PhD Thesis

Computer Source code as an Artefact in Internet Reconfigurations

Thesis defended on September 20th, 2012 at Université du Québec à Montréal (Canada)
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Jury :

Serge Proulx, Université du Québec à Montréal [co-directeur]
Christian Licoppe, Télécom ParisTech [co-directeur]
Lorna Heaton, Université de Montréal
Jérôme Denis, Télécom ParisTech
Robert Dupuis,Université du Québec à Montréal
Dominique Boullier, Sciences Po, Paris

Summary :

This thesis in Communication Studies focuses on Software Source code. Software Source code is the object of computer programming and can be defined as a set of computer commands, that are human-readable and « written » in a high-level computer language (Krysia et Grzesiek, 2008). In recent years, software source code has been the subject of growing social and political significance. The Free Software Movement, for instance, puts free access to source code at the heart of its politics. This movement has enabled the emergence of many collectives organized around the collective fabrication of source code. If several studies have focused on different aspects of these collectives, and on the use of digital technologies in general, it must however be observed that source code remains a subject that is neglected in Communication Studies. The main objective of this thesis is then to address source code head on, by answering the following central research question : what is source code and how does this artifact act in Internet reconfigurations ?

Our research problem revolves around three axes. The first, points to the growing political and social significance of source code, which is expressed in a discourse that makes source code a form of expression. The second axis focuses on how, for some authors (Lessig), computer code acts as a law by prescribing or limiting certain behaviors. The final axis concerns the authority relations and invisible work involved in the production of source code. On a theoretical level, our study is located at the intersection of “Science, Technology and Society” Studies (STS) and Communication Studies. It relies heavily on Lucy Suchman’s recent work (2007) that considers the dynamic reconfiguration of mutual and permanent relationships between humans and machines. Our study also mobilizes French studies that tie in with actor-network theory and focus on the work that is needed to ensure the stability and performativity of artifacts.

From a methodological standpoint, this thesis studies SPIP and symfony, two programs that are used to build many interactive websites, often referred to as “web 2.0”. Both programs originate from France and continue to mobilize a significant number of French players. These projects can be distinguished by the values that are put forward, more militant and non-commercial in the case of SPIP, and more professional and commercial in the case of symfony. The language used in writing each source code is also different: French in the case of SPIP, English in the case of symfony. Our study combines analyzes of online documents and traces, of semi-structured interviews with project players, and of observations during meetings and conferences.

Our study clearly reveals some ambiguity surrounding the definition of the concept of “source code”. While source code is often seen as a “text”, that “we write,” the analysis of more formal definitions, or of what players identify as “source code”, shows that source code often refers to different types of media such as images, and even to artifacts that are not directly used for operating computers. Like certain players, we believe that the definition of source code even takes on a political dimension, in that it tends to favor certain types of activities over others. The analysis of the collective process of making source code in both projects also shows significant differences in the organization of source code, and in the implementation of standards and “writing authorizations” in each project. These differences are articulated with the values of each project and are involved in configuring the types of players who are intended to interact with particular pieces of source code.

In conclusion, we stress that source code should not only be understood as the core of information infrastructure. It should also be understood in a sociological and communicational perspective, as an artifact through which human actors interact with each other to reconfigure the sociodigital world in which they are involved. Following Suchman’s approach, we propose to think of source code as an interface, or as a multiplicity of interfaces, in Internet reconfigurations, and to focus on how interface design has consequences, particularly by favoring the participation of some actors over others.


Keywords : source code, free software, artifacts, Science and Technology Studies, human-machine reconfigurations.