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Thinking Through Computing

Thinking Through Computing

2nd - 3rd November, 2007

Department of Computer Science

University of Warwick



We are very pleased to acknowledge support for this event from the AHRC ICT Methods Network.



The 'Thinking Through Computing' workshop will examine the nature and future of computer science as an academic discipline. The workshop is organised by the Empirical Modelling group at the University of Warwick and will take place on Friday 2nd November & Saturday 3rd November 2007. To maximise the scope for focused discussion, the number of participants will be limited, and attendance at the workshop will be by invitation only. However, the workshop itself is conceived as part of a wider collaborative activity in which all are invited to participate.


Introduction and Invitation


Thinking through Computing: an Introduction ...


We represent a research group, Empirical Modelling (EM), in the Computer Science Department of the research-led University of Warwick. The University has consistently been ranked within the top ten overall in the UK. Our website is at

For over fifteen years we have been developing an alternative approach to both computing and modelling. Conventional programming assumes sufficient understanding of an application domain to permit a statement of requirement or functionality. The EM approach is focussed at a more fundamental level on the process of gaining such understanding. Therefore sense-making, and the interactive experience of an evolving computer model, are at the centre of its activity. It is philosophically aware, principled and yet practical. It is also essentially informal, still embryonic in some ways, and hard to communicate - especially to the established computing community.


Computing as an academic discipline seems to be at an impasse. Many universities (including ours) still focus on the 'theory of computation' they taught when the subject was introduced about forty years ago: some discrete mathematics, mathematical models of computation, automata and formal languages. Notwithstanding its credentials as one of the most significant intellectual developments of the twentieth century, this theory is hard to relate to current practice in multimedia, communications, social computing and so on, and is not popular with many - even very able - students. Other universities put their emphasis on what is closer to practice - games, web services, multimedia etc but such topics lack principles and theory. Neither course seems sustainable in the medium term.

There are many other instances of dilemma. For instance, the software crisis remains, and more generally, the conflicts and tensions between informal human processes and the formalities of conventional computing have become as ubiquitous and pervasive as computers themselves.

In seeking to address these concerns we soon confront issues of representation and interpretation. Traditional programs are well-suited only to tasks that are so well-understood they can be 'reduced' to representation in formal languages and algorithms with fixed, preconceived, interpretation and modes of interaction. A representation in such a context is exact, consistent and closed. Humans represent their experience of most phenomena (and most phenomena are surely not well-understood) in ways that, in their use of language and logic, are subtle, fluid and open. The focus and direction of Empirical Modelling is to develop tools, methods and principles that give greater priority to immediate experience - and particularly to interactive experience of a computer model - than to the forms of language and logic that are conventionally used to capture and communicate that experience. As an example of giving priority to experience - drawn from practice - certain lines of a graphical model originally representing jars of liquid were re-interpreted as the neck and frets of a guitar. Such a drastic re-interpretation is hardly of a kind to be advocated, or even possible, within a conventional program. However, such re-interpretation 'on-the-fly' is not difficult to imagine - or to achieve through the use of our tools. Because of this priority given to experience in EM the use of metaphor, visualization and the modeller's continuous interpretative interaction are all prominent in our work.

For more detail about our approach we refer to Sections 2 and 3 of the paper 'Human Computing: Modelling with Meaning' (2006) by Beynon, Russ, McCarty that can be downloaded from

The same paper has an example of an application to music in Section 4 and some further high-level remarks on the philosophy of EM in Section 5. More detailed study of the relationship of the thinking of William James to EM can be found in 'Radical Empiricism, Empirical Modelling and the nature of knowing' (2005) by Beynon at:

There are a large number of other publications and theses available from the 'publications' directory of the above URL's.


... and an Invitation<


We invite you to collaborate with us by writing your own 'perspective on the nature of computing'. We've attached an example of what we have in mind - a kind of 'Model Answer' if you like - for our perspective of Empirical Modelling. It includes a (somewhat idiosyncratic) view of computer science afforded by the principles and tools of Empirical Modelling. The choice and ordering of topics reflects the way in which the curriculum might be organised in a typical computer science course, but the description of each topic is oriented towards concerns with particular relevance for Empirical Modelling. Philosophy of Computing appears as the last topic, in deference to its marginal status in traditional computer science courses, but it is arguably one of the topics with the greatest relevance to any alternative vision of computing.

You are invited to construct (in at most two pages) a similar account of computing from your own perspective, using whatever selection of key topics you see fit, paying particular attention to framing the philosophical questions that are most relevant to your account.

We shall collate the perspectives we receive and (with your permission) distribute them among participants on arrival on the Friday (or by e-mail to others who indicate interest). We'll then endeavour to organise talks, discussions, and working groups during our meeting to facilitate production of a document reflecting our thinking as well as possible.



The 'Thinking Through Computing' workshop will take place on the University of Warwick main campus. The University is located adjacent to the city of Coventry approximately 5 km (3 miles) from the city centre. The small town of Kenilworth is approximately 2 miles away.

If you are travelling by rail then Coventry train station is easily accessible from Birmingham, Birmingham International and London. A frequent bus service (no. 12) operates from the train station to the University. Taxis are also available and cost approximately £10.

If you are travelling from outside the UK the nearest airport is Birmingham International which is approximately a 15-minute train journey from Coventry train station. If you travel to a London airport, such as Heathrow or Gatwick, then Coventry train station can be easily reached from London Euston train station (journey time: 1 hour 10 minutes).

More information about the University of Warwick can be found on the main Warwick University website.


Accommodation will be available on the main University of Warwick campus, in the nearby city of Coventry or the town of Kenilworth.

Accommodation details will be posted shortly.


Contact Details

For further information please contact the workshop organiser Steve Russ.