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sociology/computer science team up: part 2

A few days ago, I suggested that sociologists should seriously consider teaming up with computer scientists. Here, I’d like to sketch out the big picture to suggest why we are in a special moment. Basically, computer science has had three major stages of development:

  • Stage 1 (1949-1970s): The construction of computers. In this stage, it was all about the engineering. How could you make a machine that (a) could be programmed, as opposed to running one command, and (b) do it in a way that didn’t require a machine the size of a house?
  • Stage 2 (1970s-1990s): Learning and theory. Could you make a machine that could, say, solve an algebra equation? Play chess? See things? CS also developed its mathematical side. Does this algorithm find an answer in a reasonable amount of time?
  • Stage 3: (1990s-present): Social computers. Can we build machines that will help people, say, trade using e-currency? Operate in secure networks? In other words, instead of making computers mimic people, we make computers extensions of people.

Of course, people still work in all streams of computer science. The issue is that the social computing stream is now huge. That means that computer scientists are building a technical system that integrates human beings and computer networks. In other words, there isn’t going to be real sharp distinction between online behavior and “real world” behavior. They’ll be connected.

A second observation is that social computing is the engineering analog of “social action.” It’s a broad idea that encompasses a lot of behavior. This is a bit different than say, economics, which reduces a lot to price theory, or political science, which focuses on very specific things like voting or legislation. Instead, computer scientists are dealing with something that is extremely broad. That’s why they can entertain all the different types of data: video recording how people use computers, text analysis, online experiments, and plain old vanilla stats.

None of this means that the CS/soc hookup will automatically happen. Rather, this post explains why this opportunity has appeared. It’s up to us to make the most of it. Otherwise, you can bet on a series of Nature and Science articles that are sociological, but lack sociology authors.

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Written by fabiorojas

July 3, 2014 at 12:01 am

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