Sunday, July 27, 2014

A response to Vint Cerf

A somewhat grumpy response to +Vint cerf 's request for feedback on how the ACM can do more for "professional programmers".

Dear  Dr. Cerf
  In your recent letter to the members of ACM, you write "I would like to ask readers how they satisfy their need to keep informed about computing practices and research results that may influence their own work". While I suspect your goal is to understand how ACM can serve the larger tech community and not the research community and I am a card-carrying member of the latter group, I thought I'd respond anyway.

First up, it's an ambitious (and brave!) idea to think that the ACM (or any single entity for that matter) can serve the needs of the vast technology enterprise. There was probably a time before the web when professional societies played an important role in collecting together people with shared interests and disseminating valuable information out to interested individuals. But now we have your current employer ! and online communities galore ! and Quora ! and the Stackexchange ecosystem ! and so many different ways for people to build communities, share information and learn about new ideas percolating through the world of tech.

It's a little funny though that you're worried about ACM's presence in the professional world. Many of us have long assumed that ACM spends most of its focus on that side of the computing community (the excellent revamp of the CACM under +Moshe Vardi  being the exception that proved the rule). In fact, I'd go as far as to argue that the ACM would be much better served if it were instead to realize how it's driving itself into irrelevance in a research community that so desperately needs an institutional voice.

How do we satisfy our need to keep informed about results that might influence our work ? We (still) read papers and go to conferences. And how does the ACM help ? Well not very well.

  • Aggregating the deluge of information: anyone will tell you that the amount of research material to track and read has grown exponentially. But we still, to this day, have nothing like PUBMED/MEDLINE as a central clearinghouse for publications in CS-disciplines. The ACM DL is one step towards this, but it's a very poor imitation of what a 21st century repository of information should look like. It's not comprehensive, its bibliographic data is more erroneous than one expects, and the search mechanisms are just plain depressing (it's much easier to use Google)
  • Dealing with the changing nature of peer review and publication: Sadly, ACM, rather than acting like a society with its members' interests at heart, has been acting as a for-profit publisher with a some window dressing to make it look less execrable. Many people have documented this far more effectively than I ever could. 
  • Conference services: One of the services a national organization supposedly provides are the conference services that help keep communities running. But what exactly does the ACM do ? It sits back and nitpicks conference budgets, but provides little in the way of real institutional support. There's no infrastructure to help with conference review processes, no support for at-conference-time services like social networking, fostering online discussion and communities, and even modern web support. I only bring this up because all of these services exist, but piecemeal, and outside the ACM umbrella.

Underneath all of this is a slow but clear change in the overall CS research experience. The CRA has been doing yeoman service here: taking the temperature of the community every year with the Taulbee surveys, putting out a best practices document for postdocs after extensive community discussion, and even forming action groups to help gain more support for CS research from the government. Does the ACM do any of this ?

In many ways, this is a golden era for computer science, as the fruits of decades of work in our field seep out into the larger world under the guise of computational thinking, big data and learning. It's a perfect time for an organization that has deep connections in both the academic side of CS and the industrial side to help with  the translation and tech transfer needed to maximize the impact of the amazing new technologies we're all developing, as well as reach out to similar institutions in other areas to bring more CS into their communities (as you rightly pointed out)

But there is no sign that ACM has ideas about how to do this or even wants to. And while it continues to chase a professional tech community that doesn't seem to care about it at all, the academics who would have cared are finding their own way.

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