“Why Computing Belongs Within the Social Sciences”
Communications of the ACM, August 2020, Vol. 63 No. 8, Pages 54-59
By Randy Connolly
“We need to do more to fully educate our computing graduates than simply teach them deontological vs. utilitarian algorithms for ethical trolley problems.”
On October 23, 2008, Alan Greenspan, the Chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve, was testifying before Congress in the immediate aftermath of the September 2008 financial crash. Undoubtedly the high point of the proceedings occurred when Representative Henry Waxman pressed the Chair to admit “that your view of the world, your ideology, was not right,” to which Greenspan admitted “Absolutely, precisely.” Fast forward 10 years to another famous mea culpa moment in front of Congress, that of Mark Zuckerberg on April 11, 2018. In light of both the Cambridge Analytica scandal and revelations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, Zuckerberg also admitted to wrong: “It’s clear now that we didn’t do enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm. That goes for fake news, foreign interference in elections, and hate speech, as well as developers and data privacy.
As far as mea culpas go, Greenspan’s was considerably more concise, but also much more insightful as to the root problem. Greenspan admitted the problem was not due to misguided user expectations, or to poorly worded license agreements, or to rogue developers. Instead he recognized the problem lay in a worldview that seemed to work for a while … until it didn’t. In the immediate after-math of the financial crisis, there were calls for reforms, not only of the financial services industry, but also within universities, where it was thought that unrealistic models and assumptions within economics departments and business schools were also responsible for inculcating a worldview that led to the crisis. It is time for us in computing departments to do some comparable soul searching.
This article is one attempt at this task. It argues the well-publicized social ills of computing will not go away simply by integrating ethics instruction or codes of conduct into computing curricula. The remedy to these ills instead lies less in philosophy and more in fields such as sociology, psychology, anthropology, communications, and political science. That is, because computing as a discipline is becoming progressively more entangled within the human and social lifeworld, computing as an academic discipline must move away from engineering-inspired curricular models and integrate the analytic lenses supplied by social science theories and methodologies. To this end, the article concludes by presenting three realistic recommendations for transforming academic computing in light of this recognition.
My final recommendation involves more boldly moving our discipline toward multidisciplinarity. Computing has sometimes struggled with maintaining a balance between academic disciplinary coherence on the one hand, with career-oriented students, on the other, who are mainly interested in the professionally relevant topics. In this regard, computing is quite similar to its cousin in the social sciences, the discipline of communications. That field weathered a series of crises brought on by technological change and by the contrasting pulls of faculty and student interests, by embracing multi-disciplinary opportunities.
Craig Calhoun, in his 2011 plenary address on communications as a social science, argued using a metaphor from ecology that porous edges are better than sharp boundaries when it comes to newer academic disciplines such as communications. Edges are zones where ecosystems overlap, and where biodiversity and biodensity are much higher than in the central areas of any one ecosystem. “There are more song-birds at the edges of forests than in the middle.” This is what computing also needs as an academic discipline: to move to the edge and to participate in the rich academic biodiversity that happens where computing interacts with other disciplines. Some researchers in CS are already there. But rather than make this an exotic vacation, it should be our discipline’s home flora and fauna. And we should not inhabit this edge with a colonizing ideology that sees computational thinking as the best way to understand and inhabit this world. Indeed, the whole point of inhabiting an edge is to take strength from multiple sources, from multiple world views, from multiple methodologies and theoretic angles, and not to pave it over with a single approach.
About the Author:
Randy Connolly is a professor at Mount Royal University, Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
- Video: “Why Computing Belongs Within the Social Sciences,” Communications of the ACM, August 2020, Vol. 63 No. 8, Pages 54-59
- “Crowdsourcing Moral Machines,” Communications of the ACM, March 2020, Vol. 63 No. 3, Pages 48-55