What's in a name? Mulling over computer officers, web officers, and the emerging 'Web Science'
I've got two jobs at the moment, as well as being a PhD student, but my two jobs have very different job titles. For one I'm a "Web Innovation Officer", which - let's be frank - is a pretty fab title, but for the other I'm a "Computing Development Officer", a title which I've always hated. I'm not sure exactly why - maybe it's the geeky connatations (although aren't geeks supposed to be trendy now or something?), or perhaps the focus on the computer rather than the user - something very alien to my background as an interface designer. But whatever it is has led me to start thinking a bit more about the difference between the two - and, more fundamentally, how people who work with computers, and people who work with the web, differ in their focus.
Computers pre-date the web of course, by not just years, but decades. Electronic computers, for example, date back to the early forties. Computer networks have existed for a fair while too, starting in the late sixties/early seventies, which has meant that computers could work together, but the advent of the web is still relatively new, really only getting off the ground in the early nineties, and I think there's the crux of the issue. We just don't understand yet how different it is - and with the new government culling the Institute for Web Science it's not going to be understood any time soon - but one thing that is clear about it is the sheer scale of what's involved.
The key, perhaps, may lie in the name of my two jobs. A "Computing Development Officer" is someone whose prime focus is on the technology, that is the computer itself, and what it can do. As a product of that, it's also concerned with the applications that run on that computer, and the integration of computer and application. It's a lot about moving data around, about making sure data is stored and retrieved accurately, and that different data works together correctly.
A "Web Officer", on the other hand, is someone whose primary focus in on something much more intangible, and for that matter something far greater in my (admittedly biased) opinion. This constantly mutating, endless, fascinating construct we've made for ourselves called the world wide web, with all it's idiosyncracies, fuzzy edges, and mismatching parts. It's something no one person can possibly understand alone, and requires much more than just an understanding of computers. The Web Science Trust has attempted to map this blend of skills in the diagram below, and see it as a mix of many, sometimes quite disparate, disciplines:
As a past student of cognitive science I see certain things in there which were already being researched under that umbrella, but the emerging Web Science seems to encompass even more. It's as if we're creating a whole new virtuality, and with it the need to understand a whole new set of rules for what works and what doesn't work within that virtuality.
I guess I prefer being a web officer because of the very fact that the web is so unformed, emerging, fuzzy - that's probably why I called this blog the virtual explorer too, to summarise my feeling that working with the web is a journey into the unknown. I appreciate the need for traditional computer professionals in this field, those more concerned with the technology than the emerging virtuality, but in my experience they tend to try and force the web to behave as it it were a computer - and by doing so extract from it the very properties that can make it so rich. The freedom to explore, to connect, to create, often alien ideas to traditional computer people, who seem more concerned with control, regulation and the integrity of their data.
So what about Web Science more generally? With the 'official' Institute of Web Science no more it'll be up to others in the UK to push research into the web forward - but at least the Web Science Trust is still around to guide that process. Here's looking forward to another decade of web innovation, and hopefully from my perspective a little less computer development :-)