Archive for July 18, 2016

Herbert Simon: When CS was interdisciplinary and multi-cultural

I’m teaching our introductory course in Human-Centered Computing for new PhD students this Fall. I have a huge reading list to review, including Latour, Geertz, Russell & Norvig, Goffman, Tufte, and so on.

I got to re-read Herbert Simon’s Sciences of the Artificial. I was struck by this quote at the end of Chapter 5.

Those of us who have lived close to the development of the modern computer through gestation and infancy have been drawn from a wide variety of professional fields, music being one of them. We have noticed the growing communication among intellectual disciplines that takes place around the computer. We have welcomed it, because it has brought us into contact with new worlds of knowledge—has helped us combat our own multiple-cultures isolation. This breakdown of old disciplinary boundaries has been much commented upon, and its connection with computers and the information sciences often noted.

Simon, Herbert A. (1996-09-26). The Sciences of the Artificial (MIT Press) (p. 137). The MIT Press.

I believe that the early days of computing were interdisciplinary and multi-cultural. Those interdisciplinary and multi-cultural forces created computer science, but once created, new cultures formed without continuing interdisciplinary and multi-cultural influences. What Simon did not foresee was the development of unique technology-centric culture(s), such as the Reddit culture and Silicon Valley Culture (as described in Forbes and New Yorker). Valuing multiculturalism and diverse perspectives in the early days of computing is in sharp contrast to today’s computing world. (Think Gamergate.)

Note who is considered a computer scientist today. In the early days of computer science as a discipline, faculty in the computer science department would have degrees from mathematics, electrical engineering, philosophy, and psychology. Today, you rarely find a computer science faculty member without a computer science degree. When I first started my PhD in Education and Computer Science at the University of Michigan, one of the CS graduate advisors tried to talk me out of it. “No CS department is going to hire you with an Education degree!” Fortunately for me, he was wrong, but not far wrong. There are few CS faculty in the US today who have a credential in education — that’s not a successful add-on for a CS academic. That’s a far cry from the world described in Simon’s quote.

July 18, 2016 at 7:13 am 4 comments


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