Herbert Simon: When CS was interdisciplinary and multi-cultural

July 18, 2016 at 7:13 am 4 comments

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.

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. alanone1  |  July 18, 2016 at 7:26 am

    Hi Mark

    Your assessment of the past agrees strongly with my impressions back then.

    One thing you didn’t mention — that I think is very important — is that with most people having a degree in something not just different but quite difficult — math, hard science, deep engineering — it provided a very useful bullshit detector for the fads and naivete of what was (and still primarily is) a design field made of gossamer relationships from a universal material.

    Today, the amount of BS and unsupported opinion seems clearly to be much higher than when we had less to go on. However, Bob Barton could see the problems when he said back then “Systems programmers are high priests of a low cult” and “Computing should be in the School of Religion”.

    Now the inmates are really running the asylums I think.

  • 2. Rebecca Burnett  |  July 18, 2016 at 7:34 am

    When I was in Herb Simon’s class at Carnegie Mellon, his course was interdisciplinary, multilingual, and multi-cultural in the lectures, activities, and assignments, with graduate students largely from computer science, economics, and rhetoric. He expected commitment, creativity, and rigor from everyone. He was eclectic (and fascinating) in the breadth of examples he brought to the class conversation.

    • 3. Sotiris Papantonopoulos  |  March 27, 2021 at 8:25 am

      I took Herbert Simon’s class in human problem solving in 1983. Sadly, I remember only the GOMS model. And in view of what I have learned on problem solving in the nearly 40 intervening years, I could say that, as a theory of human problem solving, the GOMS model was deceptive.

  • 4. Raul Miller  |  July 18, 2016 at 10:48 am

    I would add that these trends that you have been noticing extend not just to the people using computers but into the devices themselves. But, also, that these trends are also something of a representation of rhetoric and issues which extend back through history.

    For the devices themselves, I have been hearing (and encountering) more and more about shoddy production values. And, while to some degree this is understandable, this reflects badly on everyone involved.

    For example, the power connectors on the power adapter for my laptop are damaged and corroded. The name an model printed on the label is not in production and the manufacturer says that that is an obsolete design which no one should use. But other labelling indicates that it was made overseas. Who has time to care about this kind of thing?

    For example, I was reading just a few minutes an email thread where a person was talking directly with operating system software developers about a problem with the audio (which was really bad). It turned out that the problem was that the microphone being used was turned off at the bios level and that turning it on in the bios “fixed the problem”.

    Think about what that means, from the viewpoint of the customer support experience (bad). Or, from the viewpoint of the manager (what would a manager do about this kind of thing? Try something random until the problem goes away is what…). Or, from the viewpoint of a salesman (why should anyone care? mixed with “this is all !@#$”).

    Now, think about this all from a regulatory standpoint. We have rhetoric about how the U.S. is the richest country in the world. We also have rhetoric about how the U.S. government has to shut down because it is not being funded adequately. And then think about how most of the computer industry is supported by overseas production which runs into jurisdictional issues across the board. And then there’s problems where schools have been teaching things about economics (such as the efficient market hypothesis) which is mathematically implausible – and you have an entire culture built up to support people with this kind of training as their background.


    What I guess I am trying to say here is that what I see justifies a degree of insanity in the actions going on around me, but also requires of me an intense degree of personal responsibility to try to hold things together while other people come to terms with the situation. Some of those jurisdictional issues and the historical motivations behind them have rather grim implications.

    That said… I feel that a multi-cultural society must necessarily have very high levels of tolerance for bullshit. Bullshit, I think, is an inevitable result of translation errors and the mis-handled contextual issues which result from multi-cultural contexts. And, I don’t even think that this is something completely new. If you read history and think about how issues have developed, I think you can find plenty of examples of far worse. (Look for situations which have developed which involved lots of people dying, and then think about how hard the survivors had to work, to recover, afterwards. Those recoveries, by the way, form the basis of our governments and cultures…)

    So, anyways, this can be a painful subject to reason about.

    I think we can expect that some people are going to be more than a little upset about any of a variety of issues. And, quite likely, we are not even going to understand what they are upset about. We just don’t have the time to understand. And that leads us into situations where people are going to naturally put the most trust in people promising misery and offering “ways out” which are really “lots of difficult work”.

    But, on the political fronts, the divides here are not geographic (which has been the historical organizing basis for governments). And, worse, people have a tendency to keep trying to solve problems which have already been solved (because, what else are they going to do?)

    Anyways, the net result of this kind of mixing will naturally tend to be messy, ugly and not very nice.

    Also, I expect that the real world is going to be injecting entropy.

    So, mostly, I think we need to come up with new coping strategies and that the work that will actually need to be done is going to look like a mess of “why are we doing this, no one has had to do that in my lifetime” mixed in with “why didn’t anyone write this down, how does this even work” mixed in with way too much listening to uncomprehending people extoll the virtues of stuff which is – at best – irrelevant.

    Or, that has been how my life has been going.

    In some senses it has been very easy, lazy time easy. In others, it’s a complete headache.

    Put differently, I expect that some significant fraction of the insanity has actually been just people doing the right thing, but whose word choices grate my nerves. What should I do about that? Mostly nothing, but maybe plan for things to fail “for no good reason” (actually quite good reasons which I don’t understand).


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