Beki Grinter

An Agenda of Abundance

In C@tM, computer science, discipline, HCI, research on January 4, 2011 at 2:59 pm

As the reader knows, I think the discipline of Computer Science has abundance, both explicitly and implicitly, built into its research agenda. For example, the focus on Cloud Computing does not make sense without an abundance of machines, disks in the sky, and network connectivity. Recently, I’ve read several articles that have raised new questions and caused me to reformulate my initial position on a research agenda devoted to scarcity.

I finally read the 1965 article by Gordon Moore “Cramming More Components onto Integrated Circuits.” This was the article in which he expressed what would come to be known as Moore’s Law. Moore’s Law states that the number of transistors that can be placed on a silicon chip will continue to double at regular intervals. In 2005, there was a celebration of 40years of Moore’s Law holding true. (An aside, Douglas Engelbart argued a similar position in 1960 in a paper called Microelectronics and the Art of Similtude). The accuracy of these predictions has been an important driver in making Information and Communications Technology (ICT) more abundant.

I also read a piece by Bob Lucky called Electrical Engineering: A Diminishing Role? In this essay he argues that the abundance of technology is changing the distribution of jobs within that profession from Electrical Engineering to Computer Science, that the majority of work to be done exists at layers above those that are the provenance of the Electrical Engineer. The research version of this argument would be that the abundance of ICTs changed the distribution of knowledge required, opening up problems in Computer Science at a greater rate than it did problems in Electrical Engineering. He paints a bleak picture of a single Electrical Engineer, the last one, being the only person required to understand how the single chip works and on his or her shoulders holding up the entire ICT industry.

Some wonder whether abundance will have the same effect on Computer Science itself. Will the continued increased abundance of technology eventually require a re-distribution of skills. Commericalisation, while not given its name, seems to be the crux on which this argument turns. Abundance turns on the ability of companies to manufacture in high and ever-increasing volumes (this argument has a temporal quality, of abudance continuing to change the equation of the distribution and nature of the skills required).

One example of this argument applied to Computer Science comes from Rob Pike. Rob Pike gave a talk titled “Systems Research is Irrelevant.” He used all sorts of examples of the affect of abundance on Systems research, and proposed some solutions to reframing the Systems agenda (largely by not trying to compete with industrial innovations and exploring alternates). I wonder whether a version of this argument drives the Networking community. Their abudance is the Internet and there are debates within the community about whether to go Clean Slate (i.e., set the Internet aside and pursue alternate network architectures and protocols) or whether to continue to push on new research questions that stem from the very success of the Internet itself.

For the pessimist, the last Computer Scientist might be seen on the horizon. I remain less convinced. I do think that inspecting agendas of abundance can be helpful exercises for individuals and communities. I am a big fan of inspecting assumptions.

I’ve made a mistake in my own though. I previously wrote that Computing at the Margins was an agenda in scarcity. I said

Abundance is the set of problems that we have made, largely for ourselves.

Scarcity is the set of problems that we have made, largely for others.

And I was partially right, but not surprisingly the situation is more complicated than that formula implies. Computing at the Margins is simultaneously an agenda of abundance and scarcity. It is the abundance, particularly of cellphones, that is one catalyst for this research agenda. Yes, people have worked on the problems of how you design technologies for the Global South for a long time, but this area of research has gained more traction lately, and I suspect that that trend is associated with the increased access to ICTs in these environments.

But simultaneously it is also about scarcity. One form of technological scarcity is the infrastructure. One of the reasons that mobile phones are frequently posited as the platform on which an application will be built is because their infrastructure is the most well-developed. And it’s not that well-developed, it’s just the most developed among the options.

So, in my first formulation I erroneously created a binary opposition. I still think that there’s a useful framing of this research around scarcity. One reason for me is that it provides such a contrast to the traditional modes of working. But, the interplay between abundance and scarcity is, well more complicated than I originally described. No surprise to you all, but I’m still thinking it all through. And I think we should inspect abundance, is the mobile phone the solution? Probably not for all problems.


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