Comments on Comments in Code

Abstract (in English): 

Where in source code do we locate the "extra-functional significance" that Critical Code Studies calls us to critique? One starting point is in code comments. In most programming languages, comments are simple marks that set aside text for humans to read but computers to ignore. The act of "commenting" and "uncommenting" circulates this text into and out of the code per se, which is to say into and out of the purview of the compiler / interpreter. Like footnotes or endnotes, code comments are paratexts — continuous with and yet set apart from the source. Where they serve as actual *commentaries*, these paratexts enabling programmers to signal intentions, record histories, and render aesthetic judgements: comments enable the vital processes of software development culture.

Code comments locate the affective in code, attaching moments of rage or humor or joy attaches to points of functionality. They also assert significance, including statements of copyright, expressions of suspicion and doubt, or descriptions of future plans and aspirations. Comments are part of a vernacular, with their own folk traditions and lore. They are also the subject of aesthetic debates within software engineering cultures, whether simple preferences for minimalist / maximalist commentary or full philosophies and methodologies such as "literate programming" and "self-documenting code." Comments serve a rhetorical function as a figure for code in discourse outside code-literate culture. In public political and legal debates — from investigative reporting into "Climategate" code to the court cases over the legal status of Linux source in "SCO v. IBM" — comments serve as evidence, not just as a shorthand for code *functionality*, but as the essence of code *intentionality*.

Source: Author's abstract in conference proceedings



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Patricia Tomaszek