Code as Material Culture

One hot summer in France I found myself excavating Neanderthal bones in Les Pradelles, a Mousterian reindeer butchering site north of the Dordogne. I was young and restless and relentlessly curious, and the idea of spending long, impassioned days in a gravel pit analyzing and interpreting objects seemed like a great idea at the time.

It was also during this time I first became interested in — edit: obsessed with — material culture.

In University, I took a variety of social science courses that allowed me to think about the symbolic components of complex organizational systems. Everything from Mayan death rituals to modern American foodways, Haitian voodoo to Northwest Coast Native Art. Anthropology became an approach to problem solving — a way of thinking about domains and their structure — and of “man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun” (Clifford Geertz, Interpretation of Cultures).

Material culture was different, like Japanese Death Poetry or Cat Stevens. I loved seeing the physicality of a culture embodied in an object from the past. To me that object was everything: it was a keyhole, it was metaphor, it was technology, it was language, it was life.

Hand Axes and Early Technology

One day while excavating in my rocky quadrant thinking about Lorca and his gorgeous “Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejias,” I found something. It was recognizably man-made, a tool perhaps, appearing somewhat out of place in the context of sandstone rubble. Snapping out of the depths of that July afternoon, I took out my own tool, a black flat paintbrush, and worked the bristles swiftly around the object. I meticulously unearthed it from the warm dirt. Before removing the object, I sketched it in media res to identity its original place within the grid.

I let out an exhale. I looked down at the object for a long time, forgetting about the dirt that was making interesting indentation patterns under my knees.

I took this object to the basin at the threshold of the excavation site. Washing my object in water was somewhat of a religious experience. Here in my hands was a hand axe. A tool crafted by someone on the fringes of humanness. The last time this axe was held, I guessed, it was likely by a Neanderthal. I marveled at this object, turning it around in my hand under the afternoon sun. I examined with detail the denticulated edges of the biface. Moving my fingers over the edges, palming the object with force, I let it slip perfectly into the curves of my inner palm.

Biface Profiles - early forms of material culture

Biface profiles – early forms of material culture

To me this tool was recognizably material culture. It told a story. It had a presence that was re-adopted — catalogued by myself and reclaimed as an artefact of the site — and yet its past was the evolutionary blueprint behind its creation. It was beautiful.

Material Culture 

What is material culture? Material Culture is the physical embodiment of culture in the objects and architecture that culture has made. Material culture studies is the cross-disciplinary field analyzing the relationships between people and their objects: the making, history, preservation, and interpretation of objects. Material culture theory (and practice) draws from the humanities and social sciences, from museology, history, archaeology, historic preservation, folklore, and the like. Anything from momental buildings and architectural elements, Artificial Intelligence, Cosmopolitan magazine, shoes, hair brushes. All can be considered material culture.

Code as Material Culture

As I continue onward in my journey as a developer, I often reflect on my time at Les Pradelles. How does material culture relate to code? What does a JSON object and a hand axe have in common? What can object oriented design tell us about human relationships? How does programming and the machines we create and flex give us insight into human logic?

How does this:


Dada(ist) Haiku: a haiku generator app from Wikipedia articles. Designed by Anna Rasshivkina, Liz Kalina and myself.

Relate to this:

Note: this app produces nonsensical Dada(ist) haikus which are (sometimes) as delightful as they are random

Occasionally this app produces Dataist haikus which are as delightful as they are random.

Excavating a Codebase

We can imagine code as material culture because it is application architecture. It is built by humans, modified by humans, preserved by humans. It is both physical and object-oriented. You can hold code in your hand. You can touch code, inspecting it in the console of a website with your cursor. As with any tool, it is adapted to the needs of its users over time.

JavaScript, for example, owes its incredibly light framework to its haphazard birth as a programming language in May 1995. Developed by Brendan Eich in just 10 days some 20+ years ago, the language itself has evolved over time, entering a new realm of standardization and innovation. JavaScript frameworks and libraries like Node.js, Backbone.js, Underscore.js, Handlebars.js, etc., have added complexity and fullness to the stack. Like the development of biface tools across the Palaeolithic landscape, our material culture reflects a movement towards efficiency and standardization.

Coding encodes human logic. This is exciting across multiple programming languages because there are so many different ways of solving the same problem. Viewed in this way, methods and frameworks become lenses into human logic. When I am familiarizing myself with a codebase, as I did in Les Pradelles, I often ask myself the following questions:

  1. What is the logic of production of this tool?
  2. How do humans experience and interact with this technology?
  3. What purpose does this technology serve?
  4. Where am I in the codebase, stack, etc., and how does this part relate to the object itself?

Humans and their Machines

When we imagine code as material culture we can also think of it it as a lens into the current state of affairs of technological production. Technology is, after all, as much about human relationships as it is about machines. If a hand axe demarcates a type of human cognition some 40,000 years ago, what about code today? What does this mean if 85% of “producers” of code are male? And if this is the case, how does this effect our experience with technology?

In my next post I’ll discuss this touching on the documentary CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap.