Debugging the Spec

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 14, No. 750.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

Date: Mon, 19 Mar 2001 06:44:19 +0000
From: "David Halsted" 
Subject: Re: 14.0747 Gadamer on interpretation

For what it matters, I picked up _Truth and Method_ recently after 
a long absence and a career change.  Computing got me back to 
hermeneutics because the process of defining what people want a 
computer to do is so hard.  I started reading some of Terry Winograd's 
books on design, and that got me back into questions I hadn't really 
thought about much since grad school.  Somewhere between Winograd 
talking about people's inability to articulate fully what they do every 
day (yeah, he got that idea from Heidegger) and Frederick Brooks talking 
about the process of programming as "debugging the spec" in _Mythical 
Man Month_ I found myself right back at questions of interpretation and 
the articulation of an unspoken lifeworld.  

Then I picked up Gadamer again, and then I got a new job a month ago and haven't had time to think, but a lot of time to see what happens when unspoken assumptions don't get written out into a formal description by people who can't visualize what a program is (again, Brooks).

Anyway, that's how I got back to Gadamer from computing. The implementation of a spec (where a spec can be quite informal) in a program appears as a kind of critique/interpretation of the text of the spec -- a reading that is in some sense (if I'm remembering the Bloom I read a decade and a half ago at all correctly) always strong because it always has to remake the description of the program into something quite different. So I'd say interpretation, and the classic hermeneutic pattern of working between the part and the whole toward an understanding, are central to whatever it is we're doing when we try to create working programs for carbon-based life forms capable of linguistic misunderstanding.

The process of interpreting what is wanted and making something sort of like it happen on a monitor is one that very much requires the kinds of interpretation Gadamer describes -- in fact, the act of interpreting the original articulation generally leads to a re-formulation of the activity itself, so that programming becomes a way to change how people think of themselves and their work, not simply a reflection of the tasks at hand. Best, David