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All Grown Up Now: Service and Serial Reciprocity


Microsoft Research Director Daniel Reed

Though the frequency and ease of electronic communication now make it less common than when extended families were connected by little more than the postal service, each of us has experienced the momentary sense of surprise when seeing the child of a relative who has grown and matured since the last family gathering. It’s a case of cognitive dissonance, where expectations and memory collide with the reality of change.  The child became an adult when we were not watching.

As a set of disciplines, computing is a bit like that too.  Within the world of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), we’ve become an adult. As with any transition from childhood toys and recreational endeavors, adulthood brings certain family and societal responsibilities and obligations. These are the quid pro quo for daily life’s rights and privileges. In many cases, though, I fear that in computing we are still overly enamored with our technological toys rather than honoring all of our responsibilities.

Others, including CACM’s editor-in-chief Moshe Vardi, have written about the challenges we face in timely and appropriate review of conference and journal submissions. I also touched on this topic in another blog post and an article for CRA’s Computing Research News (CRN). In turn, Jeannette Wing discussed the differential rejection rates for computing proposals at the U.S. National Science Foundation. We also know that our funding agencies struggle to recruit staff from our ranks. However, I believe these may be merely small aspects of a larger issue, the need for all of us to shoulder more responsibility in the global science and engineering community.

Pipelining and parallelism are concepts we understand well.  They, like the transition from childhood to adulthood, are metaphors for the shifting nature of our communal responsibilities. As a young student, one looks to teachers, advisors and mentors for instruction and guidance.  As a mid-career researcher or practitioner, one is expected to be facile with the tools and technologies of the discipline, able to draw on one’s skills to advance the state of the art, cognizant of the broader context in which the technologies and products are used. As an older and wiser senior leader, one’s role is to offer advice and guidance to those younger, taking a perspective broader than one’s own career or even one’s own discipline. 

In computing, we used to rationale our lack of presence in key debates as a consequence of the newness of the field.  Today, we are "all grown up" – a set of mature, though still rapidly evolving disciplines, that touch almost all aspects of society.  I believe we have a social responsibility to both the computing community and the society to act accordingly.  Within the discipline, that means taking on the sometimes thankless tasks that ensure its continuing vibrancy and success – providing international, national, regional and local service on policy and strategy committees; volunteering as organizational leaders; serving as government agency staffers, program officers and leaders; and writing, speaking and testifying about critical issues (diversity and inclusion, education and curricula, research priorities, funding and resources).

Across the broader STEM community and society, computing pervades science and engineering research; it impinges on critical infrastructure function and safety, personal health and well-being; its prevalence raises new and thorny issues around personal privacy and digital security; its capabilities create new opportunities and challenges around education, digital literacy and societal inclusion; and it is the digital messenger of social, political and cultural change. Simply put, computing is central to the debate about so many aspects of our present and future that we have a duty and responsibility to be active and enthusiastic participants.  That means explaining technical issues, their implications and their possibilities in terms understandable by those outside the discipline, indeed outside science and technology.  It means helping frame the discussion, raising awareness of both the risks and the rewards of technological change, so that societal decisions can be made wisely and collaboratively. As I have noted elsewhere, this requires fluency in technology and policy and a willingness to look beyond one’s own personal self-interests.

As a community, we are mature.  Our community is filled with individuals who have both the skills and wisdom to serve our discipline, our organizations and our countries.  All of us, and I include myself, need to look beyond our personal interests and give more for the benefit of others.  Many of us are, but we can and should do more. Our colleagues in the physical sciences, engineering and the social, biological and biomedical sciences are active and engaged.  We need to follow their example. By paying it forward (serial reciprocity), we create an environment where a new generation can thrive, just as the founders of the field did for us.


 

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