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Cultures of Code

Three communities in the world of computation are bound together by common interests but set apart by distinctly different aims and agendas.

Brian Hayes

Kim studies parallel algorithms, designed for computers with thousands of processors. Chris builds computer simulations of fluids in motion, such as ocean currents. Dana creates software for visualizing geographic data. These three people have much in common. Computing is an essential part of their professional lives; they all spend time writing, testing, and debugging computer programs. They probably rely on many of the same tools, such as software for editing program text. If you were to look over their shoulders as they worked on their code, you might not be able to tell who was who.

Despite the similarities, however, Kim, Chris, and Dana were trained in different disciplines, and they belong to 2015-01HayesF1.jpgClick to Enlarge Image different intellectual traditions and communities. Kim, the parallel algorithms specialist, is a professor in a university department of computer science. Chris, the fluids modeler, also lives in the academic world, but she is a physicist by training; sometimes she describes herself as a computational scientist (which is not the same thing as a computer scientist). Dana has been programming since junior high school but didn’t study computing in college; at the startup company where he works, his title is software developer.

These factional divisions run deeper than mere specializations. Kim, Chris, and Dana belong to different professional societies, go to different conferences, read different publications; their paths seldom cross. They represent different cultures. The resulting Balkanization of computing seems unwise and unhealthy, a recipe for reinventing wheels and making the same mistake three times over. Calls for unification go back at least 45 years, but the estrangement continues. As a student and admirer of all three fields, I find the standoff deeply frustrating.

Certain areas of computation are going through a period of extraordinary vigor and innovation. Machine learning, data analysis, and programming for the web have all made huge strides. Problems that stumped earlier generations, such as image recognition, finally seem to be yielding to new efforts. The successes have drawn more young people into the field; suddenly, everyone is “learning to code.” I am cheered by (and I cheer for) all these events, but I also want to whisper a question: Will the wave of excitement ever reach other corners of the computing universe?

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