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Common Language: COBOL and the Legibility of Code

Date and Time: 
Thursday, April 21, 2016. 06:00 PM - 08:00 PM
Meeting Location: 
Stanford Humanities Center Board Room
Workshop: 
Interdisciplinary Working Group in Critical Theory
Meeting Description: 

COBOL presents a puzzle for historians of information. It was the most widely used programming language for business software development of all time. One estimate taken at the turn of the millennium has it that of the 300 billion lines of code then in use, 240 billion of those lines were written in COBOL. However, COBOL was almost entirely scorned in academia, seen as overly verbose, difficult to express complex ideas in, and difficult to debug.  

Ben Allen, PhD Candidate in Modern Thought & Literature, examines the development of COBOL in the late 1950s, specifically with regard to the design decision (detested by academic computer scientists) to make every valid COBOL statement also a grammatically correct English-language sentence. I argue that COBOL’s resemblance to English was a part of its success, despite how that resemblance to English did not make individual pieces of COBOL easier for programmers to read. I argue instead that COBOL’s English-like quality was chiefly important because of how it made the idea of code itself understandable to non-programming management, and moreover allowed them to understand programmers as potentially high-status managers rather than low-status machine workers. 

Understanding how COBOL’s syntax functioned rhetorically and politically — as a tool to to make the category “code” itself legible, and to make programmers legible as managers rather than machine workers — can help us understand how we as humanists can read code for more than its technical functionality.

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