Sign In

Communications of the ACM

BLOG@CACM

The Work and Inspiration of the Commission on the History and Philosophy of Computing


Philosophy, like other disciplines in the humanities, enjoys a mutually enlightening relationship with history. In literature, to know the story of the Oklahoma Dust Bowl allows individual character to emerge from the human suffering of Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath. The philosophy of computer science, like other philosophy devoted to a particular subject, enjoys a mutually enlightening relationship with the history of that particular subject. In computer science, to read—yes, actually read—the Countess of Lovelace's translation of and notes on Menabrea's sketch explaining Babbage's Analytical Engine is to glimpse the an early articulation of Computational Thinking, and to marvel that similar terms are still used to explain repetition, symbols, and operations versus operands to beginners or laypersons, and to wonder what that means. I have been pleasantly surprised to find research in the history of computing quite interesting, and can only hope for reciprocal generosity toward philosophy on the part of historians.

With respect to computing, the international organization founded to bring together history and philosophy is HaPoC, the Commission on the History and Philosophy of Computing. Designated a Commission by both divisions of the International Union of History and Philosophy of Science and Technology (http://www.iuhpst.org), it aims to "enhance our understanding of computing by means of historical and philosophical explorations." The dedicated and hard-working HaPoC leaders Liesbeth de Mol, of the Université de Lille, and Giuseppe Primiero, of Middlesex University London, explain how this came about.


Leibniz’s famous motto ‘Calculemus!’ can be taken as an ideal expression of computing’s increasing influence on everyday life. After personal computing developed into ubiquitous computing, it has become very hard not to depend somehow on it. Today, humans are re-designing their environment in view of computational devices (read: IoT) and the relatively recent wave of attention for so-called Computational Thinking and the associated educational reforms1 show how easily it is accepted that computing is the way humans (should?) live, think and act. This new reality overrides paradigms that have held for centuries: content access and creation, individual and collective identification, economic growth, political and social stability are just some aspects of our culture that have been reformed through the lens of computational devices and their control.

Despite the universal relevance of computing, its fundamentals are still considered specialist knowledge and remain hidden behind layers of interfaces, keeping the user afar. Even from within the discipline, a full understanding of computing is becoming more difficult, as it is harder to move across research areas and learn techniques without losing sight of a bigger picture. Consider the yet unbridged distance between formal methods and software engineering, as an example. While the large spectrum of disciplines relevant to technical systems and their full social deployment grows, fundamental issues of computing remain unresolved. Indeed, today there is not even a consensus on what computer science really is, let alone agreement on the right model of computation, or on the best approach to software engineering education, to name but a few of such crucial issues.

In this context, an essential aspect of studying, working and indeed living with computing is to be able to locate its principles both in a temporal and in a conceptual landscape. The ambition to reconsider fundamental issues of computing from a historical and philosophical angle, aiming at an interdisciplinary and pluralistic understanding of its practices, is neither simple nor trivial. But such an approach allows avoiding any reductionist understanding of computing and so allows an embrace of the non-monolithic nature of the discipline: modern computing is not just engineering, though it requires techniques and insights to develop responsibly hard- and soft-ware products, and to keep them transparent; it is not just mathematics, though it requires a deep, distinctive understanding of the relationship between the abstract and the concrete; and it is not just a science, in the standard sense the term has acquired since the experimental method. This perspective also builds on the assumption that computing as a whole brings together all these different variations and practices in order to bridge the gap between mechanized symbol manipulation and human thinking. It is in this complexity that computing's multilayered character resides and that the interactions between humans, programs and hardware exist through multiple layers of abstraction.

Our understanding of computing is therefore guided by the historical need to render transparent these different layers, by re-tracing the origin of ideas and their context. It also relies on the philosophical method of identifying fundamental problems, instructing conceptual clarity and offering a broader but also more reflective perspective. The true challenge, then, is to find a way, a method, to bring history and philosophy to computing (and conversely). It is the challenge we took when organizing the first Conference on the History and Philosophy of Computing at Ghent University (Belgium) in 2011.2 As academics, we lacked a platform that allowed a conversation on computing from different perspectives: there was some excellent work done on the "soft" side of computing (sociology, ethics, politics, etc) within existing but separate communities (cfr. SIGCIS for history and IACAP for philosophy), but not much was done either to connect those communities, or to engage with the practitioners and their technical know-how, not shying away from reflections on machine details, programming code or logical calculi. To this day, we consider these both to be necessary prerequisites, if the aim is to offer something that matters not only to historians and philosophers but also to computer scientists, logicians, engineers and mathematicians.

Following the first event, together with several others we founded the Commission for the History and Philosophy of Computing (www.hapoc.org), under the Division for the History of Science and Technology and the Division of Logic, Methodology and Philosophy of Science and Technology. The conference has evolved into a series, with subsequent editions organised in Paris in 2013, in Pisa in 2015 3 and with a 4th edition programmed in 2017 in Brno. We also organize a bi-annual symposium on the History and Philosophy of Programming, which previously took place in Birmingham 4, London 5 and Paris 6. We have also been involved with a number of other stand-alone events and actively participate with a Special Session in the programme of the annual Conference Computability in Europe (http://www.computability.org.uk).

Our aim remains to create opportunities where different approaches are embraced and discussed to advance our understanding of computing and its history. Instead of focusing on the differences between the communities involved, we want to move across the disciplinary divides, to facilitate discussion and exchanges. To realize this, we actively bring together different people and communities contributing to this experimental project. Our events have included logicians alongside artists; programmers alongside historians; computer scientists alongside philosophers. We are strongly convinced that such collaborative project can add to the maturity of the field and hope that anyone, computer scientists, software engineers, historians, philosophers, artists, practitioners sharing our need for a deep historical and foundational reflection on computing, will be willing to step outside their respective comfort zone, to discuss and collaborate with people who do not necessarily share the same methods, but who also care for the field.

 

Notes

1  For a critical account see: Tedre, M. and Denning, P.J. 2016. The Long Quest for Computational Thinking, Proceedings of the 16th Koli Calling Conference on Computing Education Research, pp. 120-129.

 

2  L. de Mol, G. Primiero (eds.). 2014. Trends in the History and Philosophy of Computing, Philosophy & Technology 27:3; and L. de Mol, G. Primiero (eds.). 2015. Logical Issues in the History and Philosophy of Computing, History & Philosophy of Logic 36:3

 

3  F. Gadducci, M. Tavosanis, (eds.). 2016. History and Philosophy of Computing, Third International Conference, HaPoC 2015, Pisa, Italy, October 8-11, 2015, Revised Selected Papers, IFIP Advances in Information and Communication Technologies, vol. 487

4  L. de Mol, G. Primiero (eds.). 2012. Proceedings of the Symposium on History and Philosophy of Programming, AISB/IACAP World Congress 2012, University of Birmingham. The Society for the Study of Artificial Intelligence and Simulation of Behaviour, ISBN 978-1-908187-17-8.

5  L. de Mol, G. Primiero (eds.). 2014. Proceedings of the Second Symposium on History and Philosophy of Programming, AISB/IACAP World Congress 2014, Goldsmith University of London. The Society for the Study of Artificial Intelligence and Simulation of Behaviour, http://doc.gold.ac.uk/aisb50/#s13

6  L. de Mol, G. Primiero (eds.). Forthcoming 2017. Reflections on Operating Systems – Historical and Philosophical Aspects, Philosophical Studies Series, Springer.


Thank you, Professors De Mol and Primiero. All of the references repay investigation, as do the publications listed on the HaPoC website, and those in the Proceedings mentioned above. The upcoming HaPoC conference in Brno (Czech Republic) particularly invites works that address computers and art, in honor of the historic exhibition of digital art called Computer Graphic, held there in February of 1968. Readers, perhaps we will see you there.


 

No entries found

Sign In for Full Access
» Forgot Password? » Create an ACM Web Account
ACM Resources
Read CACM in a free mobile app!
Access the latest issue, plus archived issues and more
ACM Logo
  • ACM CACM apps available for iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch, and Android platforms
  • ACM Digital Library apps available for iOS, Android, and Windows devices
  • Download an app and sign in to it with your ACM Web Account
Find the app for your mobile device
ACM DL Logo