Stéphane Couture

Download Full EssayThe Ambiguous Boundaries of Computer Source Code and Some of Its Political Consequences

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This paper analyzes how the notion of source code remains unstable and contested, and how its different definitions and statuses may be associated with certain types of activities that are valued differently. The notions of computer code and source code are at the core of all digital infrastructures and technologies, and are of increasing interest in academic research. Surprisingly, very little work has been done to account critically and empirically for what counts as computer source code, and for whom. Based on the ethnographic study of two free and open source software projects, I first argue in this article that “source code” is not a stabilized category, but is rather ambiguously engaged with by actors. Second, I argue that the way in which source code is defined and considered as such may have consequences in terms of valuing or giving more visibility to one activity over others, thus contributing to the distinct statuses of actors involved.


This research was supported financially by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) and the Fonds de recherche du Québec – Société et culture (FRQSC). I would like to thank members of the SPIP and symfony projects for their collaboration in this research, as well as the DigitalSTS participants for their help in improving this paper. Finally, many thanks to my partner Geneviève Szczepanik who reviewed, commented and discussed the different iterations of this work, and whose support is always of invaluable help.