I was lucky enough to go through a graduate program that offered more classes that I wanted to take than I could possibly squeeze into two years. So rather than spend two of my last credits in my final semester on one thesis course, I decided to create an independent study in which I would continue the research I had begun on the history of programming languages and turn it into a paper I would submit for publication. The result is “Like a Language: The mixed metaphors and technological ontologies of programming language policy,” completed in May of 2016 under the guidance of my adviser, Dr. Meg Jones.
The paper examines a particular thread from the last 40 years of intellectual property policy, that of computer program regulation, and the numerous, confounding metaphors that legislators and jurists have continued to use in writing and ruling on those laws. These metaphors, I argue, provide valuable insight for researchers trying to understand the motivations, allegiances, and understandings of those governing the computer programs that power many facets of our daily lives.
PDF of the full article is available here!
Metaphors like the computer “mouse,” a software “bug,” even a programming “language,” are seemingly necessary to discussion of complex, abstract computational concepts. However, metaphors can also expose particular understandings of how a technological works, what it is used for, fundamentally what it is– a “technological ontology.” Identifying these ontologies can illuminate the interests of policy stakeholders, a phenomenon exemplified in the case of computer program copyright. The Commission on New Technological Uses of Copyrighted Works (CONTU), which met throughout the latter half of the 1970s, established the legal foundations of copyright protection for computer programs, but equally important was the Commission’s influential ontological framing of programming languages. Oracle v. Google, a contentious case decided in 2014, demonstrates that the lingering ontologies of CONTU continue to obstruct the path to intellectual property policy satisfying to tech corporations, small businesses, and users of technology.