Not so long ago I was fortunately asked to join Bill Thompson and Les Carr to be a twitter chair at the Royal Society for their Web Science event. (Thanks to Bill for this opportunity). The event was amazing with incredible minds such as Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Jennifer Chayes, Pierre Levy and so many more. The topics covered mathematics, engineering, physics, medicine, networking and beyond. But did it get the message across? What is Web Science?
For me – and I was in the thick of it having my mind boggled for two days, I didn’t get the gist of things until day two. That might have been just me. But when that penny dropped – I realised that there has been something missing in academia for a while that has been in journalism, marketing, sales. The science of the internet. Not just participating by making more things to put on the web, but actual integration of skills as the walls fall down from the World Wide Web app and we begin to see the edges of the mechanics via the use of mobile phones, internet browsing tablets. The way we access the web and internet is changing – is there a course for this?
Those of us who have been studying web science today, went to college and university before there was a web science to study. We read books, follow updates, teach ourselves to program or take the odd course to puzzle piece together a map of learning that seems to almost summarise what we do. So far, a formal course that encompasses these skills for the sake of themselves, has been elusive. Media and marketing courses appear to take a look at some of the human machine interaction, but from the angle of sales, mathematics and engineering can lead you to programming, but does that include design awareness for script kiddies or is that part for the art students.
So far it seems that the skills have been following the money and some books arrived along the way. The academic side of things is on the way now though in the UK. The Singularity University in California recognised a good few years ago that integration of skills is almost as important as divided disciplines. Their applicants are apparently superhuman in their intellect already though – so what of the usual suspect here in the UK?
Currently I am studying a BSC with the Open University that will lead (hopefully) to a qualification in Ai and human machine interaction. Not bad for a fine art student and journalist. Back when I was studying fine art, there was no way that I thought a skip over to the dark side of engineering and computing would work for me – it was a chalk and cheese affair. It was my secret interest while I curated at galleries and wondered what I was going to do.
Studying Ai has made me realise that the interdisciplinary nature of the topics that lead to an understanding of artificial intelligence blend java coding, psychology and a little maths. The fact that the internet is starting to reflect almost all walks of life, must mean that a mixed skills base to cope with the breadth of people on earth and their lives online is necessary.
Already there are break outs where skills are crossing over. Hacks and Hackers already looks at “rebooting journalism”. I am a firm believer that skills should be blended. A journalist with the skills to pull her ass out of the digital fire is useful. I can see that coders and technologists might shudder at the thought of my putting my inky paws into their clean code – but I don’t mean messing with someone else’s work in that way. Respectful boundaries are still very important – but knowing what your coder colleagues do can also redefine your expectations.
When I was at school, access to computers was dreadful. There were few and we were taught about how to use Word. Basically the Microsoft Office manual in a classroom. Today that seems both product biased and incredibly naive. Stepping over the line into a little light java and html, understanding something about CSS even if you don’t get under the bonnet with your screwdriver, makes working in the digital world that little bit easier. Especially if anything ever goes wrong.
Whether it is mobile or desk based, satellite or broadband, personal or publishing, building or blogging web science should be a part of what most of us do. Journalism especially, but in so many other walks of life. Not only does it provide working skills, it can also, idealistically, provide emancipation, liberation of data and well, sometimes, it’s just nicer to be able to make your own LOLcat rather than just laughing at all the others even better if you can host that kitteh on your own server.
Come on then – tell me where I’m wrong :)