On Friday, Septemer 4, at 15.15, Linda Hilfling Ritasdatter will defend her PhD thesis “Unwrapping COBOL – Lessons in Crisis Computing”. Professor Nishant Shah, ArtEZ University of the Arts, Arnhem, will function as opponent.
It will primarily be an online event, but there are some possibilities to attend the seminar. For more information, go to https://mau.se/en/calendar/linda-hilfling-ritasdatter/.
Below is an abstract for the thesis. The thesis as a whole can be downloaded from here: http://mau.diva-portal.org/smash/record.jsf?dswid=-7689&pid=diva2%3A1455515&c=1&searchType=SIMPLE&language=sv&query=linda+hilfling&af=%5B%5D&aq=%5B%5B%5D%5D&aq2=%5B%5B%5D%5D&aqe=%5B%5D&noOfRows=50&sortOrder=author_sort_asc&sortOrder2=title_sort_asc&onlyFullText=false&sf=all
UNWRAPPING COBOL : Lessons in Crisis Computing
This research project examines the hidden global politics and economics underlying information architectures – which manifest themselves in choices and legacies of programming technologies and network services, that create their own specific, outsourced and ”crowdsourced” labor markets. The overall aim is to investigate the notion of Crisis Computing by focusing on execution, crisis, maintenance and materiality as core concepts in the understanding of the politics of global information architectures.
Over the last seven years, I have engaged with the programming language COBOL (Common Business Oriented Language), an encounter which has led me to reflect on the relations between code, execution and maintenance on a global scale. Computational execution may appear as a smooth, seamless process of automating commands, but as I argue throughout this thesis, such presumptions are based on a universal vision, which omits the underlying, blackboxed triangular entanglement of the three concepts:execution; crisis and maintenance, which constitutes any applied automated execution process, and which I label Crisis Computing.
COBOL is a case in point for this entanglement and thus this thesis is structured through a series of lessons, reflecting my own process of learning and reflecting on and in this supposedly obsolete language. These lessons extend from my artistic research practice, of which this doctoral thesis as well as several exhibitions, interventions, performative lectures, workshops and an “infinite” publication is the outcome. The lessons take form as an iterative close reading, a defractive re-turn, to use Barad’s concept (Barad 2014), of COBOL. Where each lesson turns to one of the main components of crisis computing and interrogates this concept through a close reading of different aspects of COBOL. A fourth concluding section transports my findings from the first three lessons to a discussion of automation in a more general setting.
The first lesson, EXECUTION, examines utopian visions of automated management as it manifested in the initial visions and early implementations of COBOL in the late 1950s/early 1960s. Here COBOL is analysed as representing one of, if not, the first instance of the classical dilemma of interaction design: in which technology is black boxed in order to make it more user-friendly and reach a larger audience, but at the same time this results in the user experiencing a lack of control on another scale than the user-friendliness and a fundamental lack of understanding the technology. The lesson complements this analysis with a theoretical discussion of automated management and high level programming’s integral relation to spatiality, (post-)modernity, capitalism and colonialism.
Through a close reading of the Y2K bug, as a prime example of technological crisis, the second lesson,CRISIS, argues that crisis is integral to execution. The lesson examines how power mechanisms of maintenance and execution are mutually dependent, by exposing how, the bug which was to be fixed “once and for all”, was an integral feature of technology, as something that needs to be continuously maintained in order to eventually execute. As argued by thinkers from Heidegger to Latour, technological systems only become visible to us when they fail and break down. Subsequently, this lesson examines how, a crisis like the Y2K Bug, not only exposed the entangled relations between execution, crisis and maintenance, but furthermore, the power structures integral to global information flows.
The third lesson, MAINTENANCE, examines maintenance work done on back-back-end systems, as sites of crisis computing, where human labour is maintaining the overall information architectures and systems and thus keeping the flow, flow. Here my analysis also attended to the meta production of global flows as seen through the perspective of the teaching of COBOL. I discussed the contradiction of how engineers of the developing world is supposed to develop, by learning a presumably dead programming language and thereby being able to sustain the business critical legacy systems of the developed world.
A concluding fourth section, CRISIS COMPUTING, discusses and expands on the previous three lessons by transporting them into a broader discussion of Crisis Computing in relation to current understandings of automation.The section examines how recent years’ buzzwords and terms such as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, “Second Machine Age” or “Industry 4.0 and their claims for new eras promoting automation boosted by neural networks-based machine learning AI, as key to rudimentary economical and societal changes, are grounded in Utopian visions of automation and execution, which neglect crisis and maintenance and human labour as integral to the execution/automation processes themselves. A call for designers to get materially engaged with Crisis Computing, wraps up this final lesson.