Computational Legalism vs. Critical Code Studies

Screenshot of a slide showing 'Hello world' in various programming languages

Presented in the ‘slow science’ series at LSTS, the ideas in this presentation were the basis for the paper Interpreting the Rule(s) of Code: Performance, Performativity, and Production (2021)


Computational legalism refers to the ontological features of digital systems that make it impossible for humans to see, interpret, and contest the rules that they contain and impose. When software code structures our behavioural possibilities, it forces us to act ‘legalistically’, that is, like automatons: we don’t think, but simply act in accordance with the structures laid down by the code, because we have no other choice (unless the system’s designer has elected to give us one). This paper/discussion seeks to view and challenge computational legalism through the lens of critical code studies, the explication of a digital system’s meaning by the interpretive or hermeneutic analysis of its text, i.e. its source code. These texts play a fundamental role in the constitution of all digital systems, and so any analysis cannot be complete without at least some engagement at that level. Looking at digital systems from this angle is relevant to real-world processes of designing and producing code, and might help us to identify normative possibilities for combatting the vices of computational legalism.