Aesthetics in source code are thus primarily related to understanding. In the previous chapter, we have highlighted a focus on understanding when it comes to aesthetic standards: whether obfuscating or illuminating, the process of acquiring a mental model of a given computational object is a key determinant in the value judgment as applied to source code. In this chapter, we focus on the reason for which software involves such a cognitive load, before surveying the means—both linguistic and mechanistic—that programmers deploy in order to relieve such a load.
The assessment of whether a piece of software functions correctly can be broken down in several sub-parts: knowing what the software effectively does, what it is supposed to do, being able to tell whether these two things are aligned, and understanding how it does it. After deciding on a benchmark to assess the functionality of the source code at hand (understanding what it should be doing), one must then determine the actual behavior of the source code at hand once it is executed (understanding what it is actually doing). Due to its writerly nature, one must also understand how a program text does it, in order to modify it.
The first part will lay out our definition of understanding, presenting it as a dual phenomenon, between formalism and contextualism. Starting with 20nope! cmdcentury epistemology, we will see that theoretical computer science research has favored a dominantly rational, cognitivist perspective on the nature of understanding, eschewing another mode of understanding suggested by craft practices.
Finally, we will conclude with the means that programmers deploy to grasp the concepts at play with software: starting from metaphors used by the general public, we will then see to what extent they differ from the metaphors used by programmers in order to understand the systems they build and work with. In the end, particular attention will be paid to their extended cognition the technical apparatuses used in the development and inspection of source code.