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What is Informatics?

03 Jun 2019

This essay has been kindly translated in Spanish and Catalan
You can also buy a printed version from ElenQ Publishing

What is Informatics? Why some call it “Computer Science”?
Why programmers can’t get it right as civil engineers do with bridges?

Given the pervasive presence of computers around us, people usually think about Informatics as a pretty advanced field of technology, something that push the edges of human knowledge. They think of programming as a specialized skill, something you need to learn if you want to follow a certain kind of career.

It’s all wrong.

A bit of History

In 1957, Karl Steinbuch coined the term «Informatik» for his essay Informatik: Automatische Informationsverarbeitung, “Informatics: automatic information processing”.

On March 1962, Philippe Dreyfus used for the first time the term «Informatique» to name his own company Société d’informatique appliquée.

On the same month Walter Bauer started the american company «Informatics Inc.», registered its trademark and sued universities using such word to describe the new field, forcing them to resort to the locution “Computer Science”, despite the fact that the matter was not restricted to computers and the scientific method was not really applied by practitioners.

ACM even tried to gain permission to use the term from Informatics, Inc, but the company refused.

It’s worth noticing that according to Donald Knuth the choice of “Computer Science” by American Universities was not due to trademark issues, but to semantic reasons: computers do not deal with information, but data.

But as pragmatic as this might look, it’s very short-sighted: it loosely describes the “how” without considering the “why” of Informatics.

Indeed, if it’s true that data is what computers handle, we turn them on to treat information anyway.

Some definitions

As a field apparently built on top of binary values, Informatics is full of interesting dichotomies. The most fundamental but often overlooked one is that between Information and Data:

Information, from Latin informo, “I build inside (of myself)”: An idea, a construct of a human mind that can be shared with other humans.

Datum, pl. Data, from Latin datum, “given”: One of the possibile representations of a piece of information that can be transferred and interpreted as information by humans.

Information only exists in a human mind.

Not every construct of a human mind is information, but only those that can be precisely communicated to other humans. For example, no mystic experience can be really shared.

However Information is the fundamental building block of human knowledge. Indeed whatever belongs to the field of Mathematics is Information, so much that no conjecture can be considered as a valid statement until other humans can agree on it just by reading the description of the proof that was formed in the author’s mind.

Data instead are mere representations.

Any representation of Information is actually a set of data.

The words you are reading, be them printed on paper or drawn on a raster screen, just represent a message I’m trying to convey, an insight built over years of practice in the field.

But I could have recorded a video lesson, for example.
Or recorded a phonograph.

All of these would have been representation of the same intended information.
But they would not be equivalent.

A complex relationship

Information and data have a very complex relation.

By writing these words I’m turning the information in my mind to data.
By reading them, you are turning the data back to information again.

Both of above sentences are properly expressed in present tense, but they occur at different points in time and space.

Moreover data always convey much more information than the intended message. For example the information about this text itself, its language, its length and so on, are what is often improperly called “metadata”. But even a lot of personal information is embedded in these data, as the style of my writings might reveal.

If instead of a text the message was carried through a video a whole lot of additional information would be spread together with the intended message. My race, my gender, my census, even some deseases could be leaked through a video. And my voice, and much much more.

So we can see that information can be turned to data and data can be turned back to information by the human mind, but no mathematical function could describe this relationship: there is both loss of information and addition of it at every passage.

And people can misunderstand data creating completely unintended information from them.

Yet, humans are so good at turning information to data and data back to information, that we are not even conscious of the process. And this lead to tons of unfortunate and lethal misunderstanding in Informatics.

So what is Informatics?

Informatics, from French informatique, “information automatique”: The field of human knowledge that study how information can be transferred, stored, represented, interpreted and transformed and the set of techniques that apply such knowledge.

Informatics is all about Information.

It’s about humans not machines.
Computers are mere mirrors for our own minds.

As it often happens, this European perspective is diametrically opposed to the American one attributed to Knuth.

Yet in a well known essay, Knuth defines Computer Science as “the study of Algorithms” while they are so unrelated to computers that he can also use a game of “musical chairs” to describe the inner working of hash tables in that same paper.

The problem of naming is not “just” a philosophical one: after thousands years of history, we know that the words we use forge our understanding of reality. By focusing on computers and what we can do through them, we blind ourselves on the wider application of Informatics.

Algorithms are Information in the mind of people knowing them.

If Informatics was all about Algorithms, programmers’ lives would be much more easy… and boring. Unfortunately, programs are not Informations, but Data. Programs do not exist in the human mind but on a physical support that can be played by a computer, much like a gramophone can play a vinyl.

Bugs belong to the real world

As data, programs can be wrong even when they try to represent a correct algorithm just because humans are inherently fallible.

Each program is just one of the many possible representations of an algorithm and, together with the algorithm itself, it also conveys a whole lot of other informations.

Moreover, if the programmer does not know the full algorithm he is trying to implement beforehand, bugs become just another example of the more general principle known as “Garbage In, Garbage Out”.

Bugs are so inherently tied to the real world of Informatics that programmers developed a wide set of tools and techniques to hunt and kill them… without much success.

But what is a total failure from an engineering perspective could actually become a rock to build Democracy upon.

Way more than computers

Since Mathematics belongs to the human mind and is communicable (or is not Math yet) any concept that belongs to it is an Information. As such it belongs to Informatics too.

The converse is not true: bugs are first class citizens of Informatics, but won’t annoy much Mathematicians.

As a consequence, Mathematics is a subset of Informatics.

One might argue that the opposite is true or that they are more like siblings much like Physics and Math. But to a closer look we can see how to push such relationship we need to restrict Informatics, artificially excluding Cryptography, Statistics, UX design and so on.

And while this statement might look heretic at first, it shouldn’t surprise us much as we can see that Informatics is changing every single field of human endeavour, from Medicine to Agriculture, from Reproduction to Finance, from Engineering to Cooking, from Democracy to War.

And while no program needs Medicine, most Doctors use programs.
And while no program needs to kill, most Wars need software.
And so on.

This weird phenomenon has a simple explanation: Informatics changes everything humans do because it changes how humans collectively think. Indeed, if Information belongs to a human mind, when shared among the members of community, it builds the Culture of such community. And such Culture goes back into new members’ minds as Information in a never ending feedback loop.

Informatics is today what Mathematics was at the time of Pythagoras.
It’s Philosophy on disguise. Applied Philosophy, if you will.

A Political field

Many practitioners would refuse this qualification of Informatics as a modern form of Philosophy. It’s not just because of ignorance about Philosophy itself (that is where Logic, was born). It’s because of a bad feeling about it. After all, if you look at the history, from Confucius to Plato, from Kant to Nietzsche, philosophers have always had this weird habit of messing with Politics one way or another.

This is annoying. Software Engineers pretends to be Engineers so that they can focus their minds on technical stuffs alone. They feel responsible to create the best possible artifact that can serve a purpose, but don’t want to be held accountable for the choice of the purpose itself.

Being a philosopher is a call to make clear statements, to take position. Being an engineer instead just mean to build stuff, so that you can pretend you don’t align with the values of your customers while you serve their endeavours.

Engineers can pretend to be “neutral”, Philosophers cannot.

Technology is a prosecution of Politics by other means

If you look at History, you can see how technology is the most powerful political force at work all over the world.

From fire to wheels, to sails, to archs, to mills: every new technology created new ways of living that in turn enabled the rise of more complex human organizations.

One might wonder: how something that works with Information can impact so deeply the physical world we live in? Informations are just insight we can communicate, after all!

While many argue that “software is eating the world”, few ask how this happens.

It turns out that the explaination is a marvel of electronics: the general purpose programmable computer. General purpose computers are not designed to solve a particular problem but to execute certain sequences of instructions fed by a programmer in a binary format.

This way, while computers play the software, what is ultimately a pure act of imagination expressed in a certain language is summoned as a sort of daemon that acts on the physical world.

As before, each progress in technology provides a strategic advantage to those who get it. We don’t need to go back at the stone age to see evidence of this. Not even knowing about Enigma is required. A Cyber World War is ongoing right now. A war for the total domination of humans through technology.

Programming trains Rationality

In itself, a general purpose computer is useless. But programs can specialize it to make it useful for a wide variety of specific problems.

Such specialization contraints what the computer can do. It reduces its potential. This might look counter-intuitive to somebody who cannot program (and unfortunately to some programmers too), but in fact, all we do with programming languages, is to reduce what computer can do by deciding what they will do.

But is it just about computers?

If all we had was Assembly it would be so. Programming would be a very time consuming task not much different from circuit design.

However we have built high level programming languages to speed up software development and, by doing so, we highly reduced the coupling between the hardware and the software.

High level programming languages reduce the cognitive load on programmers. We don’t need to know the quirks of a specific processor or device. Most of times at least. But once freed from the limits of machines, programmers faced a new enemy: the limits of their own minds.

There are many ways to express a program. Most of them are wrong.

So the practice of programming evolved towards more complex tools that, by constraining how programmers can express the insights they have in mind, help them to write code that their mind can manage.

However, since the underlying hardware follows strictly logical and mathematical rules, any programming language has to enforce those rules too, sooner or later.

This means that to program you need to learn rational thinking.
And to explain it.

In other words, programming force people to learn how to describe complex dynamic and ever evolving systems to somebody as dumb as a computer is. Some techniques are so similar to Philosophy that practitioners talk way more than they code.

The programming language you use also influence your way of thinking in a way that is way deeper than what you eperience when learning a human language. The patterns you learn while programming becomes useful in every aspect of your own life. Exactly like with Math, but on steroids.

And yet, the real key to understand the political potential of Informatics is debugging. While debugging you look for an error in the collective cultural elaboration of thousands of people from all over the world.

Debugging trains Critical Thinking

There is nothing on Earth that can train Critical Thinking as a decade or two of Software Debugging.

You see a computer executing billions of lines of code and you have to guess where somebody did the error that is currently causing a misbehaviour. It’s such an expensive and complex task, that people and corporations try to avoid it as much as possible, usually working around the bug. But if you have to fix it, it’s a very educative experience.

First because, most of times, it’s your own fault.

But sometimes it’s really the compiler. Sometimes it’s really the operating system. Sometimes it’s really the browser’s garbage collector. Sometimes you see the butterfly effect happening before you: you have to find (and kill) the right butterfly hundreds of miles away, just to stop the tornado you are in.

Compared to this, debunking a Fake News is a kids game.

Compared to this, debunking lobbists’ claims is a kids game!

That’s because you are trained to get an insight about what thousands of other people have thought before you, to grasp their assumptions, to spot not only what they knew or what they misunderstood but also what they didn’t knew at all.

The Unknown is a first class citizen of Informatics.

Good programmers know that they know nothing. By experience.
And hackers know that nobody knows anything. That’s why we are so curious!

A Universal Human Right

In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, three unsuspectable articles talk about Informatics:

Article 12.
No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy,
family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation.
Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference
or attacks.

Article 19.
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right
includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive
and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Article 27.
(1) Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of
    the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement
    and its benefits.
(2) Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material
    interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic
    production of which he is the author.

Even without looking at the large multinational corporations that constitute the core of Surveillance Capitalism, we can see that these articles are systematically violated from most computer device that we “own”.

People who cannot configure their own mail server, cannot have 12 granted. People who cannot program themselves, cannot “impart information and ideas through any media” and thus cannot have 19 granted. People who cannot debug a cryptographic library, cannot have 19 granted Since programs are culture (and theorems, by Curry–Howard correspondence), people who cannot program cannot have 27.1 granted.

So knowing Informatics is a Human right.

A Fundamental right

Would you like a to live in a world where you need a scribe to read and write your mails?

Yeah, let’s assume that they are all well trained professionals.
Let’s assume that they have a Code of Conduct, an Oath and all.

Let’s assume it’s a Free Service. Just like Gmail, Facebook or WeChat. All the readers and all the writers have well payed jobs.

What can go wrong?

Freedom like in… Free Software

We live in a dystopia that we are trained to ignore.

We would never accept that a stranger should read or write all of our mails for us. Not even for free.

Yet we let software written by strangers without much oversight to control our own devices. To act for us. They could read what we write. They could listen what we say. They could see what we do. They decide what we should know and what not.

In early eighty of the last century. somehow Richard Stallman foresaw this was coming and started the Free Software political movement to fight it. He conceived the Four Freedoms of Free Software: to use, study, share and improve the software you get.

Later, the Open Source Initiative rebranded these freedoms, turning Free Software values to marketing tools.

Emptied of their strong ethical values, the four freedoms became a tool to gain market share and maximize shareholders’ value.

Google was probably the first to realize that you can easily distribute software that formally grant the four freedoms while preserving the full control of its development. The trick is to raise the technical complexity so much that nobody can really hope to challenge your take on the project.

So you dress yourself of hackers’ values while at the same time marginalizing them. Though those fake values you gain users that trust you. Users that use your software free of charge, but in exchange for their own freedom and safety.

And now even Microsoft distributes GNU/Linux.

Did Stallman win?

Beyond the Freedom of the few

Can we call “Freedom” a right that few can practice? Shouldn’t we call it “Privilege” instead?

Since most people can’t program and debug, they cannot really read and modify Free Software. They can’t practice two of the four Freedoms. They must trust somebody else. And they have no way to know if the people they trust are actually trustworthy.

The availability of sources make it theoretically safer than proprietary software, but complexity can counter this to a great grade. A malicious piece of code can stay hidden for months despite the Open Source rhetorics about the number of eyeballs.

But users must trust the system. They have no choice. No freedom.

So we need to go beyond Free Software. We need to turn its freedoms to universal rights.

Information Technology must progress

To turn Informatics from a tool of Power to a tool of Freedom, we need to drastically improve it.

Just like scribes did with hieroglyphs in Ancient Egypt, programmers gain their Power by using primitive tools that take years to be mastered.

And just like scribes they are so unaware of their own Power that they keep serving the Pharaoh that oppresses most of them.

By understanding that Informatics is about Informations and Informations are inside their own head, programmers will realize that they are a unicum in the history of Economy.

Programmers are the first workers that control the means of production.
They are solidly attached on their neck and it cannot be removed without destroying the Capital.

If you are a programmer, think about it.
It’s not your IDE that writes program. It’s not your desk. It’s not your manager. They are just tools that “facilitate” what you do. They are useful, but secondary.
And yet, who decides what you do?

Now consider what you could do for this world instead of maximizing shareholders’ value.

Avoid Moralism

Since years there is a lot of fuss about Moralism Ethics in Information Technology.

In the field of Artificial Intelligence, after several deaths caused by self driving cars unable to solve a trolley problem that shouldn’t be there in the first place, researchers are trying to teach ethics to machines.

It’s a very smart move, if you think about it.
On a practical perspective, it’s just like teaching sex to condoms. You should start from people, instead.
But from a political point of view, it’s a subtle attempt to reduce the corporate accountability for the damage produced by their “autonomous” products.

This is not Ethics, but Moralism: a perversion of Morality to serve one’s interests.

We should reject this hypocrisy as the smokescreen it actually is.

Be Human

Programmers often looks at users from the limited perspective of the application they build.

A programmer decide with a great degree of precision what the users can do and what they can not. In this way, programmers decide what users need to understand and what not. What they will probably think and what not.

This goes beyond the issues of Surveillance and is the 101 of Human-Machine Interaction, the basics of User Interface and User Experience design and it is… unavoidable.

But instead of thinking to the user from the limited perspective of your application’s scope, you should consider them as humans, as people.

If you think about the software as a letter to another person instead of as a tool to gain money, you start to consider several trade offs in a different way.

What if the persons on the other end are tired?
What if they need to address unexpected issues with your program?
Do they really understand what they are doing with your software?
Do they really understand the security risk it poses?
Do they feel scared by the software?
Can they really customize it to their need?

Calling people “users” is a way to use them without remorse.
Don’t do that.

Be Political

Since Technology is a prosecution of Politics by means that are under our own control, we should really consider what sort of responsibility come with them.

As liberated programmers we should state for each program we code the Political goals we want to achieve.

From now on, all of my Free Software projects will contain a new file alongside with LICENSE.txt and README.txt: POLITICS.txt

POLITICS.txt should be a short but unambiguous statement about the political effects that the authors want to achieve with a software.

Such description should not include a list of nice ethical principles that the authors want to try to follow in their own heart. Just to avoid the risk of hypocrisy.

It should be a list of specific social effects that the authors want to produce in the society with that specific software. And it should also list the social effects that they want to avoid or minimize.

They might be high level ones or very narrow, but people should be able to say if the software is a political success or a failure by just reading these goals and comparing them with the actual effects the software produced.

A Political success might be a technological failure and vice versa.
And the POLITICS.txt might evolve with the project.
And projects will be forked for disagreements over it.

And it’s all fine.

But having a POLITICS.txt means that you accept to be held accountable for the daemons you summon.

Be Educational

The hackers’ ethics that underlie Free Software is built on top of Curiosity. It’s all about the desire to learn new things, the desire to explore new solution, and to challenge generally accepted assumptions.

But our time is limited. So are our minds.

Thus a very effective strategy to gain new knowledge is to maximize the number of people who search for it.

Writing good code is not as effective as writing simple code.

Reading source code should not require a degree or years of experience in the field.

We need to reorient research in programming language toward simplicity. The lessons of Professor Niklaus Wirth are still waiting for a new life.

We need simple tools that compose well, instead of complex tools that can do everything.

It will not be easy, as Informatics is still very primitive. Just like Ancient Egyptian lacked the zero for hundreds years, we lack many fundamental concepts. But we need to discover them. We need to create an alphabet of Informatics.

And with this alphabet we need to free the next generation of slaves.

Humanity needs to evolve

It’s not just about developers.

No doctor can cure a sick that refuses the treatment.

If we want to preserve Democracy we need to evolve. It’s not Democracy that should be automated, but people that should be educated.

People need to realize that they are puppets in the hands of power groups that decide what they should know and think.

Some will refuse to gain awareness, as the oppressed often internalize the oppression in their own identity. But if we give them a chance, they might leave their children learn their path towards freedom.
Other will see the reality for what it is, and will fight back… by studying.

Whatever we do, Informatics is going to be a revolution anyway.

Morpheus: The Matrix is everywhere, it is all around us, even now in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window, or you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work, when you go to church, when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.

Neo: What truth?

Morpheus: That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else, you were born into bondage… born into a prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch. A prison for your mind.

Informatics is the Red pill.