Entries from August 2015 ↓

Computing’s Ontology (Part I)

One thing that puzzles me are the frequent comments on how computing makes ontology so difficult. Some say it’s virtuality that makes ontology hard. Such comments permeate our field.

Someone posed questions about how does money exist if it’s not “real” anymore but virtual in some cloud service or bank server. Someone else wrote that windows on the screen are at the same time virtual and at the same time physical (or something like that – I can’t remember anymore). Someone else – well, this has been repeated over and over – was of the opinion that ontology of programs is tricky because they’re at the same time abstract (in the same way mathematical objects are abstract) and concrete (they have causal power). One computer scientist said that information (one of our subjects) is neither matter nor energy.

What’s so hard there? Consider the realist ontology: the one underlying scientific realism (the following version is from Searle, who’s a master of putting things clearly):

The world is made of particles in fields of force. Fundamental forces join some particles together to make increasingly complex combinations (molecules, minerals, rocks, mountains). Some of those combinations have organized into living systems, and some of those systems have evolved consciousness. Some forms of consciousness enable intentionality: the capacity to represent objects and states of affairs in the world to oneself.

Now consider virtual currency in this ontology. There’s nothing magical, nothing transcendental about it. Virtual currency exists in the form of magnetic charges on a hard drive platter somewhere. When you buy something from the store, a configuration of magnetic charges somewhere changes.

What about windows on the computer screen? There’s nothing vague about their existence: just dig deep enough into the mechanism. Patterns (electric charges) in graphics memory are translated into signals (streams of electrons) that are sent to the monitor, which translates those signals to voltages in liquid crystal cells, creating a pattern on the grid of liquid crystal cells, and each cell on the grid lets different colors from backlight panel to pass and meet the eye. There’s the window on screen, in very much physical terms. There’s nothing uncertain about “how” or through which mechanisms windows on the screen exist. Only for those who doesn’t know how technology works such things may appear supernatural.

There’s nothing mystical about the ontology of programs, either. A program in an executable form exists as electric and magnetic charges ready for some causal action. A program in a text form exists as black ink entangled in a grid of cellulose fibers. A program in my mind exists as a specific electrochemical and physical configuration in my brain (I guess that the jury is still out on the specifics of that, though). The realist ontology is simple and straightforward.

And the claim that information is neither matter nor energy? Well, I’m no physicist but I first thought that everything’s gotta be matter or energy, though it learned that I was wrong and the case isn’t that clear after all.

Nevertheless, virtual things exist the very same way everything else exists: as patterns of particles in fields of force. There’s nothing ambiguous about their existence. But it’s pretty sure that this ontology doesn’t bring questions to an end. On the contrary, this simple ontology gives rise to a ton of much more interesting questions: Through which mechanisms are ideas shared between individuals? What in the world or in our brain makes it possible that people discover the same theoretical ideas independently? And then agree about those ideas?

Questions like those aren’t easy. But it looks like answers to them can be discovered without postulating extra worlds that science hasn’t yet discovered.

Science of Microscopes

In their famous 1967 defence of computing as an independent discipline, Allen Newell, Alan Perlis, and Herb Simon argued that the computer is so different from other instruments, like the thermometer and microscope, that its study warrants a discipline of its own.

Given that they compared the computer with the microscope, it’s interesting to note that there once was an exciting new field called microscopical science. According to the field’s early journal Quarterly Journal of Microscopical Science, that science was about advancing technical information about the microscope and research findings from using the microscope. The journal stated in its inaugural issue in 1853, that improvements in technology had made the microscope readily available for research, a large numbers of researchers from various disciplines used it, and there were academic societies devoted to it. They defended the name “microscopical science” for that new, exciting, and unique field. Fast forward 100 years, replace “microscope” with “computer” and the same arguments were tossed around. The text above could easily have been from the 1960s defences of computing’s disciplinary identity.

I don’t know about the disciplinary status of microscopical science or microscopy today. But I know that the journal above was in 1966 renamed Cell Science. I wonder if the hundred-year delay will still apply, and if our field will be around 2060 eventually re-branded “informatics,” “datalogy,” or “algorithmics.”