discussing the role of infrastructure in code production. Catalina Danis from the IBM TJ Watson Research Center discussed her study of collaboration in developing code for high performance computers. Phillipe Rouchy from Blekinge Institute of Technology then took a historical approach in a study of PROLOG and shifting professional dynamics.

The first session of the second day had related papers from Sebastian Jekutsch and Frank Schesslinger, both from the Free University in Berlin. The first paper detailed an annotation scheme for programming analysis, and the second presented software for use in doing analysis. The room looked on in envy at this software. Marjahan Begum then discussed a cognitive study of the strategies of novice programmers.

Christophe Lejeune from The University of Technology in Troyes presented his study of the development of an open source web directory. Chris Douce then presented his paper on the practices of programmers in rooting out useful information in other programmers' blogs. Gabriele Gramelsberger from the Free University in Berlin then presented her research on the status of code in some scientific research as being the embodiment of scientific theory, and the kinds of practices entailed when working with such code.

The closing talk was by Morana Alac from the University of California, San Diego. She presented a phenomenological study of developers attempting to get the arm movements of a robot interviewer to look human.