The Community for Technology Leaders
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Issue No. 07 - July (2011 vol. 44)
ISSN: 0018-9162
pp: 6-8
David Alan Grier , George Washington University
It took a moment to grasp the scope of the miracle. Twenty-two little boys were standing quietly and conversing with inside voices. It was clearly a marvel of social mediation, an example of the unseen hand that shapes events. After all, six-year-old boys are rarely good examples of serenity and patience.
The miracle worker was Anaya, the mother of one of the boys, who had agreed to host a party for the kindergarten class. She stood at the door, relaxed and friendly. From time to time, her eyes would survey the little mob of boys, but from her expression, you could see that she was only looking to affirm the relative peace before her.
"How did you do this?" I asked in surprise.
"What do you mean?" she asked.
"This isn't the natural state of affairs," I replied.
"Perhaps not," she affirmed, "but nature can be tamed."
"How did you tame it?"
"I gave each of them the wrong name tag and let curiosity take its course."
Listening to the boy's conversations confirmed her statement. They were introducing themselves and asking about each others' name. They weren't quite as polite as adults might desire, but miracles often occur only one step at a time. Without rules, commands, or admonishment, the children were starting to form a little community, even though none of them understood the forces that were shaping their actions.
Much to my surprise, I recently found myself at a social computing conference. Long ago, I had decided that technical conferences were much like a gathering of six-year-olds. They were something you did at a specific point in your life, but you quickly let that stage pass. However, someone somewhere thought I knew something about the subject, so I found myself standing in a conference line with approximately 12,000 graduate students. We were waiting for the badge that would get us into the sessions, the URL that would give us access to the proceedings, and the goody bag that would justify the hefty conference fee.
Much of the contents of the goody bag was useless: advertisements for clubs that I wouldn't have visited in my youth and discounts on products that would have a shelf life of 8 or 10 days before they were superseded by newer, improved short-lived products. At the bottom of the contents was what looked like a plastic toy in the shape of a bug. When I picked the object out of the bag, it started to glow.
"What is this?" I asked the conference staff member.
"It's your keresok," came the reply. At least that's the word I think I heard.
I waited quietly until I realized there was going to be no further information.
"What is a keresok?" I asked.
"It's how you find people of interest to you and share information," she said. She then proceeded to show how the bug could share my personal information, transmit the longitude and latitude of my location, identify people with similar interests, and, apparently, remind me of my blood alcohol level.
"What's wrong with e-mailing your LinkedIn ID?" I asked.
When I received a look suggesting that a LinkedIn account had recently become the technological equivalent of the number 2 soft graphite pencil, I took the bag, disposed of the advertisements, pocketed the keresok, and went on my way.
I quickly discovered the value of my new toy. Even though I could see large wireless routers placed every 15 or 20 feet in the convention center, I found that there wasn't a bit of free bandwidth anywhere to be found in the area. I sat helplessly, watching the little cell phone dial spin as I tried to send messages to the grownup world. Around me, the next generation of computer researchers was freely sharing information with its little toys. As far as I could tell, most of this information dealt with social events that were happening before, during, and after the talks. I had a moment of sympathy for the keynote speaker, who was addressing an audience that was present in body but far away in mind.
As I watched the activity in the audience, I took comfort from the idea that our field has a long history of transmitting information at conferences. The proceedings of the old Joint Computer Conferences are probably the most important literature of our field.
In 1946, the Moore School lectures disseminated the first ideas about computers to a group of young engineers who had come to Philadelphia, a city that was both the headquarters of the American electronics industry and a vibrant social center that was rivaled only by New York. Twenty-two years later, the important gathering of young researchers was the Garmisch meeting, which brought together in Europe the most promising software researchers from around the globe to lay the foundations for software engineering.
The Garmisch meeting was especially well-remembered as a sociable affair. "From the very start," wrote participant Brian Randell, "a tremendous rapport grew up, as the delegates found a common cause despite their disparate experience." Part of this rapport came from a sense that they were dealing with important ideas that no one, including the senior leaders of the field, fully understood. "We came to Garmisch with a common concern at the seriousness of some of the problems of the software world," explained Randell.
Although such gatherings elevated many influential young researchers, they combined the talents of both senior and junior workers. Cornell professor David Gries, who had received his doctorate only two years before the Garmisch meeting, was "close to the youngest of the 50-odd participants," he recalled. Gries was somewhat intimidated by the meeting. "I felt small and unsure of myself," he later explained. "I wondered whether I would ever be able to speak on a level with people like Bauer, Naur, and Perlis." Yet he had a role to play along with the more senior members of the group.
At the meeting I recently attended, senior engineers were in short supply. In one of those disconcerting life moments that comes to us all, I realized that I was about the most senior person in the room.
Furthermore, I recognized that most of the participants were children of the social networking era and couldn't remember not using Facebook or smartphones. None of them felt the need to establish a conventional organization. Connections would be maintained with Facebook. News would fly on Twitter. Publication would be handled using some form of crowdsourcing to offer comments on submissions. It would all be very inclusive and open. It would be the new world, not the old—a social network rising in revolution to overthrow the established hierarchy.
Although we tend to think of scientific revolutions as rather dry affairs in which one set of ideas quietly supplants another, in practice they can be quite emotional. In addition to taking control of institutions and money, they also can have an impact on reputations and the legacy of contributions.
Over the past year, I've witnessed a half-dozen meetings of such revolutionary intent. The attendees claim they're working in a new field of technology and are going to establish a new organization with no taint of the old.
These meetings are marked by two curious but related facts. First, the participants have an imperfect sense of how the old guard operates. They don't know the nature of the existing organizations, the purpose of these groups, or their accomplishments.
In one recent session, I listened to an earnest young professor claim how social networking allows research to be done in a way that "had never before been done" in human history. "Poor dear," I thought, "he's confusing novelty with innovation."
I was tempted to play the curmudgeon, but I had already done so once already that day and had been quietly dismissed. My speech would have included a brief discussion of the invisible college, a concept articulated by Derek De Solla Price in 1963. However, I knew that the young researchers believed that 1963 was no closer to current experiences than Madame Curie's experiments with radium or Galileo's observations with his new telescope. So I sat on my hands and let the discussion proceed down its path of dubious logic.
From what I could see, the old guard was almost completely unrepresented at the social computing conference. There was no member of IEEE or the ACM to provide a stabilizing hand and bring a sense of connection to past and current work. There was no one to fit the new ideas into the existing research structure. At this meeting, the old guard didn't even show its face, much less defend its ideas.
For any field of endeavor, a professional society exists to promote and extend a body of knowledge. To promote ideas, an organization first needs to control them. No group wants to expend its energies defending ideas that have little to do with its central mission. Traditionally, a group controls a body of knowledge by defining the questions of interest to it, the methods that can be used to support those ideas, and the kinds of results that are acceptable.
Over the years, computer science has proven to be a remarkably catholic field that has been willing to embrace a great diversity of questions and methods. However, this encompassing nature hasn't spared the field from some substantial battles. The first battle occurred in the late 1940s, pitting electrical engineers against mathematicians. Most observers believe that the electrical engineers won this skirmish and were able to claim the dominant influence over computer research at the time. However, the encounter did produce a group of investigators who used methods that were quite different from those of engineers to investigate problems of algorithms, complexity, data structures, and programming languages.
A second conflict occurred in the late 1960s, as the proponents of software and those of hardware each staked a claim to the field. This battle was fought to an uneasy standstill, as both were able to claim authority over some aspect of computer science. Subsequent years have seen the relative expansion of the software field, although this has occurred with little bloodshed.
During the past decade, we have moved into a third period of conflict as the problems of social computation have become increasingly important to the field. These problems, of course, are rarely addressed with the traditional tools of computer science. Instead, they engage the theories of sociology, economics, statistics, or communications. Time and again, I've heard researchers assert that they need "to get the algorithm out of the problem"—to build a research framework that avoids some difficult programming obstacle so they can answer questions that interest them. These questions don't always fit into the standard typology of computer science.
In fact, social computing's growth is part of a dialog that computer science has been having with other disciplines. Just as computing has borrowed ideas from other fields, so we see other forms of research adopting the methods of computation. As a consequence, they not only accept computers as tools, they also become more rational, more algorithmic, more automated.
In addition to changing the subject of computation, this exchange also seems to be altering some of the field's basic practices. In a recent discussion of social computing, media critic Howard Rhinegold argued that social computing is changing education's fundamental nature. Rhinegold views social media as a means of encouraging collaboration among students. In this process, teachers lose some of their authority, and students take greater responsibility for directing the class. "I no longer think of teachers and students," he said, "but of co-learners."
In a world of co-learners, no one plays the role of the expert who guides the group through a body of knowledge. Instead, everyone approaches the collected knowledge as equals. They rely on each other to find a path through a set of problems, explore the potential solutions, and assess the final results.
Rhinegold argued that such a strategy provides improved means of motivating students and builds stronger skills for future learning. Still, this may or may not be the best approach for exploring highly structured bodies of knowledge, such as the sciences or engineering. Without a strong hand to guide the process, the class can lose direction and fail to understand which ideas are important and which are not, which theories are canonical and which are minor diversions in the literature.
I spent my days at the social computing conference wandering the halls in a state of social drought. Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi everywhere, but not a drop for my cell phone to drink. To get my business done, I had to walk to a coffee shop that was a block or two beyond the range of the wireless systems at the convention center so that I was no longer competing with others for the data stream. I spent an hour and a half in the experienced hands of 3G technology to answer e-mails and engage in my own social network.
Someone may play the role of Anaya for this group and guide the fledgling ideas into the established world of experience. However, it seems equally likely that someone will soon have to take the rest of us by the hand and show us how to find a place in this new world of social computing.
Selected CS articles and columns are available for free at
David Alan Grier is an associate professor of international science and technology policy at George Washington University and a senior member of the IEEE Computer Society. Contact him at
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