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New Light on Worlds Before and Beyond Words

Meurig Beynon, Steve Russ, Nicolas Pope

Computer Science, University of Warwick, Coventry CV4 7AL

In 1995, two of the authors, Beynon and Russ, contributed a paper entitled "Worlds Before and Beyond Words" [6:#041] to the proceedings of the Virtual Futures conference. Its principal focus was the Empirical Modelling (EM) project [5], at that time established for about ten years, and still ongoing. The first line of the abstract to that paper remains a topical summary of a key motivation for EM research: "The advent of computer-generated environments for simulating experience of the real world invites a reappraisal of the role of classical and neo-classical theories of computation (e.g. views of computation based on linguistic and logical frameworks)."

In the intervening years, much has happened in computing and social practices to advance life in the virtual world; in some respects, the "virtual futures" of the mid 90s have become a present reality. In theoretical computer science, in contrast, little has changed. Indeed, it might be argued that the gap between computing-in-the-wild and computer science as an academic discipline has widened; advanced technology has been assimilated into everyday life, other disciplines have adopted sophisticated computing concepts and techniques, and it has become politically expedient for computer science research in UK universities to be consolidated around its core 'computational thinking' agenda.

This paper outlines new developments in the EM project that support a broader view of computing. One of the principal aims of EM is to redress the balance between two contrasting visions of the future: one in which automation and instrumentation enhance the human through 'intelligence amplification' (in keeping with J.C.R.Licklider's 1960 notion of "[hu]man-computer symbiosis" [4]), and one in which technology displaces the human from what have been seen as characteristic human roles (as e.g. in Paul Humphreys's picture of future scientific research in his 2004 book Extending Ourselves [1]). Though each of these visions has a significant contribution to make to the Virtual Futures agenda, it is the latter extrapolation from computationalism that is the more highly developed and assertive; computationalism draws strength from its roots in traditional computer science theory and is typically associated with philosophical perspectives that inhibit plurality.

Key developments to be addressed in our paper include: links between EM and William James's radical empiricist philosophical stance, which favours pluralism [2, 6:#078]; the prospects for EM as a form of construction such as Bruno Latour has proposed [3, 6:#100]; the promise that EM holds for new applications in areas such as educational technology [6:#111], humanities computing [6:#082] and collaborative modelling [6:#095]; the progress towards the development of better tools to support EM [6:#113, 7]. Taken together, these are the basis for a new conceptual framework in which the computational and the human are reconciled through "human computing" [6:#082].


  1. Paul Humphreys, Extending Ourselves: Computational Science, Empiricism, and Scientific Method. OUP, 2004
  2. William James, Essays in Radical Empiricism. (Reprinted from the original 1912 edition by Longmans, Green and Co., New York.) London: Bison Books, 1996
  3. Bruno Latour, The Promises of Constructivism, in eds. Don Ihde and Evan Selinger, Chasing Technoscience: Matrix for Materiality. Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press
  4. J.C.R.Licklider, Man-Computer Symbiosis, IRE Transactions on Human Factors in Electronics, vol. HFE-1, 4-11, Mar 1960
  5. The EM website:
  6. EM publications as indexed at
  7. The Web EDEN interpreter at http://go.warwick.webeden