Can code be “readable”?

Did Isaac Asimov write good stories?

Different people will answer that question in different ways. People who don’t read English and don’t have access to a translation will probably be unable to answer. People who don’t like science fiction on principle (and who haven’t been introduced to his mystery stories) will likely say ‘no’, on principle. Other people will like what he wrote. Some will like some of what he wrote. Others will accept that he did good work but “that it isn’t really for me”.

The answers above are all based on a subjective interpretation, both of Asimov’s work and the question that was asked. You could imagine an interpretation in the form of an appeal to satisfaction: who was the author writing for, and how does the work achieve the aim of satisfying those people? What themes was the author exploring, and how does the work achieve the goal of conveying those themes? These questions were, until the modern rise of literary theory, key ways in which literary criticism analysed texts.

Let us take these ideas and apply them to programming. We find that we demand of our programmers not “can you please write readable code?”, but “can you consider what the themes and audience of this code are, and write in a way that promotes the themes among members of that audience?” The themes are the problems you’re trying to solve, and the constraints on solving them. The audience is, well, it’s the audience; it’s the people who will subsequently have to read and understand the code as a quasi-exclusive collection.

We also find that we can no longer ask the objective-sounding question “did this coder write good code?” Nor can we ask “is this code readable?” Instead, we ask “how does this code convey its themes to its audience?”

In conclusion, then, a sound approach to writing readable code requires author and reader to meet in the middle. The author must decide who will read the code, and how to convey the important information to those readers. The reader must analyse the code in terms of how it satisfies this goal of conveyance, not whether they enjoyed the indentation strategy or dislike dots on principle.

Source code is not software written in a human-readable notation. It’s an essay, written in executable notation.

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