Interview With the Authors: Part 1

When and how did you become interested in social computing? How did the book come about?


I was a voracious reader when I was young, absolutely voracious.  If I started on a book, I felt I was insulting the author if I didn’t finish it, even whether I liked it or not. And if I liked it, then I read everything by the author. For example, when I discovered I liked The Three Musketeers, I then read Vicomte de Bragelonne: Ten Years Later in five volumes, and then I read it in French.  When I was young, I could read 100 pages an hour, and I read everything.

I remember that I decided to be a scientist quite young, and that was due to reading The Microbe Hunters by Paul de Kruif.   I took mathematics, physics and chemistry. During the Second World War I went to England and worked on a very highly classified shell proximity fuse: we did a lot of calculations. After the war when ENIAC was announced, I naturally fell into computers.  After all, I had electronics, and I had ballistics.

Although I was interested in science, I continued to be interested in philosophy and English.  After I graduated in Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry, I decided it was time to “get educated”.  The university curriculum for English used to list all the books that you would read in particular courses, so I read them all.  I decided that computing was the future, because computers provided a way to organize knowledge.

When  you organize knowledge, you start to build up databases, so I built up databases. Then people started to get worried about databases and privacy, and there was a committee formed in Canada for the Departments of Justice and Communications to make recommendations as to what we ought to do about corporate databases.  Alan Gottlieb was in charge of the committee; Richard Gwynne was also on it. We issued a report on how to protect privacy in databases.

Then the UN got interested in the topic of computers, and particularly how computers could help developing countries. U Thant, who was UN Secretary General at the time, put together a committee of six people from six countries to produce a report on that.  I was one of the six: I represented Canada.  I went around Europe visiting the World Health Organization, UNESCO and the World Bank, to discuss computing with them.

Having done all this,  it was natural to ask what social issues there might be in computing.  Then I invited Al to join me in writing a book, which became Social Issues in Computing.


I can’t remember exactly, but I think I got interested in the general topic of social issues in computing while I was a graduate student at Cornell in the late 60s. The late 60s was a period of anti-war protests and racial integration issues.  In some sense, everybody at universities was very politically interested in things. It would have naturally come up that because we were doing computing, and computing involves keeping track of people and maintaining records on people, that we would get interested in the issue.

In 1969 I came to the University of Toronto, and very soon after I arrived, Kelly and I together decided that we should teach a course on Computers and Society. I had become sensitized to the issue, and it seemed like a natural thing to do something on, even though it has never been my main research interest. Notes grew out of the course, and the book grew out of the notes.

Why did you choose to publish your ideas in a book?


We were reaching students.  I felt I had to raise a debate. So in order to bring these ideas to people, and talk about it, and to bring about a debate about them and see what other people had to say about them, we wrote the book.  We were simply looking for a wider audience.


That’s what happens in many cases for academics.  We write books because we’ve been teaching a course and we realize that there is an audience for the topic, there’s an interest. This was before the internet, of course.  So if you wanted to reach an audience, you wrote a book. We naively thought, given that we had all our notes for our course, that it was going to be easy.  Easy or not, a book was the natural way of going forward. We certainly felt that we had enough material for a book.

Was it a difficult book to write?


Every book is difficult to write.


I had already written a book with J.N.P Hume, High-Speed Data Processing. I didn’t know this at the time, but it was studied by the Oxford English Dictionary. They decided there were 11 words, like loop, which were used by the book in a different sense than the ordinary.  When I told this to a colleague and friend of mine, he said, “The first use of words in a new sense in the OED never changes, so you’re now immortal.”

My wife was a poet and science fiction writer. She was a beautiful writer, and she taught Hume and me how to write.  She taught us to write a sentence, and then take out half the words.  Only then will it be a good sentence.

Were you pleased with the response to the book?  Did it have the impact that you were hoping for?


I know for a fact that it was the first textbook in Computers and Society.  Not many people know that.  I’m willing to bet that out of several hundred members of the ACM special interest group on Computers and Society,  there might be three who realize that Al and I wrote the first textbook on this, or could quote it.  I’m not going to say we initiated the topic, but we certainly wrote the first textbook on it.  But the number of people who are aware of that is not large.

On the other hand, of the problems that are there, some of them are still there and there are new ones.  And they continue.  By and large the effects of computers on society have continued to multiply, so there are now even more important issues, and different issues. I continue to follow things quite carefully.

C.C. (Kelly) Gotlieb is the founder of the Department of Computer Science (DCS) at the University of Toronto (UofT), and has been called the “Father of Computing in Canada”. Gotlieb has been a consultant to the United Nations on Computer Technology and Development, and to the Privacy and Computers Task Force of the Canadian Federal Department of Communications and Justice.  During the Second World War, he helped design highly-classified proximity fuse shells for the British Navy.  He was a founding member of the Canadian Information Processing Society, and served as Canada’s representative at the founding meeting of the International Federation of Information Processing Societies.  He is a former Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of the Association of Computing Machinery, and a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of Encyclopaedia Britannica and of the Annals of the History of Computing.  Gotlieb has served for the last twenty years as the co-chair of the awards committee for the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM), and in 2012 received the Outstanding Contribution to ACM Award.  He is a member of the Order of Canada, and awardee of the Isaac L. Auerbach Medal of the International Federation of Information Processing Societies.  Gotlieb is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, the Association of Computing Machinery, the British Computer Society, and the Canadian Information Processing Society, and holds honorary doctorates from the University of Toronto, the University of Waterloo, the Technical University of Nova Scotia and the University of Victoria.

Allan Borodin is a University Professor in the Computer Science Department at the University of Toronto, and a past Chair of the Department.  Borodin served as Chair of the IEEE Computer Society Technical Committee for the Mathematics of Computation for many years, and is a former managing editor of the SIAM Journal of Computing. He has made significant research contributions in many areas, including algebraic computation, resource tradeoffs, routing in interconnection networks, parallel algorithms, online algorithms, information retrieval, social and economic networks, and adversarial queuing theory.  Borodin’s awards include the CRM-Fields PIMS Prize; he is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.


One comment