What is a program?
Originally, a program is a substantive meaning a particular inscription programma, literally “what is written in advance,” hence, “agenda, inscription.” It is derived from prographein, “writing before, header of; to post, or display (which can also be a public notice, an edict that has been posted).
A program is created with intent, which is initially prospective (announcing the detail of an event, a musical unrolling, an architectural plan), at times technical (instructions given to a machine), but can also (and simultaneously) be artistic (as in Donald Knuth’s “literate programming” or Lev Manovich’s “cultural analytics” which integrate cultural approaches to quantitative methods).
The term “program” is plurivocal, depending on the context:
The term has developed didactic uses in art, economics, architecture and music with the basic meaning, “set of conditions to fulfill, constraints to be respected.”1
Among its many meanings, a program first designates an inscription, a scriptural artefact (from the first definition given by the Académie française: “leaf, book, poster”2). Since it is an inscription, it is thus a material object, an artefact because it is the product of a particular human activity (thus marked by an intention) comprising eventual imperfections (accidents or unforeseen events encountered during an experiment)—such is the double meaning of “artefact.”3
An artefact is necessarily programmatic: it states an intention because of its inscription (any inscription being provided with, by definition, an intention4); it responds to a need; it makes thinking operative, executable.
This inscription may take various material forms: an advertising placard, a book stating the intentions of a political project, instructions given to a machine (starting with the first half of the 20th century, punch cards are used to physically support programs).5
In short, a program is an artefact; and because of its scriptural (or “inscriptional”) character, it is an intentional object.
Why read programs?
Programs are objects for reading, inscriptions for interpretation, artefacts for analysis.
One can try to identify programs embedded within objects, reconstruct the intentions of which they are the materialization (be it the form of a chair, the design of a building or a computer algorithm), but also make other possible programs emerge, i.e. to reveal their “artefactual” dimension, likely to produce non-determinate effects (like photography in Walter Benjamin’s works). Logics of diversion appear significant in a world conditioned by “programs” of all sorts (economical, political, biological, but also algorithmic in the context of ubiquitous computing), characterized by a rationalized reduction of the possible futures. Reading the world is also about reading the programs (objects, discourse, intentions, writings) that shape it.
Program: the historic note is from Alain Rey (dir.), Dictionnaire historique de la langue française, sixth ed., vol. 3, Paris, Le Robert, 2022. ↩︎
Leaf, book, poster: from the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française, tome 3, 9th ed., 1992. ↩︎
Artefact: the idea comes from a personal conversation with Antoine Fauchié on March 30, 2023. ↩︎
Inscriptions and intention: Bruno Bachimont notes that inscriptions are at once material and intentional objects. “Concrete by their materiality shaped by the technique, abstract by the interpretations of which they are the object and in view of which they are carried out, the inscriptions are cultural and intentional objects insofar as they do not exist for their physical properties (energy, force, material structure), but for the interpretation of which they will be able to be the object and which will make it possible to transmit or find a content of thought or knowledge.” (Bruno Bachimont, Ingénierie des connaissances et des contenus, 2007, p. 43) ↩︎
Punch cards: previous programming systems, implemented in the 18th century (well before the advent of electronics) for loom models and later for calculating machines, used systems of punch cards or ribbons, which Robert Ligonnière shows in Préhistoire et histoire des ordinateurs : des origines du calcul aux premiers calculateurs électroniques, Paris, Robert Laffont, 1987. ↩︎