The Identity Crisis In Computer Science

In the Spring of 2010, I was in a meeting where Computer Science faculty sat around voicing opinions about what's important in the field and what students should learn. The discussion centered around trying to define CS and the question of where the field is going. I had a feeling of deja vu because the same basic opinions had been voiced many times in preceding years. As I sat listening, it suddenly occurred to me that an underlying psychological problem had taken over Computer Science: the field found itself in a malaise, experiencing an identity crisis and questioning its value.

Let me explain. During the discussion, one of the Computer Scientists mentioned that in the 1980s, there was talk of CS becoming the next Pillar of Science, which would finally put CS on equal footing with fields like Physics, Chemistry, Biology, and Earth Sciences. “What happened?”, he asked, and went on to lament that other sciences usually view CS as merely “supporting” their work. Another Computer Scientist suggested that CS has made a mistake by thinking that the field is about the creation of software and software systems. He argued that algorithms and software engineering should not be at the heart of what we do, but instead, suggested that CS should relabel itself as the field that focuses on more abstract “computational thinking” or one that “provides solutions to computational problems”. Each of these positions is symptomatic of an underlying problem: instead of being proud of our great accomplishments, such as the creation of the Internet and powerful interactive computer systems that have changed the way people around the world work and play, some computer scientists seem stuck in the doldrums, feeling disappointed and wishing for more academic prestige.

How Did We Get To This Point?

What Can We Do To Correct The Problem?

A few suggestions.