What Is Writing with Source?

Posted by Kevin Brock on 28 October 2012

What is (or could be) “writing with source” and who does it affect?

I’ve been excited to see the different communities that have responded to the announcement for Push: programmers, net artists, writers, and scholars in fields such as rhetoric, information design, technical communication, and computer science.

As an academic interested in the overlap of rhetoric and software development, I was eager enough when I saw the initial announcement for Push that I spent the day preparing a submission to its first issue. It’s probably not surprising that someone like me would jump at the chance to contribute to a journal dedicated to “research & applied theory in writing with source.” But since there are so many ways that this phrase could be read, I thought it also might help to clarify some of the ways that “writing with source” could apply to interested parties and, just maybe, spur a little more interest in the journal and its potential.

Below, I’ll highlight some of the contributions that I recognize different groups being able to offer both Push and the other communities whose interest and investment in writing with source. This is hardly exhaustive, but my goal is to help spur further interest in what Push could be rather than to define what it is or should be.

Some Interested/Invested Communities

1. Software Developers

Practitioners in software and new media are perhaps the most “obvious” set of communities, since they’re regularly working directly in code languages in order to make stuff happen through computational means. The sheer variety of ways that we can do this, from choice of language to individual stylistic preference, offers us a chance to explore why we want to write in code as we do. Some questions that may be of interest here include:

  • What do we decide to add in comments?
  • What do we think “speaks for itself” in particular functions and operations?
  • How do we argue for/against particular practices?
  • How does our work demonstrate its own “character” versus practical or efficient functionality?

2. Artists

A similar set of communities is that of the various artists that work in source to experiment with the possibilities of code and data. Where software developers might be primarily interested in creating a program in order to facilitate some particular task, artists might instead draw attention to our preconceptions of how software “should” work so that we might question why we accept certain paradigms or value systems over others (put differently, why we choose to make stuff happen). Of historical interest are net artists such as JODI and mez and “functional” code texts like “Black Perl”.

3. Scholars

Academics—such as those in rhetoric and composition, software studies, and critical code studies—are in a unique position to explore the critical, cultural, and semiotic significance of code/source as a meaningful form of communication and action. Action is particularly important here, to build on the term as used by 20th century rhetorician Kenneth Burke: we communicate with one another not just to exchange ideas and information but in order to make stuff happen (e.g., persuading someone to change his or her mind; instigating a riot; honoring a departed loved one). Seeing what sort of meaningful action is possible through source could serve as an inquiry into how we try (or don’t try!) to persuade one another in code to act certain ways or to believe in certain systems/structures/etc.

Just a Beginning

Of course, what I’ve described above is just the tip of the iceberg, and even as I write this, it’s been less than 48 hours since the journal went live. I know that I’m unable to acknowledge here all of the substantial ways that different folks could contribute to the journal and to the interdisciplinary conversation(s) surrounding the exigence of its creation. My hope is that specific descriptions of potential theoretical and applied approaches, such as those hinted at above, might help make Push even more of a reality.

About Kevin Brock

Kevin Brock is a Ph.D. candidate in Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media at North Carolina State University. His work primarily focuses on the space shared by rhetoric and the critical studies of software and code, with a special interest in how code (as both practice and text) functions as a rhetorically powerful and significant form of contemporary communication. His dissertation in progress is titled “Engaging the Action-oriented Nature of Computation: Towards a Rhetorical Code Studies.”