Thursday, January 29, 2015

Who thinks Computer Science is less relevant than Physics?

Find all the interesting Computer Science in this picture

Computer Science is different from Physics; we don't have examples that we can bring to a presentation that will be relevant to a large population.

If that's the case we're screwed. 

Recently, I heard someone say that. If I believed him I might as well hang it all up and go live on a dairy farm. I wanted to do that after I graduated from high school but my parents had other ideas in mind. I still have a soft spot for dairy cows but I'm in computer science for the long haul now and I don't believe him.
Computers are ubiquitous; they hold together our global economy. What aspect of your daily life does not depend in some way upon computer systems or software? Hmm? Let's see...brain dump...

Get up in the morning, eat a banana, eat a bowl of cereal, answer email, have a conference call with a client, take part in a virtual meeting, drive in my car to another meeting, work out of a coffee shop for a while, take part in a twitter conversation, brainstorm a conference presentation, respond to an email from my mother, pay some bills, make a doctor appointment, remind clients that they need to send out the surveys I created for them... is it lunch time yet?

Which of those activities ARE NOT tightly connected to the global computing infrastructure and which of those types of activity ARE NOT relevant to a large population? Let's say YES for connected and NO for not connected.

Get up in the morning: if I use my smart phone to set the alarm: YES

Eat a banana: that banana arrived from Ecuador in the San Diego harbor on a boat that was almost entirely loaded and unloaded by robots: YES

Eat a bowl of cereal: the bowl was hand thrown by an artist in Texas, so perhaps: NO; the cereal was grown, harvested, packaged and shipped efficiently (or perhaps not) using vast software tracking systems: YES

Answer email: YES (need I say more?)

Have a conference call/take part in a virtual meeting: Skype, Google+, the beep beep beep of telephone software: YES

Drive my car: The vehicle would gather dust in a nearby canyon without that little chip the mechanics charge an arm and a leg to plug into for diagnostic purposes: YES

Work out of a coffee shop: Free wi-fi: YES. Computerized receipt generation: YES

Twitter conversations, answering mom's email, online bill pay, annoying automatically generated paper bills anyway, making appointments via the tangled electronic phone tree: YES

Creating surveys, and emailing clients... ditto conference call note above. YES

Now, is any of this relevant to a large population listening to our hypothetical presentation? In other words are these types of activities interesting beyond my and my clients' and colleagues' worlds? Of course. Why wouldn't they be? Let's give people credit.

If one thinks that economics, history, communication, relationships, nature, biology, and caffeine aren't relevant to a large swath of the population, then we aren't thinking very creatively. We all eat, drink and communicate. Most of us drive, make appointments and (however regretfully) pay bills. 

The issue of relevance is more than an intellectual exercise, it is a communication exercise. 

If computer scientists, educators, researchers, want to make our field relevant, first we have to see for ourselves that computer science is relevant and interesting. 

We must believe that computer science is, can be, should be, relevant and interesting to a large population. 

We have to get out there and tell the story of the relevance of computer science in a way that speaks to our audience.  

 Or else we're screwed.

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