Beki Grinter

Computer Science, or Engineering, or something else, and HCI’s Grand Challenges

In computer science, discipline, HCI on November 8, 2009 at 12:02 pm

Continuing my odyssey into the world of What is Computer Science, I have been reading more papers and watching people’s posts about CHI reviews. I’ve been glad to have the time to think about Computer Science as an academic discipline, because its thinking about it in that way that scholars suggest is the central way to understand what makes our theories and concepts make sense. In other words, without thinking about Computing as an academic discipline it’s not clear why we theorize or have certain concepts. I agree. I think it must also be the context that frames what we think are the central problems of the discipline, which frames action around solving them.

Some of what I have been reading lately focuses on the engineering-science debate within Computer Science. In other words, is Computer Science a Science or an Engineering discipline. Surely this debate must lend itself to grand challenges, what our grand challenges are might look different depending on whether we view Computing as a Science or an Engineering.

But, I think that there’s another piece of Computer Science that potentially gets lost (it might be somewhat present in the Engineering argument, but I am not sure whether it is a first class citizen in the Engineering argument). Consider the ACM’s position on why Computer Science has gained legitimacy as a discipline. The Association for Computer Machinery (ACM) one of the leading professional (academic, research, practice) societies for Computer Science suggests that “Partly as a result of entry of computing technology into the cultural and economic mainstream, the battle for legitimacy has largely been won.” (ACM, Computing Curricula 2001, p10).

The ACM then suggest that our discipline, and its success is tied to the economic and cultural mainstream. Perhaps this is the Engineering view being expressed, for while I can see some aspects of Science being tied to the economic mainstream, such as Chemistry and the Pharmaceutical industry, it does not (to me) pervade all of Science.

But, whether or not we are an engineering or a science, I find the ACM’s commentary interesting. If our disciplinary legitimacy is the successful embedding of Computing into the cultural and economic mainstream then surely our context must in part be driven by successful embedding of that machine into society. And perhaps that also depends on understanding and using theories about and of society (organizations, individuals, groups, culture and society) to inform what we do, or risk separating ourselves from our sources of legitimacy. So, I might suggest that Computer Science has to reconcile a three-way context, Science, Engineering and Social Science. It seems our context must stem from all three.

That’s one set of thoughts and while I am aware that they might all hang together yet, I have another set of thoughts that are related. I view this blog as a place to think out loud, so this is me thinking.

Closer to home, I’ve been thinking about what the HCI community thinks are its grand challenges.

One that seems to be getting a lot of attention right now is Health. As I have heard it articulated, the challenges around Health are what can we do with technology to mitigate the rising costs of, and increasing demand for (through aging) health care. Admittedly I have a stake in this question, (I’m interested in something we call Wellness Informatics). But, I also find it interesting that this articulation (which is the one I’ve heard the most often) is solving a commercial/marketplace context. I also wonder whether this perspective locks us into a set of arrangements, its engineering to fix the current set of problems. Is that the right approach? Would a science perspective ask us whether our methods can inform the design of healthcare systems that reconfigure healthcare? What would we learn about our methods through their application to problems within healthcare. I wonder whether user-interaction and system-safety are potential areas to consider.

A grand challenge that I always think of in terms of Science is associated with ICT4D. If HCI engages in ICT4D I think its methods have to change. HCI’s methods illustrate the marriage of the sciences and the social sciences well. They have to be informed by both simultaneously, methods for user-centered systems have to support the design of ICTs as well as the design of usable and useful ones. And, I think that ICT4D shows HCI how their methods contain all sorts of social and cultural assumptions. So, one reason to do HCI4D is to understand how our methods are culturally sensitive (or not), so that we can have a more nuanced understanding of those very methods.

In both of these, I think the social sciences play a significant role. So significant that I think they should be given a place of consideration alongside the engineering and sciences in the construction of our grand challenges. I think HCI needs some grand challenges, and I think that they should reflect the disciplinary hybrid that Computer Science is, an engineering, a science, and a social science. Considering challenges from all angles might make them richer and stronger. (I think the same is true of much of Computer Science).

  1. Hi Beki –

    Thanks for the thoughtful post. I definitely desire to see interdisciplinary inquiry and critique as part of CHI.

    I want to push back on the bit about becoming legitimate by embedding into the cultural and economic mainstream. Such embedding requires much more than a theory of culture, sociality, and materiality. First, it this embedding is greatly facilitated by aligning the field’s interest with those of cultural influencers, whether states or those with capital. Is that what we want? Where is the space to, say, trace out how computing could be done differently if it weren’t for dominant ideologies of gender, economy, etc? I left industry to come to do a PhD not because I could better embed computing in the mainstream from UCI (certainly Google has a lot of advantages for cultural embedding), but because I wanted space to think outside of the dominant, mainstream cultural forms even if those ideas were doomed to be unmarketable (which company wants to be on the forefront of broadly questioning gender norms?).

    Similarly, imagine if anthropology or sociology held itself to such standards. Anthropologists have reflected a lot on their history of creating representations of savages used by colonial administrators. Sociologists seem more up for influencing policy and governments but that isn’t the same thing as influencing mainstream attitudes.

    If HCI was a field that explored the *potential* of socio-technical practices and inspired activists, engineers, policymakers and others to think more reflectively that would certainly be a good thing. But what if it were enough for us to understand those realities and potentialities ourselves, as a community, as rigorously as posslble?

    • Hi Lilly,

      Thanks for the comment. I agree. I was focused in establishing legitimacy for a broader vision of computer science that includes things like HCI, rather than using scientific investigation to question the status quo. Two different but related matters I would say. I’d like to see the latter be given a rightful place within the former…

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