Roger Needham once said that computing is noteworthy in that the technology often precedes the science. In most sciences, it is the other way around. Scientists invent new building materials, new treatments for disease and so on. Once the scientists have moved on, the technologists move in to productize and commercialize the science.
In computing, we often do
things the other way around. The technological tail seems to wag the
scientific dog so to speak. What happens is that application-oriented
technologists come up with something new. If it flies in the
marketplace, then more theory oriented scientists move in to figure
out how to make it work better, faster or sometimes to try to
discover why the new thing works in the first place.
The Web for example, did
not come out of a laboratory full of white coats and clipboards.
(Well actually, yes it did but they were particle physicists and were
not working on software). The Web was produced by technologists in
the first instance. Web scientists came later.
Needham's comments in turn
reminded me of an excellent essay by Paul Graham from a Python
conference. In that essay, entitled 'The hundred-year language'
Graham pointed out that the formal study of literature - a scientific
activity in its analytical nature - rarely contributes anything to
the creation of literature - which is a more technological activity.
Literature is an extreme
example of the phenomenon of the technology preceding, in fact
trumping, the science. I am not suggesting that software can be
understood in literary terms. (Although one of my college lecturers
was fond of saying that programming was language with some
mathematics thrown in.) Software is somewhere in the middle, the
science follows the technology but the science, when it comes, makes
very useful contributions. Think for example of the useful
technologies that have come out of scientific analysis of the Web.
I'm thinking of things like clever proxy strategies, information
retrieval algorithms and so on.
As I wander around the
increasingly complex “stacks” of software, I cannot help but
conclude that wherever software sits in the spectrum of science
versus technology, there is "way" too much technology out
there and not enough science.
The plethora of stacks and
frameworks and standards is clearly not a situation that can be
easily explained away on scientific innovation grounds alone. It
requires a different kind of science. Mathematicians like John Nash,
economists like Carl Shapiro and Hal Varian, Political Scientists
like Robert Axelrod, all know what is really going on here.
These Scientists and others
like them, that study competition and cooperation as phenomena in
their own right would have no trouble explaining what is going on in
today's software space. It has only a little to do with computing
science per se and everything to do with strategy - commercial
strategy. I am guessing that if they were to comment, Nash would talk
about Equilibria, Shapiro and Varian would talk about Standards
Wars, Robert Axelrod would talk about the Prisoners Dilemma and
All good science Jim, but not really computer science.