TITLE: Independence Day Reading AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: July 06, 2007 12:00 PM DESC: ----- BODY: While watching a little Wimbledon on television the other day, I read a couple of items on my daunting pile of papers to read. Among the first was the on-line excerpt of Scott Rosenberg's recent book Dreaming in Code, about the struggles of the team developing the open-source "interpersonal information manager" Chandler. In the introduction, Rosenberg says about software:
Never in history have we depended so completely on a product that so few know how to make well.
In context, the emphasis is on "know how to make well". He was speaking of the software engineering problem, the knowledge of how to make software. But my thoughts turned immediately to what is perhaps a more important problem: "so few". The world depends so much on computer software, yet we can't seem to attract students to study computer science or (for those who think that is unnecessary) to want to learn how to make software. Many young people think that the idea of making software is beyond them -- too hard. But most don't think much about programming at all. Software is mundane, too ordinary. Where is the excitement? Later I was reading Space for improvement, on "re-engaging the public with the greatest adventure of our time": space travel. Now space travel travel still seems pretty cool to me, one of the great scientific exercises of my lifetime, but polls show that most Americans, while liking the idea in the abstract, don't care all that much about space travel when it comes down to small matters of paying the bills. The focus of the article is on the shortcomings of how NASA and others communicate the value and excitement of space travel to the public. It identifies three problems. The first is an "unrelenting positiveness" in PR, which may keep risk-averse legislators happy but gives the public the impression that space travel is routine. The second is a lack of essential information from Mission Control during launches and flights, information that would allow the PR folks tell a more grounded story. But author Bob Mahoney thinks that the third and most important obstacle in the past past has been a presumption that has run through NASA PR for many year's:
The presumption? That the public can't understand or won't appreciate the deeper technical issues of spaceflight. By assuming a disinterested and unintelligent public, PAO [NASA's s Public Affairs Office] and the mainstream media have missed out completely on letting the public share in the true drama inherent in space exploration.
If you presume a disinterested and unintelligent public, then you won't -- can't -- tell an authentic story. And in the case of space travel, the authentic story, replete with scientific details and human drama, might well snag the attention of the voting public. I can't claim that that software development is "the greatest adventure of our time", but I think we in computing can learn a couple of things from reading this article. First, tell people the straight story. Trust them to understand their world and to care about things that matter. If the public needs to know more math and science to understand, teach them more. Second, I think that we should tell this story not just to adults, but to our children. The only way we can expect students to want to learn how to make software or to learn computer science is if they understand why these things matter and if they believe that they can contribute. Children are in some ways a tougher audience. They still have big imaginations and so are looking for dreams that can match their imagination, and they are pretty savvy when it comes to recognizing counterfeit stories. -----