Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Raising kids and the computer scientist as tool smith

In 1996 Fred Brooks put together this great paper. http://www.cs.unc.edu/~brooks/Toolsmith-CACM.pdf
I was reviewing it recently because it had been mentioned in another book I'm reading, Coders at Work.  The main point of the paper being that Computer Science has been misnamed.  This is funny because Fred Brooks was partly responsible for having named it.  Given the context the paper is written in, I agree. The larger concepts in the paper are still applicable today, as much of his writing is.  Most individuals working with computers are not scientists building things in order to study; we are engineers studying in order to build.  The true metric of our success is how well the tools we create enable our users.  We are more like tool smiths than scientists, but the semantic discussion need not settle starkly on one description of the other.  It only serves to remind us of where our responsibilities are.

Toward the end of the paper he makes a departure from computer science and into discussing the virtues of how we spend our time in general.  The main question being how much time we spend creating and producing versus wasting time.  This being 1996, the TV serves as the time wasting villain.  Today we have even more effective ways to destroy productivity.  The following paragraphs resonated with me.

"TV fails the beauty test. Although the cinematography is frequently very skillful, the overall effect is
ugliness — bleak slumscapes, ugly violence, and endless car chases.
TV is only occasionally good. The voracious appetite for material means mediocre dramas. The characters are rarely people we should like to have as friends, quite unlike, for example, the people in Neville Shute’s novels. Only rarely would we want our children to take TV characters as their role models.
On a late-life occasion honoring the inventor of the vacuum tube, Lee DeForest, he remarked on how the tube had made radio possible, and he sadly commented, “This is DeForest’s prime evil.” Today he would have a new candidate.  “What did people do before TV?” How did we recreate ourselves?"

Just a few years after 1996 the world wide web came along and there was a new candidate for DeForest’s scorn.  The voracious appetite for material continues to drive the creation of ugliness.  Beauty still seems to be the exception online as it was/is on TV.  But that wasn’t what gave me the most pause.  It was his point about how we raise our children.  As I look down and watch my ten month old crawl around the living room, I see alongside his wandering path the various electronic windows to the world now available: laptops, tablets, tvs, and smartphones.  In his lifetime we will become vastly more connected with new devices: glasses, contact lenses, perhaps even implants.  He will have an appetite for and consume much of that ugly time wasting material, as will I.  Material will be set before us and we will seek it out even when we know it's wrong.  The only question left is if we will have the courage to police ourselves and attempt to only seek out only those things that enrich us.  Will we have the awareness to hold things of beauty in higher regard than the rest of it.

Reflecting on the movie’s I’ve watched, the video games I play, the blogs I read, and the content streaming into my social media networks, Fred was right.  Very rarely is there a character (real or imagined) in those electronic windows that I would want my child to hold as a role model.  Rarely are they people we should even like to have as friends.  I know I have the courage and thankfully I still have a few years to figure out the details of how to raise my children right.  In a hyper-connected world, we won’t have the option to shelter them.  But we can certainly prepare them.  I need to work hard at managing the material that I let myself consume and also what I let my children watch.  I hope other parents do the same.