Szymon Kaliski

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Computer Science Positivism

Note collecting Logical Positivism vibes applied to Computer Science.

Most modern sciences, including computer science, are strongly influenced by the rationalist and positivist belief that the workings of Nature can be completely captured by mathematical models that allow us to perfectly predict and control them. In computer science, for example, software engineering relies on formal methods to prove the correctness of large software systems; the semantic web assumes that human knowledge can be captured unequivocally by XML descriptions; and the goal of artificial intelligence is to reproduce human behavior with algorithms inside a computer.

HCI Remixed: Interaction Is the Future of Computing - Michel Beaudouin-Lafon

Unfortunately all of [the] additional characteristics of real bureaucracies, and the corresponding demands they place on bureaucrats, are not supported by current computer systems, precisely because computer systems were created using the standard mythology of system design.

In particular, computer systems require their users to map particularities into regularities, and only then can the systems proceed entirely based on the regularities. The systems never deal with the particularities themselves or with the process of accommodation. This has unfortunate consequences:

  • Particularities cannot be accommodated by the systems or discussed within them.
  • New regularities and difficulties with old ones cannot even be noticed by the systems, since these arise in the process of mapping particularities into regularities.
  • Changes are very difficult, slow, and expensive since the system will not notice or accommodate to problems, so all the implications of new regularities must be anticipated by the system designer.
  • Most profoundly, computer systems don't share the mission of the organization; all they have is their explicit regularities. The burden of adapting as necessary to carry out the mission falls entirely on users of the systems.
— A Better Mythology for System Design - Jed Harris, Austin Henderson

Another example, with more fruitful system design implications, comes from Fikes and Henderson's discussion of the work in an order center for copier supplies. At one point a clerk, attempting to get a "ship to" address for an order, was told that the copier was on an ocean-going barge which called at several different ports, and therefore the address depended on the date the supplies would arrive. Not surprisingly, there was no pre-defined way to fill in the "ship to" field with an address that would produce the correct results. The clerk invented an ingenious solution on the spot. Instead of a valid address (from the system's perspective), the clerk entered a phone number, and instructions to "Call Bob". This solution highlights several troubling issues, but it also suggests an approach to supporting accommodation. This solution depended on two things. First, the "ship to" field was flexible enough to accept what was clearly not a valid address. Second, the field ended up being interpreted by a human being on the shipping dock, who could understand the instructions. If the supply center had been using a "sophisticated" computer system, this accommodation would probably have failed for two reasons. First, the clerk probably would not have been allowed to put the order into the system with a "Ship To" field that the system thought was invalid. Second, the field would probably have been used to automatically generate a shipping label, quite possibly with bar-coded routing information, and no human would have had an opportunity to notice and interpret the instructions.

— A Better Mythology for System Design - Jed Harris, Austin Henderson


  1. 2022-04-04Sketching, Modeling and Programming1
  2. 2021-09-06Creative Work is Often Nonlinear1

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