The Fourth Tradition

“Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?
That’s not my department!” says Wernher von Braun

— Tom Lehrer

Tedre2008 describes three traditions that have shaped how we think about computing: the mathematical, which focuses on algorithms and proofs; the scientific, which studies programs and programmers empirically; and the engineering tradition, which centers the fact that computing matters because we can actually build useful things.

That paper changed how I think about our field, but in the past few years I have realized that another point of view is just as important, though not as well respected. It draws on humanities and social sciences to explore questions like, “Who does this help?”, “Who does this hurt?”, and, “Who decides?” Just as the most interesting software engineering research these days is look at how the way we think interacts with the way we program, the most interesting thinking about computing as a whole is coming from people who have outgrown the “Wernher von Braun” mentality.

If you never ask, “Who’s responsible for this?” the answer can’t ever be, “You.”

— a colleague of mine, many years ago