Linda Hilfling Ritasdatter


Lecture for the KUNO express course, March 19, 2024

Linda Hilfling Ritasdatter: Spaces of Flaws of Flows: COBOL and the back-back-ends of development, in: Computational Culture—a journal of software studeies 

it's not just a nerdy case, not only a close reading ...

hidden interdependence of smooth operations with execution, with crisis, and maintainance 

hidden human computer interactions ...

outline frictions and asymmetries

how can we talk about our current concerns of our present and how is the past embedded in the future ... all these discussions ...


a picture of the engineer

the most unpopular programming language ever 

COBOL stands for: 

COmmon Business Oriented Language 

calculating payrolls, organising retails, transferring money, managing ticket reservations .... 

offering services

making sure that the overall wheels of the production machine are running 

over the years, widely implemented 

the code is rigid and it's long ... it's really not beautiful syntax 

it has people oriented design, to be as close to human language as possible  -- she wanted everbody to be able to read and write and understand it 

through these third-generation high level languages, programming becomes really something new -- from being situated and located on machines it becomes indestructably and globally applicable in universal space and time 

COBOL programms are automatically coordinating, distributing and displacing goods, people and money through the excecution, in a was as enforcement of absolute space as it expands within globalisation -- it is performing the global flows, at least in theory 

skynet ! 

the mission however is unsuccessful 

execution is commonly defined as an act carrying into effect, it also brings associations of death, of punishment, killings in accordance with the law and is regarded essential to power and command. and code has often been regarded as manifesting such power, as performative speech act  --- but Schwarzenegger's trouble with COBOL implies that code and commanding is actually not doing what it says.....

Alexander Galloway: Playing the Code

code executed by its context ...

the one who executes is seldom the one deciding --- between the order and the actual execution lies the sort of space of possibilities, of miscommunication, of negotiation, of disobedience ... 

this space is also a space of crisis and insofar a possible turning point 

we are starting to approach the frictions of global flows 


a little mistake from the very beginning ...

... it didn't specify the millenium  



Jerome Garfunkel  

Interview with Jerome Garfunkel  

Stanley Kubrick

Dr Strangelove  

... and how the chain of top down orders can be disturbed 

Sunrise, January 01, 2000 

Kubrick insisted on covering the table with green felt ....

... a back back end office in India 



.... including the Danish tax authority, the German pension system, the Swedish social insurance agency, and UK's department for work and pension  ...  

... and 70% of all business trans actions world wide

... and the active lines of code are actually increasing, which is indicating that it is a living language, but still, COBOL is not part of any curriculum in computer sciences, neither in the global North but also not in global South, it's never used to develop a new programme    

the lines of COBOL are increasing because of maintenance --- code in the limbo between being key and super crucial to business but also completely outmode -- in other words: it's a living dead, a kind of zombie 

we don't have any development problems .... 



"I think there are about five trillion lines of code that have been written in COBOL and probably four trillion are still running, that's the problem. Four trillion lines of code, if you want to rewrite it, nobody has the patience and nobody has the money to do it."