Computing For Evil! Isn’t Education a “Good”?

June 22, 2009 at 3:01 pm 2 comments

Georgia Tech’s College of Computing offers a course “Computing for Good.”  Students in this class take on social activist projects, like creating kiosks to support Liberians in capturing video testimony after their civil war and creating web sites to help monitor blood supply quality.  These are terrific projects, and the context of social activism inspires student learning.  This class is part a global movement to include more activism in computing classes, like the Humanitarian Free and Open Source Software effort.

The title of this effort “Technology + Activism = Computing for Good” sends the wrong message.  Activism is taking direct (Wordnet says “militant”) action to cause social and political change.  That’s not the only kind of good that there is in a University, or even in a computer science department.

The point of a University is to be a common good.  The University serves to advance the interests of people.  Education is inherently about bettering people, which is good. Sometimes the service provided is longterm.  Knowing how to make systems more reliable or more easily maintained does people good, even if it is not about social or political change. A long term good is still “good.”

I am working with a student, Brian Landry, who is finishing up his dissertation this Summer.  Brian has been developing a tool to help people tell stories (not just chronological slide-shows) with their digital pictures.  I’m loving reading the quotes from the people creating and viewing these stories.  Authors talk about their reflections about their lives, and how the process of creating these stories changes how they think about their experiences. Viewers talk about getting new insights into the authors.  I am no philosopher, so my view may be naive or ill-informed. I think getting people to come to new understandings of themselves and others is inherently “good,” but is probably not considered “activism.”

I worry about the message this “Computing for Good” sends to students.  I hear bits and pieces of talk from students getting involved in these projects and those who are considering other projects.  Work in “education” is not typically considered part of the “for Good” effort.  It’s not activism, it doesn’t result in immediate and dramatic impacts, and it rarely gets picked up on CNN or in the New York Times.  Universities (and its students) should not give up on long-term value in favor of short term press coverage.

One of my colleagues has taken on the Twitter monicker “computing4evil.”  If we’re not “good,” then are we “evil”?  We’re thinking about making up t-shirts, “The League of Evil Computationalists.”  Of course, this is all tongue-in-cheek.  The project “Computing for Good” is doing great good for people who can use the help.  Putting labels on projects that some are “good,” however, is dangerous.  Everything at a University should wear that label, or something is wrong with our notion of the University.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Mark Miller  |  June 22, 2009 at 10:31 pm

    This “Computing for Good” class sounds well intentioned and all, but my guess is it’s redundant. Social activism on the web is already a well developed field out in the real world. There are already courses on electronic publishing that I think would naturally draw people who are curious about this. Many of the technical elements are things which people could learn on their own by picking up some books at the bookstore. What this course probably does is bring together some technical topics that would usually be taught separately, like CMS, data storage management, security, and probably includes coursework in the LAMP stack. At my alma mater the CS Dept. has a major called “Applied Computing” where they go into a lot of this stuff, but as a general topic, and studied from more of a CS approach.

    People who get into this “Computing for Good” class may someday discover that they’re not militant enough. The hardcore folks are “hacktivists”. I say this kind of tongue in cheek. It’s a good thing GA. Tech is not teaching that!

    The thing is I think the title would draw students who already know about training options to learn all of this stuff (“Computing for Good”–who do you think that’s going to draw?). If they wanted to bring in people who were technical naifs why not call it “Using the Internet for Good”? It sounds like this is what they’re teaching.

    To me what I think is threatening about stuff like this, and I imagine you’re picking up on it as well, is it promotes a kind of shallowness. It sounds vocational, and like a “one-stop-shop”. I could imagine this being offered as a continuing Ed. program, or an elective, but not as an essential part of a degree program.

    I know that some (perhaps many) regard universities as places that “churn out” trainees, each one the same, and that people regard this as good or bad. Many go into it with vocational intentions to begin with. They expect a certain job with a certain salary going into it. I know in a way I did way back when, though my love of computers balanced this out. Looking back on it now I’m kind of glad I did it, but for different reasons. With my perspective now I think that a university education should be for students to get some breadth and depth, so they can draw together ideas that interest them into something that’s uniquely their own.

    Reply
  • 2. beki70  |  October 8, 2009 at 10:09 am

    I’d like a league of evil computationalists t-shirt please.

    Reply

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