Beki Grinter

New Paradigms for Old Business?

In computer science, discipline on December 14, 2009 at 5:48 pm

I just finished reading Denning and Freeman’s piece in Communications of the ACM about Computing’s Paradigm. Their argument is that Computing

  • embodies science, engineering and mathematics but can not completely be defined by any of those disciplines
  • is in fact a hybrid of these, and applied to information processes. And because of the application of these to information processes, the result is a new paradigm (one that has roots in science, engineering and mathematics) but can not be defined by them.

Additionally, they also argue that computing has five characteristics

  • initiation: determine whether the system to be build can be built
  • conceptualization: design a computational model that generates the system’s behaviours
  • realization: implement in a medium capable of providing those behaviours
  • evaluation: test the result for a variety of properties, correctness, consistency with hypotheses etc…
  • action: put the results into the world

They also argued that Computing was originally dominated by the engineering approach, when any system was hard to build, and then that two other views that of information processing as being the object of study that made computing unique (of course this was before the widespread abundance of Information Schools, but not before the presence of Library Schools, arguably also in the information business) and programmer and the science as the art of designing information processes emerged both which challenged the engineering view.

There’s quite a lot I like about this, but it also struck me about the challenges ahead. I was smiling and thinking as I read this “has everyone got the memo” that Computing is not one size fits all.

This caused me to reflect on an interdisciplinary meeting I attended on the topic of usable home networking. Now I don’t want to say that it was the case that everyone participated in one of two particular styles, but my notes support one of the striking recollections I had about the meeting… which was how differently people oriented to the problem and the charge of the workshop.

At one point I heard someone explain that networking research had solved the problems of home networking in theory, just not in practice. I was perplexed by this remark, I still am. It reminds me of the quip that “in theory there’s no difference between theory and practice, in practice there is.” From this person’s perspective the work of networking research had been done. And that it could be done conclusively in theory.

The idea that work can be done in theory but not in practice (I think omitting at least the last two characteristics of Denning and Freeman’s description of computing) was puzzling. Perhaps particularly for me in HCI, where the idea that people are a theoretical construct and not a practical, living set of entities.

A second way that the paradigmatic challenge emerged was during the working groups. One group spent most of their time discussing why the problem was hard. One might even suggest a little defensively, as if it had to be worked up as a hard problem to establish its legitimacy in a space of difficult research challenges. Note, the workshop posed usable home networking as an important research challenge, one worthy of our five days of time.

Another group came back with a solution network architecture and then proceeded to lead a discussion about the requirements that an editor that the user would use to write the policy that specifies their home network. Cynically I was wondering whether someone could show me an example of a successful end-user policy language. And because I don’t come from this particular disciplinary orientation I was confused about how we could be at solution, I did not understand where the problem had gone.

Now I realise that it was just a mis-match between the way we were doing disciplinary business. I wanted to spend time in problem discovery, while others took the problem as granted and were moving to solution. And I think this is going to be the hardest challenge for Computing. The legacy of the multiple paradigms and disciplinary origins that comprises computing is not just our history but in our value systems. Perhaps Computing is not an entity, perhaps it needs dividing (something I’ll note that a number of Universities are experimenting with) and perhaps the “right” split is one that follows these disciplinary origin lines?

  1. Dijkstra took the view that it was all maths.

    In some senses the disciplinary boundaries are very rigid and culturally rooted: in others, they are no more than administrative or (worse) bureaucratic convenience. The balance changes …

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