Friday, December 2, 2011

Considering Collaboration with the Social Sciences?

Psychology and computing have an interesting historical relationship. With the onslaught of All Things Digital, that relationship is becoming more complex. It should go without saying (although experience indicates periodic reminders are needed) that computing's relationship with psychology and other social sciences are as important as with any "hard" science - or should be. There are exciting questions to be considered and challenges to pounce on.

Historically, we tended to think of psychology as intersecting  with computing via Human Computer Interaction (HCI), or in Artificial Intelligence. Yet, in both fields the emphasis has almost always been on the cognitive - efficiency and effectiveness in the former, data discover and interpretation in the latter.

But psychology is also about affect.  As related in a recent article in UX Magazine about "Understanding Social Computing", the whole online user experience is more and more about personal interaction. Online educators know this. Marketing professionals know this - what marketing these days is not heavily digital? But there is so much more to talk about.

There is enormous opportunity for computing professionals who have a background in psychology (cognitive and affective). In the affective domain, we have opportunities well beyond the arena of sales and marketing. We have opportunities with educational software development to really maximize learning through sophisticated understanding of the interplay between the emotional and cognitive self. No doubt computer science can contribute to a greater ability to put that understanding into action. I wonder how often computer scientists work directly with educational psychologists?

Then there is anthropology and sociology. A friend, who is interested in the intersection of physics and anthropology got me thinking about this as we were joking around about her ideal future career in the search for extra-terrestrials. Where do computing and anthropology/sociology weave together?

Throwing a few thoughts out for your consideration: consider the context in which globally divergent groups perceive and interact with computing as cultural artifacts. Books and articles have been written by non-computing professionals on this topic. But how much has been written from within the computing disciplines?  How do different ethnic, religious, urban, agrarian groups perceive and appreciate the potential of computing? If you think this isn't something for a computing professional to focus on, think again.

Or... ponder the different, surprisingly different, cultures that exist between traditional institutions of higher learning and non-traditional computing education organizations (private for-profits for example). Before you dismiss this subject for whatever reason (e.g. media reports of all the problems with for-profits) remember that just because something may not be palatable doesn't mean ignoring it is a good idea.

The more we think about it, the more I think we'll realize that culture is huge in terms of how computing "works" or "doesn't work"; collaboration with anthropologists and sociologists has enormous potential for benefiting the users, clients, customers, the public in general and for the field of computer science. And I'm talking about computer science here - the science of computation. Something to percolate on: What is the contribution that computer science can make to the study of culture?

So, I put these out there as questions: computing professionals, do you have working relationships with professionals in psychology - beyond the somewhat already trodden cognitive domain?

Computing professionals out there, do you have a working relationship with someone coming from anthropology? Sociology? 

If this sounds at all appealing, and you don't have such a relationship, how could you form one?

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