Intractability and Incomprehensibility

I attended the (sometimes semi) annual Princeton University Computer Science department affiliates seminar this week, and got to hear a variety of short talks on topics ranging from data management in computational biology to how students infer trust in search results. Professor Andrew Appel opened the day with some statistics about the department, including a graph showing that the enrollment in CS degree programs is on the rise again, after a huge wave that lagged the .com boom and bust cycles by about a semester. My caffeine-aided interpolation of his chart was that computer science is rebounding off of a decade-long lull in attractiveness. While the spike in 1999-2000 was an effect of the market, this could well be a leading indicator that computer science is once again interesting. Appel put a nice twist on the data and his overview of the research programs, adding that "having intractable problems is not a bug, it's a feature, and computer science actually needs them - otherwise things like cryptography don't work." I'd never really considered the benefit of finding things that you know can't be solved through normally scalable methods, although I'll admit to typing as many things bin packing problems as I can to put a point on their complexity.

The short talk I enjoyed the most, however, wasn't a research result but instead a summary of a search results from a freshman seminar led by one of my former (and favorite) professors, Andrea LaPaugh. Her summary of the incoming students' views and vectors of information consumption were startling: most students trusted in institutions (clearly none of them have been served with RIAA suits); they all believed Google "intervened" in search results (for which counter proof exists), demonstrating a conceptual commingling of sponsored links, ad words, search ranking and key word search; they seemed somewhat flippant about their privacy (some even believing that the "government sees everything they type") and overall, bring to bear little knowledge of how collections of information are presented.

I was a bit surprised by the results, but I also try to understand how each generation of users sees the social context of technology. Those of us in the late boomer era were shaped by television; we learned to be skeptical of the news, Madison Avenue, and the government; today's Gen Y users are perhaps not skeptical enough of the exogeneous forces shaping their information flow. LaPaugh's food for thought sent me off to the lunch break with two wildly different ideas: first, Marshall McLuhan was right and the medium is the message, especially when we convey copious trust to the medium. The second, significantly less politically correct thought, was that maybe cane spree isn't such a bad mechanism for pwning freshman before they experience the equivalent online.

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Hal Stern's thoughts on software, services, cloud computing, security, privacy, and data management

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