Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Importance of Integrating the Interdisciplinary

Has it ever occurred to you that the newness of interdisciplinary work, the excitement and the challenges it poses, is unique primarily to the major English-speaking cultures? That what are "aha!" moments to some of us are "you don't say" moments to others of us?

I have been reading "The Seven Cultures of Capitalism" by Charles Hampden-Turner and Alfons Trompenaars. Though out for almost 20 years the book is as fresh as if it came out last year, because the way culture shapes perspectives and decision-making remains fairly constant over long periods of time.

The authors posit 7 pairs of opposing terms (e.g. universalism vs. particularism) reflecting values that underly how seven successful capitalist societies function and make decisions. Each society is unique, yet: "Our thesis of economic development is, however, that each value in the pair is crucial to economic success. The capitalistic cultures that succeed in the next [21st] century will be those that overcome their cultural predispositions to favor, for example, individualism at the expense of community, and bring seemingly opposed values into balance" (page 10).

Extrapolating from their focus on economics and social relationships to the realm of computing is not hard. Consider that when we, in our search for knowledge, place emphasis on finding "the truth", "the facts", on breaking things down into their constituent parts to understand how they work, we inevitably specialize. We dive deep in order to make discoveries. We like algorithms, controlled studies, pre-conditions and post-conditions, invariants and formal methods. Science and engineering have made huge strides as a result of our ability to finely analyze details and to think things through sequentially.

Unfortunately, when we hold those preferences, "interdisciplinary" often means "messy": When computer science integrates with art the result resists particularist analysis. Holism rather than deconstruction is needed to understand the synthesis of computer science with biology. No wonder many people in this (United States) society find interdisciplinary work so challenging - we are bucking our culturally ingrained way of viewing the world.

If you interact with other cultures on a regular basis, you may find that sometimes other people are truly puzzled by your world view (One of my favorite constants is: "WHY did your country elect [fill in the name of a president]?"). We can nod our heads over a mutual lack of understanding of political decisions by other countries' citizens, but we have trouble seeing just how deeply our view of "what IS" constrains  what is new and exciting. To some other cultures excitement over interdisciplinary computing might be puzzling simply because synthesis and integration are as ingrained in them as separation and specialization are in us.

I heard someone dismiss interdisciplinary issues as the latest fad. This person opined that if we just ignore calls for (often difficult) interdisciplinary collaboration they will eventually go away. The important question (imo) is not the issue of fad or not fad; the important issue is why interdisciplinary endeavors are getting so much attention and what will happen if we don't succeed in shifting value systems enough to make them work. If we grow cynical, tire of the struggle and fall back against our comfortable disciplinary boundaries, we lose. Why? Things are getting more complex and sophisticated year by year - whether you take a macro or micro view of the world's interactions. People and societies that are truly comfortable with an interdisciplinary perspective will make the greatest discoveries and innovations and move society forward. Others will fall behind. 

No comments:

Post a Comment