[SIGCIS-Members] Origins of "clean" code

Rachel Plotnick rachelplotnick2012 at u.northwestern.edu
Sat Sep 4 05:53:25 PDT 2021


Hi all,

I've been working on the question of cleanliness in computing for the past
couple of years - and am now contextualizing it in a larger project on
cleanliness and media technologies. I don't have a specific answer on the
origin of "clean code," but my initial thought is that it fits into a much
broader discourse about the ways that we talk about things being "clean" or
"dirty" as a metaphor or skeuomorph in so many technological contexts. In
the running list I've been keeping specifically for computing, I've
documented:

Clean install

Clean design

Clean copy

Clean room (physical and coding)

Clean code

Clean images

Clean interface

Clean the registry

Disk Clean Up

Dirty data

Dirty PC (not vetted to be virus-free)

Dirty download/dirty files

Digital janitors

Trash and recycling bin icons

Computer virus

Clean desktop/clutter

Zero inbox


And there are likely many more examples. I'm also looking at how questions
of physical cleaning - of monitors, mouse, keyboard, desk, hard drive,
disks - also take on great importance in computing. Some of my recent
interest has been in the ways that clean room language came into conflict
with computer rooms and then multi-purpose offices by challenging what
human-machine hygiene meant. I've published a chapter in an edited
volume, *Computer
Architectures*, that provides some preliminary thoughts:
https://www.taylorfrancis.com/chapters/edit/10.4324/9780429264306-7/unclean-human-machine-interface-rachel-plotnick



This is a great question and I'm always happy to talk more about it and
hear others' thoughts!


Regards,

Rachel Plotnick

Assistant Professor, Cinema and Media Studies

Indiana University Bloomington

raplotni at iu.edu

On Sat, Sep 4, 2021 at 12:16 AM Ben Peters <bjpeters at gmail.com> wrote:

> The excellent media historian Rachel Plotnick has done at least a talk
> touching on “clean”:
>
> https://www.blog.shanedenson.com/?p=5027
>
> No doubt there are other resources as well,
>
> Ben
>
> Benjaminpeters.org
>
> Sent from my iPhone
>
> On Sep 3, 2021, at 19:24, MikeWillegal <mike at willegal.net> wrote:
>
> I would suggest you review the many meanings of clean in a dictionary.
> Among them included in Merriam-Webster.com are …
>
> 1 b. free from contamination or disease
> 6 a. relatively free from error or blemish
> 7 a. characterized by clarity and precision
>
> So I would suggest that regardless of the origin of usage of the word
> clean in computer science, this adjective is, in fact, quite useful and
> appropriate.  Of course, there are probably more cases than not where it
> could be argued whether a particular piece of code is clean or not.  If
> there is a disagreement between observers, the substitution of a different
> adjective is not likely to change anybody’s opinion.
>
> regards,
> Mike Willegal
>
> On Sep 3, 2021, at 3:19 PM, Azhar Desai <mail at azh-r.com> wrote:
>
> Hi SIGCIS,
>
> I'm a software engineer,  who reads & relies some of your work, to help
> make sense of working in the astonishingly ahistorical tech sector - so
> thank you!
>
> I'm interested in the origins of the word "clean" in software design. In
> conversations about software, people might often prefer some code over
> another, arguing that it's "cleaner". An example from a 2020 paper on the
> implementation of a VPN in Linux:
>
> While the Linux kernel’s crypto API has a large collection of
> primitives... ultimately, using raw primitives with direct, non-abstracted
> APIs proved to be far cleaner [1]
>
>
> The most famous example is the eponymously titled book "Clean Code" (2008)
> which proposes snippets of code that are ostensibly always preferred.
>
> Does anyone know where I might find out how the word "clean" came to be
> used like this in software? My reasons for asking are somewhat impure: I'm
> trying to discourage this not very meaningful word in favour of more
> precise language.
>
> One of the earliest uses I've seen of "clean" is in one of Djikstra's
> notes from 1974 [2] on a design for arrays in response to how ALGOL 60 had
> it. [2] But I have no idea if it was in common use then, or had always been
> in the development of programming languages at least. I'd love to hear any
> thoughts.
>
> Best,
> Az
>
> [1] https://www.wireguard.com/papers/wireguard.pdf
> [2] https://www.cs.utexas.edu/users/EWD/ewd04xx/EWD417.PDF
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-- 
Rachel Plotnick, PhD
Media, Technology and Society Program
Northwestern University
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