20.440 technological progress & de-skilling practice

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Mon, 5 Feb 2007 09:39:03 +0000

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 20, No. 440.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

   [1] From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk> (88)
         Subject: de-skilling computers: the end of CS?

   [2] From: Lynda Williams <lynda_at_okalrel.org> (109)
         Subject: Re: 20.433 technological progress & de-skilling

         Date: Mon, 05 Feb 2007 09:27:00 +0000
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: de-skilling computers: the end of CS?

In the British Computer Society's "Future of Computing" column for 22
January, computer scientist Neil McBride (De Montfort) proclaims "The
death of computing", i.e. the death of computer science
(www.bcs.org/server.php?show=ConWebDoc.9662). The problem is not
merely dwindling student numbers, fixable by bringing in the marketing folks.

>It's easy to think that the problem is that people (read potential
>students) just don't understand how exciting computing is and that
>this can be fixed by a bit of sharp marketing, slick videos and some
>school visits. But the students are not that gullible. The real
>nature of the problem lies at the roots of the discipline.

McBride's analysis amounts to this: that (as in the case of
scientific instrumentation described by Davis Baird in Thing
Knowledge) the successful development of high-level tools has in
large measure de-skilled computer science. For a discipline that from
the early days was sold to students on its ability to guarantee
lucrative employment, the fact that now "jobs are in the application
of technology" sounds the death-knell.

>Now vastly complex applications for businesses, for science and for
>leisure can be developed using sophisticated high-level tools and
>components. Virtual robots - Zooks - can be created by eight-year
>olds without needing programming, logic or discrete mathematics
>skills. Web designers build complex business sites, graphic
>designers build animations, accountants assemble business systems
>without needing to go object-oriented.... As commercial software
>products have matured, it no longer makes sense for organisations to
>develop software from scratch.... Implementation, facility
>management, systems integration, service management, organisational
>change even environmental audit are the language of IT. These hardly
>feature on computer science courses.

At De Montfort, McBride runs an ICT degree programme, which "focuses
on delivering IT services in organisations, on taking a holistic view
of computing in organisations, and on holistic thinking" and does not
include programming as an essential skill. He argues that the future
of the discipline is to become an "an inter-discipline, connecting
with other spheres, working with diverse scientific and artistic
departments to create new ideas. Its strength and value will be in
its relationships."

McBride's sentiments bear striking relationship to the
recommendations of Rochard Hamming, in his 1968 Turing Award lecture
(JACM 16.1, January 1969), where he focused on "the danger of getting
lost in the details of the field" and the need "to prepare our
students for the year 2000 when many of them will be at the peak of
their career" (4). He recommends in the strongest possible terms a
stress on the practical side of the subject. He argues first from
what computer scientists mostly do -- finding a practical way of
doing something with a reasonable expenditure of time and effort --
and second from the probable future, which has in fact become our
present-day situation:

>As far into the future as I can see, computer science departments are
>going to need large sums of money, Now society usually, though not
>always, is more willing to give money when it can see practical returns
>than it is to invest in what it regards as impractical activities,
>amusing games, etc. If we are to get the vast sums of money I believe we
>will need, then we had better give a practical flavor to our field....
>At the heart of computer science lies a technological device, the
>computing machine. Without the machine almost all of what we do would
>become idle speculation.... How shall we produce this flavor of
>practicality that I am asking for, as well as the reputation for
>delivering what society needs at the time it is needed? Perhaps most
>important is the way we go about our business and our teaching, though
>the research we do will also be very important.... We need to avoid
>making computer science look like pure mathematics: our primary standard
>for acceptance should be experience in the real world, not aesthetics.
>Were I setting up a computer science program, I would give relatively
>more emphasis to laboratory work.... I would also require a strong minor
>in some field other than computer science and mathematics. Without real
>experience in using the computer to get useful results the computer
>science major is apt to know all about the marvelous tool except how to
>use it. Such a person is a mere technician, skilled in manipulating the
>tool but with little sense of how and when to use it for its basic
>purposes. I believe we should avoid turning out more idiot savants--we
>have more than enough "computniks" now to last us a long time. (5-6)

One easily recognizes the voice of an engineer, who has no patience
with "the bragging of uselessness and the game-playing that the pure
mathematicians so often engage in". But Hamming is hardly
anti-intellectual -- witness his brilliant theoretical piece from the
American Mathematical Monthly "The Unreasonable Effectiveness of
Mathematics" (77.2, 1980, pp. 81-90) -- read it tonight! Rather, like
McBride, he is dealing with the practical question of how, given a
discipline's nature, it is to survive in a competitive world.

All good advice for those of us attempting to build programmes and
departments in humanities computing.



Dr Willard McCarty | Reader in Humanities Computing | Centre for
Computing in the Humanities | King's College London |

         Date: Mon, 05 Feb 2007 09:27:38 +0000
         From: Lynda Williams <lynda_at_okalrel.org>
         Subject: Re: 20.433 technological progress & de-skilling practice

Exciting question Willard. I've seen evidence of the infiltration of
computing perturbing status hierarchies of skill in more than one
discipline and experienced the "generational" phenomenon of new
technology creating and eliminating high status/demand for skills
within windows as short as a couple of years. For example, the skilled
HTML coder was in hot demand for a short period before web editors
wiped out their value. Now web editing of any kind is giving way to
pod-casters and other audio/video talents.

Investigating 2nd Life recently, and thinking about the rush to figure
out how to teach university courses over cell phones, I wondered if we
aren't merely "moving where the students are" and then figuring out
how to set up shop in the new venues simply because it is only in
these new venues that we can re-capture their attention. Which is,
perhaps, just another way to say "old wine in new bottles" -- but it
felt profound for a moment there.

   Lynda Williams, SF Author (http://www.okalrel.org)
   2006/7 Righteous Anger Book #2 ORU Saga
   (from Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing)

On Thu, 1 Feb 2007 09:20:28 +0000, willard_at_LISTS.VILLAGE.VIRGINIA.EDU
> Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 20, No. 433. Centre for Computing
> in the Humanities, King's College London
> www.kcl.ac.uk/schools/humanities/cch/research/publications/humanist.
> ml www.princeton.edu/humanist/
> Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu
> Date: Thu, 01 Feb 2007 09:06:16 +0000
> From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk> Subject:
> technological progress & de-skilling practice
> David Baird, in Thing Knowledge: A Philosophy of Scientific
> Instruments (California, 2004), uses the history of analytical
> chemistry to show how the technological development of instruments
> tends to de-skill the fields of enquiry which these instruments are
> designed to serve (pp. 96-112). In its classical form, the
> analytical chemist uses his or her knowledge of chemical
> interactions to determine the constituent parts of a compound by
> separating them out. This, he shows, requires much subtlety and
> craft, though the process is often long and tedious, hence a
> problem not merely for the learned practitioner, who invests much
> time to get results, but also for the fields of application in
> which many such chemists work. (Think, for example, of industries
> in which the specific composition of a metal is crucial to
> manufacture. The speed at which a molten metallic compound is
> analyzed becomes a major bottleneck and the accuracy of analysis
> crucial. In the days of classical analysis, a 15% error rate was
> not uncommon.) To make a long but fascinating story short, what
> happened was that instruments were developed that more and more
> successfully embodied the craft-knowledge of the chemists, greatly
> speeding up the analysis and radically increasing its accuracy.
> Analysis by instrumentation won the day.
> The victory of instrumentalized analysis had social consequences. A
> new class of technicians arose -- those with sufficient skill to
> operate the instruments but not, by any means, chemists with the
> skills of former days. The practice of analysis had become de-
> skilled. In an editorial published in 1947, Walter Murphy described
> the situation:
>> The widespread introduction of instrumentation has caused a sharp
>> division in the analytical laboratory between those of
>> professional and subprofessional training, experience and
>> ability. Today thousands of analytical procedures are carried on
>> readily by laboratory technicians. The true professional is
>> expected to direct, to administer, and to pioneer research in
>> analytical chemistry. He is therefore required to be an organic
>> chemist, and may, at times, be expected to be a biochemist, a
>> metallurgist, a specialist, if you will, in a dozen or more
>> highly specialized fields. He most certainly must be somewhat of
>> an expert in electronics -- he must be almost as much a physicist
>> as physicists themselves. In addition, he is usually expected to
>> be specially skilled in some field within the profession of
>> analytical chemistry.
> Murphy made strenuous efforts to change the perception of his field
> so that the demands made on the professional chemist would be
> properly appreciated, and so the status of the field raised.
> Apparently he was quite successful -- distinctions between chemists
> and technicians did develop; curricula were revamped; awards
> established. The profession rethought itself amidst much confusion
> about its nature -- like a pharmicist filling a prescription or a
> doctor planning a course of treatment? Another chemist, Ralph
> Mueller, promoted a science of instrumentation, for by this point
> instruments were themselves recognized as an independent medium in
> which knowledge was developed, discoveries made.
> Obviously our situation with computing is different. But there are
> lessons to be learned, choices to be made. What do you think these
> are?
> Yours,
> WM
> Dr Willard McCarty | Reader in Humanities Computing | Centre for
> Computing in the Humanities | King's College London |
> http://staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/.
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   Lynda Williams, SF Author (http://www.okalrel.org)
   2006/7 Righteous Anger Book #2 ORU Saga
   (from Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing)
Received on Mon Feb 05 2007 - 04:58:47 EST

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