Archive for January 15, 2010

It’s about me vs. it’s about others

In a recent blog post, responding to the complaints of humanists that they are not taken seriously enough by the outside world, Ian Bogost places the blame explicitly on the backs of the complaining scholars.  His argument is (my paraphrase), “If you want to be taken seriously, take the rest of humanity seriously!”

The problem is not the humanities as a discipline (who can blame a discipline?), the problem is its members. We are insufferable. We do not want change. We do not want centrality. We do not want to speak to nor interact with the world. We mistake the tiny pastures of private ideals with the megalopolis of real lives. We spin from our mouths retrograde dreams of the second coming of the nineteenth century whilst simultaneously dismissing out of our sphincters the far more earnest ambitions of the public at large—religion, economy, family, craft, science.

via Ian Bogost – The Turtlenecked Hairshirt.

It’s the first week of the semester at Georgia Tech, and I’m teaching Senior Design for Computational Media majors.  The Senior Design course is meant to be a “capstone,” where students bring to bear all that they have learned in the last four years (or more) of undergraduate studies to solve someone’s problem.  That last part is critical to the course objectives: To solve someone else’s problem.  We insist that there be a customer who wants the problem solved.  We gather problems from across campus (e.g., a problem assigning space in a department across campus) and around town (e.g., several from the Neurosurgery Department at Emory, one from an entrepreneur developing a video game to teach reading).  The reaction to the students to this list of problems makes me think that the problems that Ian is seeing among humanities scholars runs deeper in our culture.  I see it in these students more than I expected.

It’s stunning the effort to which the students have gone through to do what they want to do.  There’s the student who got his buddy who graduated last semester to email us to say that he’d be the customer for his buddy’s pet game development project, whatever that was.  There are the students who found a professor across campus to email me today (the last day that project selections are due) to suggest a project, but the professor got the message wrong and ended up suggesting a project of arranging her book collection.  Not really about computation or digital media.  The one that really set the tone for me was the articulate email from one student early in the week who insisted on building his own game because, he was going to be a game developer and “[I am] more likely to work for a game company, designing and creating within the company, than to freelance and have a customer or client telling you what to do…I’d much rather have this project be relevant to my career than some random inventory whatever that I’m going to put zero soul into. Senior projects are supposed to be showcases of your talent, not assigned, unrelated busywork.”  He really does believe that his career will only involve designing and creating whatever he wants, not what a customer or client wants.

Of course, students want to do something “cool.”  I get that.  What bothers me is the assumption that someone else’s problem is by default less interesting, less important, less powerful as a learning experience than something cooked up for themselves.  I see a lack of willingness to consider the others’ view, to try out their problem, to gain the experience of working for someone else.  I see the problem the same as with Ian’s scholars:  Look around and you see what’s interesting out there!  And unless you do, don’t expect the outside world to take you very seriously.

January 15, 2010 at 1:59 pm 9 comments

Are computer scientists a form of evil intellectuals?

Thomas Sowell’s column appears in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Tuesday’s, and his column this week appeared under the headline World worse off because of role intellectuals play. Sowell’s argument is that intellectuals overall did more harm than good in the 20th century.  Examples of intellectuals who caused great harm in Sowell’s opinion include Hitler and Marx.  He distinguishes the Wright brothers in his article, because they created something.

All these people produced a tangible product or service and they were judged by whether those products and services worked. But intellectuals are people whose end products are intangible ideas, and they are usually judged by whether those ideas sound good to other intellectuals or resonate with the public.

via Intellectuals and Society by Thomas Sowell on Creators.com – A Syndicate Of Talent.

So are computer scientists “intellectuals” by Sowell’s definition?  We create products and services, but our products and services are merely intangible ideas.  You can’t touch a bit, nor a Web page, nor a window and scroll bar.  How do you judge the quality of our products and services?  Is there a way of judging software by more than “sound good to other intellectuals or resonate with the public”?

I’m not sure that Sowell’s argument stands up to much criticism, e.g., the difference between intellectuals and those whose ideas are worth something is just that the latter have tangible products and services?  If I’m better at marketing, so my ideas turn into a product, then I’m not longer “just” an intellectual?  Still, the philosophical question of what we are, we who build things out of just thought and some serious typing, is interesting.

January 15, 2010 at 1:33 pm 3 comments


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