By KRISTO IVANOV, Prof. emeritus, Ume University
Ivanov, K. (2006). Whither computers and systems? In J. Bubenko, Jr., J. C. Gustaf, A. Kollerbaur, T. Ohlin, & L. Yngstrm (Ed.), ICT for people: 40 years of academic development in Stockholm (pp. 125-134). Stockholm: Dept. for Computer and Systems Science at Stockholm University and Royal Institute of Technology,<http://www.dsv.su.se>
Whither Computers and Systems?
Confessions of a 2006-emeritus
The 40th Jubileum of the Department which eventually was named "Computer and systems sciences" (CSS) at Stockholm University and the Royal Institute of Technology is an opportunity to expand and complement some of my earlier memories and thoughts about the field's disciplines and people[i]. I am grateful for having been invited to contribute in writing to this celebration, and I refer the reader to turn to my earlier memories for a more academic treatment of history that is pertinent to the present occasion.
In the following text I will use the term CSS for both the Department and for the discipline(s) which it initially embodied and which subsequently evolved in other departments all over Sweden. The context will indicate the rough meaning of this term which will enframe the particular experiences I relate below.
My whole image of CSS' environment and mission transcends Stockholm's academia which I frequented only during a few years until completing in 1972 my Ph D dissertation. It happened to be the first doctoral dissertation at the department[ii]. Its message, on quality-control of information, belonged to the counterpoint, rather than the mainstream of ongoing research, and it was later popularized and applied to issues of security, privacy, and integrity in a way that is still relevant today [iii]. Launching such counterpoint-research based on systems-trends originated at the University of California at Berkeley, but was at the time unknown in CSS. It speeded up my dissertation efforts since, as an "outsider", I was not seen as a competitor in academic politics. My image of CSS, however, is also grounded in later experiences including other related university and business environments.
As a matter of fact, I felt much as an outsider in relation to many of my Ph.D. student colleagues at the CSS Department who were mostly employed there as instructors or assistant professors. I also felt as an outsider in the sense that I was one of the few who, being an electronic engineer, had worked many years in both line and managerial staff positions in industry, and was still employed but on leave from a dominant computer business firm. As such I was more a "practitioner" and, a representative of "users", rather than of "programmers" or computer technicians. This background may explain my particular way of experiencing the Department.
The following is then the short version of my provocatively subjective and unavoidably superficial view of the development of the Department's field, for which I apologize in advance to all optimistists and supposed realists. It will be kept at a somewhat abstract level because of reasons of diplomacy and available space. Parts of my account, below, may appear to be pessimistic, but, in the spirit of the "Ecclesiastes" (cf. below) I see pessimism and optimism as only the secularized westener's attempt to confront, alternatively to escape, reality and truth!
The birth of CSS was made necessary by problems caused by the increasing use of computers and electronic communication, in the gap between technology and human sciences. In this respect many of us felt that CSS, both the original Department and the various kinds of knowledge or various CSS-relevant disciplinary fragments that it attempted to bring together was exemplary. Information processing, administrative data processing, and informatics were innovative labels which had the ambition of integrating pieces of knowledge which other older and more established disciplines like mathematics and economics comfortably considered to fall outside their disciplinary limits. In this respect this was a unique pioneering deed in the Swedish academia as compared to foreign tendencies, still prevalent today, to allot disparate CSS problems to either institutes of technology, (as for the case of programming and computer architecture), or to business schools (as for the case of softer issues restricted to or redefined as business administration, organization, or sheer accounting and auditing). In this respect CSS in Sweden, originally associated to multiple university faculties (cf. Stockholm University and Royal Institute of Technology), resembles what was also being attempted in other countries and in other contexts under the label of operations research and later systems approach. Such multidisciplinarity is still to this day vaguely aimed at under the label of contextual computer-human interaction, CHI.
DEPARTMENTS AND UNIVERSITIES
Later political recognition of the underlying computer-related problems fostered all over Sweden the awakening of other older academic disciplines and academic departments with their own competitive not to say opportunistic research proposals, designed to tap money in view of the growing availability of research grants. This engendered gradually a general dissolution of disciplinary limits and, consequently, also of possibility to evaluate competence for work on opportunistically defined shortlived trends of hardware and software. Whatever wheel had been invented by the original CSS-efforts, it was occasionally reinvented and given a new label or acronym by various departments and research centers mushrooming everywhere.
The decreasing integrity of universities working for research and development controlled by the industrial-economic complex, turned them gradually into a sort of auxiliary, cheap, tax-funded industrial laboratories for technical and commercial advantage of export firms. The universities' expansion, forced by government in view of vote-raising doubtful political purposes[iv] but without proportionate increase of public funding, required their increased dependence upon commercialization, and a gradual decline of admission requirements and staff competence. Abdication from historically justified but narrow rigorous thinking fostered a multitude of methodological sub-cultures which appeal to soft postphenomenological, non-modern, and postmodern "weak thinking" borrowed from fashionable trends in the human sciences. Terms like information, data, system (and therefore systems science), information (and therefore information systems), knowledge, evaluation, productivity, communication, and organization tend now to mean nearly anything. And, concerning techno-optimism and belief in progress, what about "productivity"? [v]. Theories and models are substituted by ad-hoc shortlived "models", "conceptual frameworks", "tools", or whatever, with scanty place for ethical, let alone economic and political considerations. This attitude of neglect is lately exemplified during the ongoing bankruptcy of thinking about privacy, security, rule of law, and personal integrity as affected by computer systems. Weak thinking, however, continues to clash with, and to be overpowered by, hard profit-economics and hard byproducts of military technoscience. Academic survival is then obtained by means of big promises coupled to time consuming, frustrating attempts to tap money from either commercial-industrial sources or large-scale national and EU bureaucracies. Universities compete to become institutes of technology and business schools[vi].
ECLECTICISM AND EPHEMERALITY
Enough, now, on the development of the CSS field which in some sense must correspond to the development of the related academic departments in general. I think that one main consequence has been (a) an initial twenty years' clash between "hard" and "soft" part of the CSS field, followed by a still ongoing reaction of permissive or uncommitting, eclectical, relativistic, postmodern coexistence between the two, and (b) ephemerality of doubtful scientific and educational results all over the years. One makes research today on yesterday's visible effects of the use of externally given technology which was adopted the day before yesterday. When the results happen to be published tomorrow they will be obsolete and used to justify new research to start the day after tomorrow about the consequences of today's technology which is already becoming obsolete.
I used to say that academic education should strive for more long run lasting results on more basic and stable problems, as opposed to shortlived industrial and commercial skills which follow occasional random trends. This has not been strived for, but it does not disturb young students and professionals who have not yet had the opportunity to perceive the "postume" feeling of emptiness when comparing repeatedly new big promises with later disappointement and oblivion. In some way this enhances the importance of history and of interchange of ideas between young and older people. Furthermore, young and old age are not symmetrical in the sense that older people have already been young and have most of the youngs' experiences, while the other way round is not the case.
What is left of the various projects, models, theories, courses or controversies about programming of the sixties and seventies? Von Neumann computer architecture, structured programming and relational data bases? What about the seventies' or eighties' science fictions of logic programming, office automation, and artificial intelligence, AI, compared to the fragmented pieces of particular software embedded in today's products? What if academic CSS had never been created and the whole historical development had been entrusted to the USA military complex, computer industry and the international market? It would be exciting to do a bit of historical counterfactual research, and to try to apply the pragmatist test of "did it make a difference?", in order to draw some conclusions about what should be done today for a more enduring meaning in, say, ten and twenty years from now.
Ephemerality in this context has two sides: deserved and undeserved. Deserved when results are ill conceived or tied to particular products, hardware and software that last a few years. I do not dare to give examples since wise people already know them (particular programming trends, methodological innovations with beautiful acronyms etc.) while unwise people may only feel anger and become my sworn enemies. Economic literature seems to be more self-critical in this respect than the literature of the CSS-related field[vii]. Undeserved when quality is not recognized as when it is supposed to be defined as "survival of the fittest" in the spirit of a supposed "Darwinian" social evolution. Valuable thoughts about, for instance, the meaning of systems and information are forgotten in the name of ill conceived vague speculations about, say, knowledge, communication, experience, contexts, networks, or environment.
Ephemerality is also evidenced (another repeated CSS-experience repeated during the last 30 years) when most researchers in the CSS field do not care to read or recommend their own dissertations, and still less others', only a few years after they have got them printed. Sometimes as soon as they are printed! The reader or these lines can make an own self-examination, and an examination of what happened to the work of colleagues and supposed luminaries of the field.
Unfortunate ephemerality is also fostered by the neglect of lessons from philosophy of science and technology. The neglect of philosophy has also had the unexpected effect of opening up the CSS field to the equally unexpected leadership by philosophers« kings. "No names mentioned, nobody forgotten". I got the impression that certain philosophers or philosophically educated researchers from other than CSS could in a relatively short time period conquer several CSS-truths, and claim to develop them on a more professional basis than some CSS home-prophets could master. I reflected that "Among the blind the one eyed is king".
I think that such neglect, together with psychological realities about the sharp difference between personal aptitude profiles, also stands at the center of the origin of the clash between the "two cultures", softer and harder, human science vs. formal and natural science. Only exceptionally gifted CSS-people (Joseph Weizenbaum, Brje Langefors, Terry Winograd, Werner Schneider?) could attempt to manage the bridge between the hard and the soft.
CONFLICTS AND MEMORIES
The clash between the hard and the soft, improperly labeled as they may be, was one of my strongest impressions of the CSS department in the sixties and seventies. I cannot forget the show at the disputation of my dissertation which awakened particular interest also for being, as mentioned, the first one to be completed at the department. I was ferociously attacked by a legitimately self-appointed extra-opponent who, being an exponent of a trendy programming fad at the time, condemned my work with "religious" passion.
Later, during the seventies and eighties, I had the occasion to witness bitter clashes between exponents of the hard and soft CSS people. Interestingly enough, it was always the hard people who wanted to oust the soft ones from the CSS field, and this phenomenon was most prominent during the process or "game" of evaluation of candidates to professorial chairs in various universities around the country. It was often the case of hard people in their role of experts in evaluation and recruitment committees who experienced a passioned commitment to demean, disqualify and prevent softer colleagues from gaining tenured or influential positions at the universities. In defense of this hard militant approach to academic politics it can be said that it was as if its proponents foresaw and in a heroically self-defeating way were trying to prevent the later advent, in the nineties, of the plague of supersoft post-phenomenological "weak thinking", "non-modern" qualitative methods, and relativistic postmodern design, to be mentioned below.
These experiences, as well as the "religious" wars between enthusiasts of different software philosophies prompted me to study later the psychology of computer science as a branch of CSS-oriented philosophy of science, and to explore the ethical, political and theological foundations of CSS. Eventually I came to the conclusion that much CSS disciplinary development is ultimately a theological matter in the original sense of the word.
A second lasting impression from my early life at the CSS Department, was also related to a lack of interest or unconsciousness about the philosophy of science underlining its theories and methods. I "discovered" by myself that most ot the "dogmatically" taught basic stuff at the Department was based on logical positivism. When I tried to share this problematic insight with one of the most aggressively successful young stars and "crown princes" at the department I was startled by his justification (roughly): "I have no objections to be called logical positivist since I am both logical in my thinking, and have a positive optimistic attitude in my scientific effort!".
A related experience was my observation of how easily ephemerality of scientific projects could be countered with equally ephemere flexibility of terminology: I think I dare to mention, if I remember it right, that a project named ISAC, meaning Information Systems for Administrative Control came simply to be renamed Information Systems for Administration and Change as soon as marxist critique became trendy in the seventies, making "control" sound reactionary and outdated. Needless to say, it is difficult to see what heritage is left today from the theorizing behind various projects and acronyms such as ISAC or CADIS, computer aided design of information systems, not to mention PROLOG. One can only guess what will be left in ten or twenty years out of today's theorizing behind, say, the fashionable trend of interactional design.
THE MYSTICS OF DESIGN - OR RELIGION?
As I have written in one of my papers referenced in a note below, (The systems approach to design), the clash between soft and hard aspects of CSS is today no longer associated to any dominance of logical positivism in academia. It is, rather, associated to products and concrete expressions of the logical positivism of the hard military-industrial complex.These products are then given to or bought by the academia which claims to study them by soft qualitative methods and postmodern "design" fostering Internet-services, games, edutainment, "eXperience" and X-economy. So, today's research speaks often about experience design, aesthetic computing, sensible computing, and such. One of the latest innovations is supposed to be virtual reality being displaced by "real virtuality" which stimulates "as many of the five senses as possible".
This reminds me of another strong impression linked to the CSS department's history. Some solitary marxist colleague at the CSS department during the early seventies joined other Scandinavian colleagues who had been prophetizing academic revolution supported by labour unions. Their theories made admiring and rich references to Marx, Mao, and to the Yugoslavian models of workers' participation in systems design. They met, however, difficulties after the debacle of the Sovjet system. Their academic politics and ethics were suddenly metamorphosed into aesthetics and "design", or, rather, interactional aestheticism, a fashionable and profitable field offering rich research funds, where today nobody needs to feel neither solitary nor dependent upon collaboration with labour unions. Politics and ethics became postmodern design and aesthetics run by actor networks. References to marxist literature were followed by references to phenomenology, post-phenomenology or non-modernism, Heidegger, Foucault, Latour, and such. This trend is still going on today. Textbooks on IT-design sometimes even refer to "tremendous mysteries" and soft esoteric terms, but do not dare yet to mention religion[viii]. I tried to depict the import of this remarkable and symptomatic development in my named paper on the systems approach to design, but it is also the object of other interesting in-depth studies of the relation between academia and politics.[ix]
If the logical positivism of science and its coarse economics are seen, in oversimplified terms, as a reaction against earlier defective weak thinking, and if relativistic eclectical postmodernism is seen as a reaction against logical positivism, then what? Why-not? I have claimed on earlier occasions that the why-not strategy belongs as several other CSS-strategies such as so called pluralism or, rather, eclecticism, to the department of easy questions and difficult answers: it shifts the expensive whole burden of proof to the occasional questioner. Is it enough to go on, to live and let live, letting every university and every department have its own ad-hoc profile, and to give up the idea of any cumulative scientific knowledge or of the value of historical knowledge? Why not let "the pendulum swing back and forth again" while the only supposedly stable truths left at the universities are the governmental injunctions of gender studies and ethnic-cultural diversity? Or is the supposed pendulum the "cross-sectional view of a spiral screwing itself down into hell"?
Against such a background the only joyful remembrance which stood and still stands at the heart of the CSS Department and its disciplines is the theory-laden concept of SYSTEM[x] which today also tends to be thoughtlessly diluted in a non-committing mystical "whole" or "wholeness", or, worse, in a interconnected multitude of technical gadgets. It was intended, however, to aim at a philosophically grounded integration between so called hard and soft knowledge, encompassing formal, natural, and human science. This would include the hard realities of global economics and global politics which seem to be conspicuously absent from CSS-theorizing despite their influence of technological development. From this point of view the old clashes between hard and soft were pointing at something legitimate and potentially very fruitful, calling forth a systems thinking which unfortunately did not materialize.
And what about "religious passion" or, rather, Christian passion in relation to CSS today? If my misgivings as related above happen to be justified, either the Apocalypse itself or the following quotations from the Ecclesiastes (New English Bible, 1970) may serve, after some interpretation, as a retirement guide consistent with emeriti's experiences. As such they may also be valuable for non-secular evaluations of "whither CSS?":
"What has happened will happen again, and what has been done will be done again, and there is nothing new under the sun...The men of old are not remembered, and those who follow will not be remembered by those who follow them..."(1:9, 11)
"So I applied my mind to understand wisdom and knowledge, madness and folly, and I came to see that this too is chasing the wind. For in much wisdom is much vexation, and the more a man knows, the more he has to suffer..."(1:17)
"Yes, indeed, I got pleasure from all my labour, and for all my labour this was my reward. Then I turned and reviewed all my handiwork, all my labour and toil, and I saw that everything was emptiness and chasing the wind, of no profit under the sun..."(2:10)
"What sort of man will he be who succeeds me, who inherits what others have acquired? Who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will be the master of all the fruits of my labour and skill here under the sun. This too is emptiness." (2:18)
"One more thing I have observed here under the sun: speed does not win the race nor strength the battle. Bread dos not belong to the wise, nor wealth to the intelligent, nor success to the skilful; time and chance govern all..."(9:11)
"One further warning, my son: the use of books is endless, and much study is wearisome."(12:12)
NOTES WITH REFERENCES
[i] Ivanov, K. (1984). Systemutveckling och ADB-mnets utveckling [Systems development and the development of the discipline of informatics/ADP]. In H.-E. Nissen (Ed.), Systemutveckling, av vem, fr vem och hur? [Systems development, by whom, for whom, and how?] (pp. 1-14). Stockholm: Arbetarskyddsfonden. (Report No. K4/84. Orig. also as report LiU-IDA-R-84-1, University of Linkping, Dept. of Computer and Information Science, 1984, and as contribution to the Universitet- och Hgskolembetet UH-report "Den rena vetenskapen och den goda tillmpningen", 21-26 April 1985, Lilla Vik. The essay's diagram of key philosophers' names for information systems development is also found adapted by Hirschheim, R. A., 1985, Information systems epistemology: An historical perspective, in E. Mumford, et al., eds, Research methods in information systems, Amsterdam: North Holland, 1985, pp. 37-38. Reprinted in R. Galliers, ed.,Information systems reserch: Issues, methods and practical guidelines, pp. 28-60, Oxford: Blackwell Scientific Publications, 1992.)
Ivanov, K. (1984). Mot ett ingenjrsvetenskapligt universitet: Ngra tankestllare infr universitetets samarbete med intressenter p data-omrdet. [Towards or against a university of engineering science]. University of Linkping, Dept of Computer and Information Science, Report LiU-IDA-R-84-2. (Cf. a revised minor excerpt as "Universitetets bidrag till nringslivets och frvaltningens samhllsnytta". In C. Knuthammar, & E. Plsson (Ed.), Vetenskap och vett: Till frgan om universitetets roll (pp. 52-62). Linkping: University of Linkping. (ISBN 91-7372-925-6. With a bibliography of 95 entries - pp. 124-127.)
Ivanov, K. (1995). A subsystem in the design of informatics: Recalling an archetypal engineer. In B. Dahlbom (Ed.), The infological equation: Essays in honor of Brje Langefors (pp. 287-301). Gothenburg: Gothenburg University, Dept. of Informatics. (Pre-publication version at <http://www.informatik.umu.se/~kivanov/BLang80.html> and in pdf format at <http://www.informatik.umu.se/~kivanov/BLang80.pdf> 30 Dec 05.)
Ivanov, K. (2001). The systems approach to design, and inquiring information systems: Scandinavian experiences and proposed research program. Information Systems Frontiers, 3(1), 7-18. (Abstract at <http://www.wkap.nl/oasis.htm/324218>. 1 June 2001, pre-publication version at <http://www.informatik.umu.se/~kivanov/Chu-SysAppDes.html> 23 Dec 05.) See also:
Ivanov, K., & Ciborra, C. (1998). East and West of IS. In W. R. J. Baets (Ed.), Proc. of the Sixth European Conference on Information Systems ECIS'98, University of Aix-Marseille III, Aix-en-Provence, June 4-6, 1998. Vol. IV (pp. 1740-1748). Granada & Aix-en-Provence: Euro-Arab Management School & Institut d'Administration des Enterprises IAE. (ISBN for complete proceedings: 84-923833-0-5.). Cf. <http://www.informatik.umu.se/~kivanov/chinese.html>.
[ii] Ivanov, K. (1972). Quality-control of information: On the concept of accuracy of information in data banks and in management information systems: The University of Stockholm and The Royal Institute of Technology. (National Technical Information Service NTIS No. PB-219297, summary at <http://www.informatik.um.se/~kivanov/diss-avh.html>.
[iii] Ivanov, K. (1986). Systemutveckling och rttsskerhet : Om statsfrvaltningens datorisering och de lngsiktiga konsekvenserna fr enskilda och fretag [Systems development and rule of law]. Stockholm: SAF:s Frlag.
[iv] Wolf, A. (2002). Does education matter? Myths about education and economic growth. London: Penguin Books. (Reviewed in The Economist, June 8th 2002, p.71. "The education shibboleth. Extra years of schooling and wider access to university are everywhere supposed to be good for growth. Think again".)
[v] Anonymous (1997). Productivity: Lost in cyberspace. The Economist, (September 13th), 78. (Cf. Assembling the new economy, in same issue, pp. 77-83.)
[vi] Ivanov, K. (1984). Mot ett ingenjrsvetenskapligt universitet...Op.cit.
[vii]Adam, F., & Fitzgerald, B. (2000). The status of the IS field: historical perspective and practical orientation. Information Research, 5(4). (<http://InformationR.net/ir/5-4/paper81.html> accessed 23 August 2001.)
Anonymous. (2000). Europe's Neilogistical reforms. The Economist, (January 22nd), 30.
Anonymous. (2000). Thought followership. The Economist, (May 20th), 24.
Shapiro, E. (1995). Fad surfing in the boardroom: Reclaiming the courage to manage in the age of instant answers. New York: Addison-Wesley. (Referred to in Harvard Business Review, March-April 1997, pp. 142-147, and in the Supplement of March 22nd, p. 20.)
Skarin, U. (2002). Floskler fr miljoner: Sveriges hetaste pratmakare. Veckans Affrer, (43, 21 oktober), 10-13.
Anonymous. (1997). Management consultants and their clients: Princely sums. Review of Dangerous Company. By James O'Shea and Charles Madigan. Time Business & Nicholas Brealey Publishers. The Economist, (August 16th), 75-76.
[viii] As a matter of fact, "tremendous mysteries" in the aesthetics and phenomenology of design have their legitimate origin and place in religious experience as expressed e.g. in Ratzinger, J. (2005). On the Contemplation of Beauty. 2002 Message to the Communion and Liberation. (Published 2005-05-02. Available at <http://www.zenit.org/english/visualizza.phtml?sid=70258> accessed 051228. Swedish translation "Sknheten skall befria oss" in Signum, No. 5, Vol. 31, 11-16, <http://www.signum.se/signum/template.php?page=read&id=1356>, accessed 060115.) The lack of a legitimate theological dimension in science fosters pseudo-religious passions and pseudo-mysteries in techno-science.
[ix] Cf. Bengtsson, J.O. (2001). Left and Right Eclecticism: Roger KimballÕs Cultural Criticism. Humanitas, vol. XIV, No. 1. (Also at <http://www.nhinet.org/bengtsson14-1.pdf> accessed 060228).
[x] Churchman, C. W. (1971). The design of inquiring systems: Basic principles of systems and organization. New York: Basic Books.