The technical exists in the social context

January 11, 2010 at 2:32 pm 12 comments

I love the story of Social Processes and Proofs of Theorems and Programs by Rich DeMillo, Alan Perlis, and Dick Lipton.  They were responding to the calls to use formal verification methods to prove the correctness of programs.  Their response was (my paraphrase) that it just won’t work.  Proofs aren’t easy, and they only work in mathematics because there are social conventions and mechanisms that create, check, and correct proofs — sometimes over many years.  Software engineering has no social mechanisms like that, and until it does, the authors contend that formal verification at large scale simply won’t happen.

In the most recent CACM, editor-in-chief Moshe Vardi argues that this article is “misguided.” DeMillo responds in his blog, capturing the irony of the situation.  Vardi is making a technical argument, and DeMillo is saying (like he did in the original paper) that it’s the social context that Vardi ought to be addressing.

If our arguments seem off the mark to Mr. Vardi, then perhaps the right course of action is to resurrect the social process that led to the article’s publication in the first place and jump into the fray. Until that time, the correct editorial position for CACM and its Editor is to let both the paper and the written record that surrounds it speak for themselves. It strikes us as inappropriate, after thirty years of silence, to use the cover of an Editorship to attack unsuspecting passersby, especially while touting the moral virtues of free and vigorous debate.

via A Letter to the Editor « WWC.

This insight, that the technical arguments and data exist in a social context, came to me last summer. That’s the realization about which I was speaking last August in my blog post “It’s the goals not the data.” I realized last summer that change in curricula does not come about by having the best data. Rather, curricular change occurs when something new better matches the goals of the instructors and the decision-makers for those curricula.  Things work now.  Making things work better is an argument for change, but better depends on which criteria and goals one uses.

I was frankly depressed when I realized that all my studies, all the books we wrote, and all the data supporting Media Computation made no impact on decision-makers who have different priorities with respect to success rates or diversity as significant goals.  People who are rejecting Media Computation are not rejecting those goals — they simply have different priorities than I do.  My technical arguments (studies and data) and efforts (books and tools) exist in a social context, and not all members of that society share the same priorities.

That’s what the original paper by DeMillo, Perlis, and Lipton was arguing — that the technical achievements and goals have to be seen in a social context, with different priorities.  Could we imagine a software engineering department tenuring a faculty member for a particularly brilliant proof of the correctness of the Travelocity website?  Probably not — most software engineering departments have different priorities.  That’s how I read what DeMillo and Lipton are pointing out again in their letter to the editor.  The argument should not be about the technical quality of the paper, but about the social process that vetted and approved it.

Society trumps technology, every time.

Entry filed under: Uncategorized. Tags: , , .

Study Gauges Teach for America Graduates’ Civic Involvement – Latest update on Georgia Computes!

12 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Alan Kay  |  January 11, 2010 at 2:47 pm

    Hi Mark,

    Probably a good idea to separate “sad human facts” from “how things *should* go” (and I believe you’ve done this in your own mind).

    One large point of science is to get around “sad human facts” (such as what terrible thinkers we are) by finding better methods and organizations to correct error and filter out noise.

    An important and ironic example, is that the large framework of our governance in the US was designed in analogy to science to do just that (and is at least a relative success). The smaller institutions within it (biz, university, education, etc.) have neither such a design nor anything like a constitution to help them behave better than “sad human facts”.

    The irony stems from the observation that they have the space to thrive at all because of a much better larger system which they don’t subscribe to (and most of the time don’t even recognize).

    My worry about K-12 is that its “sad human facts” don’t have enough of the seeds of real reform from within.



  • 2. Greg Wilson  |  January 11, 2010 at 4:10 pm

    Donald Mackenzie’s work (especially “Mechanizing Proof”, looks at this issue from a sociological standpoint. The VIPER chip was judged broken by end users, despite being “proven” correct by its developers, in large part because of a mismatch in cultures, expectations, and goals.

  • 3. Erik Engbrecht  |  January 11, 2010 at 6:37 pm

    “Society trumps technology, every time.”

    I can’t quite place my finger on why, but that thought sends chills down my spine.

    • 4. Alan Kay  |  January 11, 2010 at 7:33 pm

      HI Eric,

      Just to make you feel better (maybe), consider the effect of the printing press on Europe and the creation of representative democracies, of the alphabet and writing on the Greeks, and of television on the US.

      As McLuhan and others have tried to get people to see, putting new communications media into human environments is like putting rabbits into Australia — at the very least one will get not an additive effect but a qualitatively new ecology of ideas (and not always for the better).

      Best wishes,


      • 5. Erik Engbrecht  |  January 11, 2010 at 8:54 pm

        Television in the US? 😉

        I think my issue is that I equate society with the people who would suppress such wonderful inventions and the mobs who follow them. I associate the inventions with their individual creators and those will dare to use and defend them.

        Today our society is rather welcoming of new technology, but I still feel that it is largely influenced by people who will take a complex and subtle insight, shrivel it down to a soundbite, and proceed to use it for political gain.

        You could say I think of society as the outsourcing of thought.


  • 6. Mark Guzdial  |  January 11, 2010 at 10:01 pm

    Erik and Alan,

    I heard a fascinating debate in the Seminar About Long-Term Thinking series between Drew Endy and Jim Thomas that has had me thinking about society and technology. The topic was synthetic biology. Endy is all for making synthetic biology as available and open as possible, arguing that open source biology is the best way of dealing with the possible risks. Thomas argues that the risks of synthetic biology are so great that it’s important to slow down the technology advance, to place regulation even on classroom uses of it, and to limit significantly commercialization of the technology, for fear of the profit motive accelerating the technology’s advance. The most interesting parts of Thomas’ argument, for me, were when he talked about history of technologies. He argues that no advanced technology that has a potential use in warfare has ever not been used for warfare. He listed several examples from the technological sophistication of Germany in 1900 and how those technological advances were used in the later World Wars (including computers, for tracking Jews being transported between camps). I think the point is essentially the same as Alan’s, in the distinction between “sad human facts” from “how things *should* go.’ The developers of the technology may have one vision in mind, but society may take the technology in ways very different, and society will win.


    • 7. Alan Kay  |  January 11, 2010 at 10:23 pm

      To Eric —

      Sure, TV in US is the perfect example of putting rabbits into Australia and zapping the existing ecology. Neil Postman has much to say about this in his two best books “Amusing Ourselves To Death” and “The Disappearance of Childhood”.

      To Mark —

      There’s an important distinction between what technology inventors intended and hoped for their technologies (and what happens with them), and McLuhan’s (and others’) notion that the real “message” (or “content”) of a medium is what changes are made in the human beings who become fluent in it.

      For example, there is considerable evidence that the printed book (and writing especially) does far far more than just being a transcoding of oral discourse. It not only leads to new kinds of discourse, but the changes that happen to people who become fluent readers are qualitatively new thought patterns not found in oral cultures.

      A good line by McLuhan “You can argue about a lot of things with stained glass windows but democracy is not one of them”.

      So, it’s worth thinking about what it means to have TV as your main environment for ideas and representations, and then contemplate what the metamedium of the computer can do both positively (next great 500 year invention after the printing press) and negatively (not only can imitate TV and other bad for us media, but can give rise to much worse media only possible on it).

      I once said that “TV should be the last technology to be put out to the public without a surgeon general’s warning”, and I think the last 25 years bring this home pretty strongly.



  • 8. Rita Freudenberg  |  January 12, 2010 at 6:22 am

    I think that the OLPC project is like a great field study here. These laptops are brought to many children and who knows how this effects their life in the long run? Of course, we all hope it is for the better. And many people are trying hard to include powerful ideas in these machines, like that the software is free and open source, educational software like Etoys, etc.
    That will be an influence to society.

  • 9. Raymond Lister  |  January 13, 2010 at 4:27 pm

    I sympathize with your frustration over getting instructors to stick with Media Computation, despite having data supporting it. (And I accept your data.) I think the problem is deeper than merely “People who are rejecting Media Computation… have different priorities than I do.” I think the problem is that almost all instructors are not interested in data. Most instructors are “folk pedagogues”. Instruction is not a science, that is grounded in research data. Instead, instruction is grounded (1) intuition and (2) how the instructor was taught – both of which encourage a “steady as she goes” approach, where teaching barely changes, beyond cosmetic changes.

    • 10. Mark Guzdial  |  January 13, 2010 at 5:18 pm

      It’s a great point, Raymond. Davide Fossati is a post-doc working with me on tools to support CS teacher decision-making. Part of his project involves interviewing CS teachers about the influences leading to their curricular changes. His interviews (analysis incomplete, so this is my take as a contributor-not-analyst) suggest that the teachers he has interviewed see themselves as being data-driven, but the “data” are the comments of loudest students who come to see the teacher to complain about something. The loudest students are often the better, more confident students, leading to curricula that is mostly responding to the upper half of the curve. CS teachers’ act upon a rather naive understanding of “sampling” and “distribution.”

  • […] Ray Lister referred to most teachers as “folk pedagogues” in an earlier comment.  He talked about how teachers make decisions based on their past experience, without taking into account current situations.  I responded with a story about Davide Fossati who is studying how computer science professors decide to change their curriculum.  Decisions are made about changing curriculum, changing languages, and changing approaches based on “talking to a few students.”  What makes those students representative of the class?  Talking to a self-selected few is a terrible way of understanding how the class is a whole is doing. […]

  • […] I am not an eager proponent of proving programs correct, because I am a fan of Perlis, Lipton, and DeMillo and I don’t believe it will work.  However, I am a big fan of testing and verifying software […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Trackback this post  |  Subscribe to the comments via RSS Feed

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 9,026 other followers


Recent Posts

Blog Stats

  • 1,986,863 hits
January 2010

CS Teaching Tips

%d bloggers like this: