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Sometimes I Wish That It Would Rain Here

Sunday, December 11, 2005

the pudding is elsewhere

I'm in the process of studying for my ph.d. qualifying exam, which they call the phase II exam here (don't ask). at any rate, it's really interesting, because I'm in the informatics department, which is part of a school of information and computer sciences, but a good majority of the items on our reading list are written by sociologists or people studying the use of technology. some of them, including selections from Ishii, Grudin, and Weiser, really deal with actually building stuff. but some of them, including stuff by Giddens, Garfinkel, and Geertz, have nothing to do with technology, at least not directly, but are more about sociology, anthropology, and psychology. very interesting indeed.

now, there are a couple things to take away from this. obviously, people and technology are not separable in a neat, clean way, such that one can design technology in a vacuum. rather, one must always consider the context into which technology will be deployed and what effects, both narrow and broad, it might have. I agree with this, but it's not what I want to argue about here.

rather, I want to argue (or maybe just ask) about how this focus has changed the field of the information and computer sciences. this may just be a matter of my perspective, but it used to be that, in computer science type fields, the emphasis was on building new technology, methods, tools, etc. you got published by improving the efficiency of some transmitted or by developing an algorithm that allowed a device to encrypt and decrypt twice as fast while using half the power. it seems that, with the devices people make now, the emphasis is not on development of new technology but on the design, usage, and deployment of existing technology. now, you get published not by doing anything really cutting edge tech-wise but by using existing tech in innovate ways. moreover, you really get published by being able to make some sort of social inference based on the ways people use your technology. computer scientists are becoming the new sociologists.

to back track a bit, I was discussing the content of our reading list with a fellow student, commenting on the abundance of sociological papers and the lack of technical ones. she sort of had a "yeah, of course" kind of reply, for which I wasn't really prepared. "well," she said, "the proof is in the pudding. you gotta be able to build stuff." (apologies for the misquote I'm certainly making) it just seems strange. if the proof is in the pudding, why are we focusing on how we talk about the pudding and what other people think about rather than how to make the pudding? maybe it's a matter of treating the deficiencies; any technologist can build stuff, but what seems to be important is the ability to think critically about the ramifications of one's designs.

the proof may be in the pudding, but the pudding is not what you do. it's what you say about what you do, how you write it up, how you talk it up. the proof is in the pudding, and the pudding is the academic game of publications, dissertations, tenure, etc. I'm trying really hard not to make a value judgment. rather, I'm saying, as stated above, that computer science (or informatics, or whatever you like to call your particular breed of it) is becoming the new sociology.

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