Transforming Code Into Voice: Toward A Material Semiotic Critical Code Studies Of Weizenbaum’s ELIZA Program


This paper takes up an exploration of the use of critical code studies in STS. I argue that STS methods call for a different use of critical code studies from the ways in which it has been primarily used in the digital humanities and literary code studies (Marino, 2014). Instead, I propose weaving together critical code studies (Marino, 2020) with material semiotics (Law, 2019; Akrich & Latour, 1992) to treat code as not only a narrative but as an epistemic object of analysis. I argue that interrogating the code itself as a semiotic text entangled with the material artifact (e.g., “the computer”) allows STS to more thoroughly understand the assemblages of symbolic and relational power of the digital/technological artifact as a whole.
In order to support and illustrate my argument, I take up Weizenbaum’s ELIZA program (1966). Weizenbaum regularly shared stories of his team members’ development of intimate relationships with the program – one they helped build and under which they held no illusion of its human-ness. I will use the methodological juxtaposition I have proposed above to attempt to understand the ways which the material device of the computer mediated the relationship of the user to the “mind” of the machine (Turkle, 1984), thus showing how the analysis is made stronger by considering the relationship of the user to both the device AND the code, and how this code becomes a semiotic voice of its own.
Marino, Mark C. "Field report for critical code studies, 2014." Computational Culture 4 (2014).
Marino, Mark C. Critical Code Studies. MIT Press, 2020.
Law, John. "Actor network theory and material semiotics." Social theory (2009): 141.
Law, John. "Material semiotics." URL: www. heterogeneities. net/publications/Law2019Material Semiotics. pdf (2019).
Akrich, Madeleine, and Bruno Latour. "A summary of a convenient vocabulary for the semiotics of human and nonhuman assemblies." (1992).
Weizenbaum, Joseph. "ELIZA—a computer program for the study of natural language communication between man and machine." Communications of the ACM 9, no. 1 (1966): 36-45.
Turkle, Sherry. The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit. Simon and Schuster, New York, 1984.


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Contributed date

May 28, 2020 - 4:01am

Critical Commentary

This is an abstract for the EASST/4S 2020 open panel "Digital Experiments in the Making: Methods, Tools, and Platforms in the Infrastructuring of STS".

Cite as

Jamie Steele - Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, "Transforming Code Into Voice: Toward A Material Semiotic Critical Code Studies Of Weizenbaum’s ELIZA Program", contributed by Lina Franken, STS Infrastructures, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 28 May 2020, accessed 19 May 2024.’s-eliza