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Issue No. 12 - December (2011 vol. 44)
ISSN: 0018-9162
pp: 12-14
David Alan Grier , George Washington University
I was sitting near the back of the room at the Pratt Institute with hunched shoulders and bowed head, a position that in an earlier age would have communicated that I was lost in my own thoughts. In our time, it meant that I was answering e-mail on my cell phone.
In processing my messages, I meant no disrespect to Todd, who was the main speaker for the gathering of librarians. However, I felt that I knew much of what he was going to say, as I've been following his work for more than a year. Todd has been developing a system that can manage complicated workflows for large numbers of workers. He has only recently started working on this problem, having spent the prior 10 years with various IT companies.
Although he gets into more technical detail than others might include in such a forum, Todd gives a good talk. His reassuring voice tells the audience that they shouldn't underestimate themselves, suggesting that they'll get the point if they simply listen carefully. Because I didn't expect to hear much new information until the end of his presentation, I felt that I could do a little work while he described how we now conceive and organize tasks.
Sitting down the row from me was a young woman who was doing a far better job of handling multiple tasks than I. By all appearances, she was using her cell phone to communicate via text messages and perhaps even tweeting a summary of the talk to a distant audience.
As Todd got into the central part of his presentation, my neighbor started to slow her work. Then she put her phone on the chair next to her and began fidgeting. At first, I thought she might have had an unfortunate exchange with one of her electronic correspondents. But she became more agitated as Todd drew to the end of his slides, suggesting that perhaps his comments had distressed her.
The woman's hand was the first one in the air when questions were requested. When she had the opportunity to take the floor, she fired a string of questions suggesting that Todd's presentation had somehow challenged her view of the world. She said that she didn't understand how it's possible to find a consistent workforce, day after day. How can employees learn the system if they regularly switch jobs? How is it possible to guarantee that the work will be done correctly?
Todd responded to her questions with both grace and charm. However, her challenge clearly found sympathy in the audience. Todd's ideas were new to them. As trained librarians, they didn't quite know how to fit these ideas into their view of the world. They knew that that world was changing, and they wanted to be part of the innovation that came with these changes. Ultimately, innovation always involves fundamental challenges to the way we think.
Emotional reactions to innovations are nothing unusual. "As the births of living creatures at first are ill-shapen," wrote Francis Bacon in 1597, "so are all innovations." They might bring great utility to the world, but they're troubling, he noted, "by their inconformity." Because they don't fit into the current world view, innovations stir public emotions when they appear.
I first experienced the emotional disruptions that innovation causes when I was in my teens and just learning to program. Someone who had seen my code and perhaps wanted to help me break a few bad habits had given me a copy of Edsger Dijkstra's classic letter, "Go To Statement Considered Harmful."
Although the target of my anger might not have been clear to me, by the time I reached the end of Dijkstra's letter, I was quite upset. I might have been revolting against Dijkstra's ideas, or I might have been upset to find that anyone felt I would benefit from reading the letter. Either way, I wasn't pleased and was ready to side with Dijkstra's critics. "I was taken aback by Dijkstra's attack on the go to statement," wrote John Rice of Purdue University, "which is an obviously useful and desirable statement. I reject the implication that the 'quality' of a program is directly correlated with a minimal use of the go to and similar statements." Rice argued that Dijkstra had offended the programming community and that, from his point of view, it was "not clear to me that there is a real motivation for the attack."
As with many teenage programmers, I was ill-disciplined and liked to freely transfer control around a block of code with no attempt at structure or order. I felt that my approach was more flexible and that I was smart enough to handle such complexities. My self-confidence quickly collapsed and my anger dissipated when I learned that Dijkstra's letter was a decade old, that his ideas had triumphed, and that I was on the losing side of history.
In my voyage through the known world of computing technology, I've been fascinated by the tension between the logical and the emotional, the computational and the human.
Even those who are deeply engaged with the logic of machine development, programming, and system design find that the emotions that accompany innovations in this field can sorely test their rational principles. Sometimes, these emotions can energize our endeavors and encourage us to pursue more advanced ideas. Sometimes they make us timid, as they suggest that we're walking on uncertain ground. Sometimes they evoke anger when they challenge our secure view of the world.
Perhaps no challenge to the emotions is greater than the one that philosopher Bertrand Russell faced when he was working on one of the founding documents of our field, the Principia Mathematica, in which he strove to base mathematics on a firm foundation of logic.
Midway through the work, Russell encountered the contradiction that now bears his name. This contradiction can be expressed in the claim that you should never join a club that would be willing to take you as a member, but it's better summarized by a piece of paper that asserts two different claims. The first is a sentence that states,"The sentence below this one is false." Immediately below it is the assertion, "The sentence above this is true."
"There was something wrong," Russell noted, "as such contradictions are unavoidable on ordinary premises." He originally assumed that the problem would be relatively easy to fix but soon concluded "that it would be a big job."
Russell continued working and completed an outline of his book without addressing the contradiction. After completing the outline, still frustrated by the contradiction, Russell faced an emotional crisis that he could only describe in the blandest terms. "I went out bicycling one afternoon," he explained, "and realized that I no longer loved my wife."
Russell's behavior is hardly a typical example, even in the field of logic. He confessed that he had become so consumed with his work on the contradiction that he "had no idea until this moment that my love for her was even lessening." The consequences from this realization initiated one of the more contentious periods in a life that was heavily marked by contention.
In the computing fields, we're often quick to claim that we achieve our results by logic and that they aren't touched by any other emotion beyond a love for the truth. Workers in the field occasionally have paid a high emotional price for their accomplishments, but they've also received strong rewards.
Granted, we can find plenty of contributors who expanded our stock of knowledge by careful, rational work, but we also can find those who found a key idea in a momentary spark of inspiration as well as others who were hounded by doubts they couldn't shake. These innovators include Tim Berners-Lee, who drew guidance for the World Wide Web from a thumb-indexed encyclopedia that he had cherished in his youth; Edmund Berkeley, the author of the seminal book Giant Brains, who believed despite all evidence to the contrary that the computer would reorganize society along rational lines; and John Backus, whose 50-year career is remembered for a single contribution that he created in his first years of employment.
Of all the moments of doubt and frustration that have marked the story of computing, none has produced more emotion than the one concept that is central to our field: the invention of the stored memory program. We know the groups who claim to have invented the program. We know the emotions that the rival claimants express toward each other. Nevertheless, we lack the documentation to make a rational conclusion that would identify a single inventor of the program.
For nearly 40 years, we've had standards for how we should train and educate the individuals who desire to become part of our field. We have opinions about how we should develop mathematical skill, programming skill, and even design skill. However, we do nothing to describe the kinds of emotions that computer professionals should express or the kind of character they should exemplify.
The only real discussion of character is found in biographies, but we have very few biographies of computing people. Although we have seen a recent biography of Steve Jobs, we have no complete story of John von Neumann, only a sketch of Seymour Cray, and just a few paragraphs on Edsger Dijkstra, one of the great software pioneers.
The Library of Congress lists only 16 biographies of computing engineers. The list gets longer when we add biographies of business leaders, electrical engineers, and other contributors to the field. However, most of these volumes tell about accomplishments. Few probe how these leaders thought, how they made decisions, or what shaped their character.
Of all the factors that have influenced the computing era, the emotional response to rapid change may ultimately prove to be more important than the rational forces of logic. The computing fields have driven forward at a relentless pace that has mocked the standard speed of innovation, which was historically set by the length of the human life. The historian I. Bernard Cohen noted that the rapid change of any technical field is in conflict with the span of the human career. "Every scientist has a vast interest in the preservation of the status quo to the extent that he does not want the skills and expert knowledge which he has acquired at great cost in time and learning energy to become obsolete," Cohen observed.
Yet we force mature computer scientists to cope with multiple changes in concepts and theories in the course of an ordinary career. Some of these changes are cyclical. I've been pleased to see that some of the ideas that inspired my choice of career return to current practice as if they were freshly discovered. Some are evolutionary. Some are innovative and truly demand that we think in new ways.
I recently had coffee with a friend who had made a major shift in a career that was already quite successful. "How did you decide to change fields?" I asked.
"My students convinced me it was a good idea," he replied. "They kept arriving at my door with interesting problems, and eventually I decided to make the change."
Although change might be the hallmark of our character, that change also can stir up an emotional storm we don't always see. Over the years, I've been praised for accomplishments that weren't completely mine, critiqued for ideas that were common to the field, and—once—punched in the chest for proposing an idea that offended a senior researcher.
In the end, we've created a rich field that has touched almost every aspect of human endeavor. Historically, the standard internalist view of science and technology emphasizes how ideas develop and marginalizes the human element. The invention is more important than the inventor. Yet, it's the inventor who brings the new idea to the world, makes it understandable, and explains how it might be used.
Todd took questions well after the hour appointed to end his presentation. The audience grasped that there was something in his approach that would ultimately change their lives in profound ways, and they wanted to know as much about that change as Todd could describe.
I waited in that now familiar e-mail posture as Todd finished answering the questions. Afterwards, he agreed to walk with me to my next appointment so that we could discuss his plans for the next couple of weeks as we moved through the neighborhood. He was pleased with his presentation, excited about his plans, and a little anxious about the tasks he needed to complete.
That sense of accomplishment and anticipation generated by our conversation was shattered moments after Todd left me at the supposed site of my next meeting. I have never completely understood the algorithm for assigning street numbers in New York City, hence I was three-quarters of a mile from my destination.
So, with limited time, I pulled a bit of technology out of my pocket and again peered into the small screen. Using the problem-solving skills I have honed over a career, I located the proper address, estimated my arrival time, sent an e-mail asking for accommodation, and marched into the darkness of the evening to begin a new adventure in the land we call the known world.
Selected CS articles and columns are available for free at
David Alan Grier, an associate professor of international science and technology policy at George Washington University, is the author of the upcoming book, The Company We Keep. Contact him at
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