Unwrapping Cobol : Lessons in Crisis Computing

Abstract: By engaging with COBOL, a detested and would-be obsolete programming language, the dark sides of automation are examined in this thesis: hidden workforces and computational infrastructures that are, in reality, central to the execution and maintenance of global economic and informational flows. Frictions within these flows are made more visible in moments of crisis when asymmetrical power structures are surfaced, as demonstrated in an analysis of the infamous Y2K Bug, its connection to the outsourcing boom in India and the legacy of COBOL. Further, Crisis Computing is proposed as a concept to develop a critical analytical tool focusing on the entangled manifestations of execution, crisis, and maintenance. With COBOL as a case in point for this entanglement, the thesis is structured in a series of lessons reflecting the author’s own method of artistic research as learning and reflecting on and in this neglected language. Ultimately, the lessons demand nothing less than a reconsideration of interaction design. Interaction design should encompass not only user interaction, but also the interactions taking place behind the scenes, at the back-ends and back-back-ends of automated systems. Automation is shown to have a continuous need to be maintained and sustained, an ongoing process of avoiding break-down or any cessation in automating. Hence “Crisis Computing.” The thesis “unwraps” COBOL as Crisis Computing by focusing on three intersecting concepts: execution, maintenance, and crisis. The analysis is necessarily intersectional because of the multi-level nature of the keeping up of appearances within Crisis Computing. Accordingly, rather than focusing on human labor in itself, there is a turn to intersecting and multidirectional power structures reflected in the entanglement of underlying material conditions, technological infrastructures, histories, socio-economic, geo-political, and cultural aspects in which such back-back-end human labor is embedded.

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