Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Public Intellectuals

Foreign Policy has brought out a "list of top 100 public intellectuals", a list that contains one computer scientist (Neil Gershenfeld of MIT). Before I continue, let me insert two caveats:
  • Yes, I do think lists like this are beauty contests
  • No, I don't think computer scientists should aspire to being on such lists
Having said that, here's what I'm wondering. We are in the middle of possibly the greatest era of technological disruption of all time, a disruption brought about by a mess of tubes called the Internet. We are seeing the fruits of computer science permeate daily life to a degree that relativity hasn't come even close to, whether it's RSA, recommendation systems, peer to peer file sharing, or what have you. The disruptions created by the Web have changed our society in radical ways: consider Facebook, Myspace and the whole array of social networking tools we use today.

And yet, we lack the voices that speak to this time and place. We lack cogent articulation of the tools that brought us here, of the wonders of Turing, Von Neumann, and others, of the fundamentally radical idea of the algorithm as an idiom. Or we lack recognition of those who do articulate such a vision of today's computationally-driven world.

We don't need to be on lists of public intellectuals, but we need to frame the role of computer science and computation in society today, before we get relegated to the role of glorified telephone repairmen.

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