Computer science as Yugoslavia

May 31, 2010 at 12:39 pm 2 comments

I wonder if Paul Graham is right, that “Computer science is a grab bag of tenuously related areas thrown together by an accident of history, like Yugoslavia.”  I’m wondering because, when I re-read his famous Hackers and Painters essay recently, I found myself listing the other areas not in his analysis but part of what I think of as “computer science”:

  • Human-centered computing, the implications of computing for humand and how human concerns (e.g., culture, psychology, economics) influence the design of computing systems.
  • The deep-down what computing is about, reflected in Alan Kay’s “Triple Whammy” that everyone should know about computing.  Is that mathematics?  It’s not the natural history or hackers parts.  It’s not really an area of research for everyone, but it is something that everyone should know.
  • The graphics designers that Brian Dorn is studying, who program but not to produce beauty in software, like Graham’s hackers, but to produce software output of value, to produce artifacts that might create beauty.  Brian is finding that these people need to know a lot about computer science to make themselves more successful at what they want to do, but they don’t fit into any of Graham’s categories.

Can all these pieces stay together, under some kind of UN-enforced treaty?  Or are we bound to split into multiple fields?

I’ve never liked the term “computer science.” The main reason I don’t like it is that there’s no such thing. Computer science is a grab bag of tenuously related areas thrown together by an accident of history, like Yugoslavia. At one end you have people who are really mathematicians, but call what they’re doing computer science so they can get DARPA grants. In the middle you have people working on something like the natural history of computers– studying the behavior of algorithms for routing data through networks, for example. And then at the other extreme you have the hackers, who are trying to write interesting software, and for whom computers are just a medium of expression, as concrete is for architects or paint for painters. It’s as if mathematicians, physicists, and architects all had to be in the same department.

via Hackers and Painters.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Alan Kay  |  May 31, 2010 at 1:00 pm

    But of course he is missing the point: that there is “Computing” and that part of it is a special area which not only has the name (but is supposed to do it heh heh) “Computer Science”.

    Computing is the grab bag, and it should contain many different fields. Computer Science should really try to do Science — that is: *real understanding* of any and all branches of computing, including itself.

    Instead, today we pretty much need to prepend “Real” to Computer Science, or make up a new term, to get back to this extremely important and very neglected part of our larger field.

    Cheers,

    Alan

    Reply
  • 2. Andrey Fedorov  |  May 31, 2010 at 1:38 pm

    I think you can apply this argument to any field. Consider Art History: there are those who study how art is the expression of the “eternal human condition”, there are those who study the historical importance of different art, and there are those who make models to appraise art for auction houses. Ditto for biology.

    Reply

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