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Computers Are Just Tools; Computer Science Is About People

Computer science is not about computers, but all about people

In some sense computer science is like geometry. When the art of measuring crop fields was under development by the ancient Mediterranean’s it was most naturally coined geometry – literally meaning measurement of the Earth. Geometry was slowly developed by many scholars to solve a wide range of practical applications. This includes, but is certainly not limited to, forecasting expected crop yields, division of land into parcels, and even to build some of the Seven Wonders of the World as present in classical antiquity.

Later on, Arabic and European scholars expanded the notion of geometry to include the spatial relationship of any abstract figure and its properties. However, this also meant that the name, geometry, no longer fitted its original meaning, since abstract figures don’t have to involve dirt, such as non-Euclidian objects (like the Norwegian coast line).

My point is twofold:

Firstly, it makes perfect sense to name things after its domain of usage, and we do that a lot. We can begin to verify this claim ourselves by thinking about the meaning of the following short sequence of words; screw driver, sleeping bag, social sciences, and triangulation.

Secondly, we readily accept that the ancient Mediterranean’s named geometry as they did. It’s of course unreasonable to require that they should recognize the long term temporal effects and importance of their practical endeavors as they were being developed.

Today is no different; we also name new objects after their domain of usage and, of course, we also fail to forecast its future domain. Notably, there are of course other, both benign and malign, reasons why misnomers exist, but they are irrelevant in this context.

Now, think about the meaning and domain of usage implied by the word computer science.

It certainly has nothing to do with computers and it’s hardly a science. Well, admittedly, it’s beginning to look like a field in its own right and with its own falsifiable theories, but by and large, it’s not at all in the same league as the established century-old sciences. Furthermore, the application of theories, any theories, is not dependant on computers. Computers are just the most practical tool we have available today to test our theorems (and testable in our lifetime being very practical, of course). All the other fields in science use tools and computers the same way, without ever including the name of the tool into their respective names. The closest we get might be some of the recent new fields in science, like Computational linguistics or Computational biology. However, from the names we can only infer that the objects of study has some very nice mathematical properties or that some head professor wishes to draw a broader array of students into his or her field, nothing else. Digressing slightly on this last remark, imagine re-naming Tic-tac-toe to Computational tic-tac-toe. It is a fallacy to believe that computers suddenly play an integral part in this paper-and-pencil game. On the other hand, we might believe it would attract students into the aspiring fields of artificial intelligence or game theory (where the alpha-beta pruning technique for solving such games is mainly taught). Incidentally, game theory is also a misnomer, and as such has little to do with games as laymen understand the term. Rather, it’s a useful model for making optimal choices dependant on the choices of others.

I believe these common misconceptions about computer science are also the root cause of confusion in companies when assessing technology’s true benefit. Computers are only the means for fulfilling a certain business strategy, not the goal. This fact can be derived trivially, if we just add to the facts that all business strategies used to be achieved without computers. This pre-Computer era only ended half a lifetime ago and should still be memorable for some.

The most prominent reason why we have used computers so much today is notably their ability to replace labor-intensive and error prone processes with cheap counterparts wherever possible. However, it should be understood, that the application of technology cements any company into a certain way of thinking that affects how it collaborates with its stakeholders. And in turn, that it ultimately determines how efficiently it functions to produce some desired goods – ceteris paribus.

Conclusively, there exist subtle pathological understandings on the application of computers in companies today that are counterproductive to its true benefit.

More Stories By Martin Kaarup

Martin Kaarup began his professional career over a decade ago as a system developer on location-based mobile phone services. During that time he participated as lead developer in pioneering unique state-of-the-art location-based services for the European and Asian markets, such as low-cost fleet-tracking using antenna triangulation and applications for utilizing customer positioning data for demographic use. He also participated in building location based games, such as treasure hunts and country-wide Dungeon & Dragons-based games merging www, wap and sms technologies.

Later, he shifted to the financial sector in Scandinavia where he worked as an enterprise architect building, extending, and delivering advanced fund data solutions and services designed specifically for the pan-European Fund Industry.

Today, Martin is an employee at the Swedish consultants company Avega Group, where he focuses his expertice on consulting companies on strategic and enterprise wide issues.

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