Why computer scientists need to read literature

Yesterday, my beloved colleague Sharon Alker in English joined us for a CS Lunch discussion of how Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is relevant to computer scientists. In a nutshell, she argued that 1843 was a time of technological change in many ways like our own, and she had us closely read some short passages in that light.

But before we looked at A Christmas Carol, Sharon shared the following list with us. I have gained her permission to share that list with you, gentle readers.

A few of the reasons why everyone computer scientists need to read literature:

  1. Reading literature is immensely pleasurable. It can take you away from the mundane or help you to grapple with real-world problems. And because you are actively creating the textual world in your mind as you read, it helps your imagination to flourish.
  2. It immerses you in culture. This is important because culture represents imaginatively central issues of society. Literature exposes beliefs at the center of a society and also tensions in a culture. The technological issues that influence society are often dealt with overtly (e.g. science fiction) or covertly.
  3. If you read historical literature, you will enter another culture temporally just as you do spatially when you travel. So, you learn to navigate the rules of widely varying worlds. At the same time, seeing how different times have grappled with similar issues gives you a greater ability to imagine alternatives.
  4. Literature almost always engages with ethics and asks you to assess the ethics of the fictional world it represents. A Christmas Carol, for example, asks questions about the ethics of a post-industrial world.
  5. Literature provides you with degrees of empathy for different positions. Lisa Zunshine has written a book called Why we Read Fiction (2006). In it, she argues that it makes us mind readers as we enter the mind of characters and narrators. She does not mean that we learn to practice telepathy, but rather that we learn to intuit behavior by assessing people’s thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and desires based on a rich array of evidence available to us. We learn, at a very intricate level, how to navigate “multiple levels of intentionality.”
    There’s a reason many English students end up in Human Resource professions.
  6. Zunshine also talks about literature increasing our cognitive abilities. We have to learn to hold a lot of things in our mind simultaneously and them make imaginative decisions based on this array of knowledge. She uses the fancy term What she means by that, is the ability to assess the representation of representations. What the heck does that mean. It allows you to store information you are given (it’s raining outside vs. Sandra is a horrible person vs. there are fairies flying around campus) in different categories in our mind, some of which are less certain than others. Putting things in various categories is generally context dependent and can be fluid. When you navigate fictional worlds, you are developing these abilities which are incredibly useful in many fields, including working with data. There’s a reason many English students are data analysts.
  7. To complicate the previous point, reading literature teaches you to think symbolically, metaphorically, so you are always looking beyond the literal, behind the curtain.
  8. It teaches you to think about how the form of something influences the content. In acquiring the skill to see how a sonnet might lead you to interpret something in a particular way, you are also acquiring an ability to question the form of algorithms and other relevant CS forms.
  9. Literature helps you increase your ability to focus on complexity in a world that diminishes this ability through embracing brevity and efficiency.

I find Sharon’s points persuasive, and several are new to me. I would add:

  1. Writing is an important skill for computer scientists. And reading makes you a better writer.
  2. Design fiction is a recognized method for thinking through how technology can create new worlds and address wicked problems—and also, how the technologies we are building today can have unintended consequences. This kind of ethical thinking is really important.
  3. We often think of empathy as important for ethical decision making once a project is underway. But all too often, new apps seek to solve “first-world problems.” Gaining empathy for others may help you see problems that other technologists don’t see. It can make you an innovator.
  4. Computer scientists also recognize the importance of reading literature. For the last several years, the Annual Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education has included a session titled “SIGCSE Reads!” organized by Dr. Rebecca Bates and others. Past SIGCSE Reads include the following:
    Year Novels Short stories Non-fiction
    2015 I Robot by Isaac Asimov
    Ready Player One by Earnest Cline
    Bellwether by Connie Willis
    2016 The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson
    Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
    “A Logic Named Joe” by Will F. Jenkins
    “Seven Years from Home” by Naomi Novik
    2017 The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace & Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer by Sydney Padua
    The Martian by Andy Weir
    “The Last Question” by Isaac Asimov
    2018 The Difference Engine by William Gibson & Bruce Sterling “Moxon’s Master” by Ambrose Bierce
    The Gambler” by Paolo Bacigalupi
    Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O’Neil
    2019 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick “I Sing the Body Electric!” by Ray Bradbury
    Cat Pictures Please” by Naomi Kritzer
    Algorithms of Oppression: How search engines reinforce racism by Safiya Umoja Noble
    2020 Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth by Apostolos Doxiadis & Christos Papadimitriou “Damage” by David D. Levine
    “STET” by Sarah Gailey
    Automated Inequality by Virginia Eubanks

So between Sharon’s list and mine, there’s a baker’s dozen. What else would you add?

2 thoughts on “Why computer scientists need to read literature

  1. John Norman

    I am really fascinated with literature dealing with computer-mediated communication — Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age is a good choice. Another good one is his Interface, written under the pseudonym Stephen Bury.

    A few others:

    * Anything by Ellen Ullman, but especially her essay “Come In, CQ: The Body on the Wire,” and her book Close to the Machine. Her novel By Blood is not about technology per se, but it is an essential read about privacy and power.

    * Edward Snowden’s memoir has a chapter contributed by his wife that are drawn from diary entries. Provocative.

    * James Howard Kunstler’s World Made by Hand.


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