Just what is computer science?
This post is about just how big a topic computer science actually is

As a computer science PhD student, a big part of my life is unsurprisingly computer science. I spend most of my days thinking about or doing something that is related to computer science. However, something that is a bit more interesting is the fact that so do most people. This months post I am going to talk a bit about computer science, both as an academic subject and in it’s role in society as it has become one of the most relevant and influential topics in modern society.

So, to give a bit of background, my experience with computer science first started in primary school, when I would have ICT lessons around being taught how to use computers for simple tasks such as making documents or solving logic puzzles. This continued into secondary school where we did more and learned about things like online safety and how to use the internet, but for the most part it never seemed very interesting. I then had a bit of a gap where I did science and maths at college and took a couple of years out of education before I did my bachelors degree in software engineering. I picked this degree due to being unsure what industry I wanted to work in, and thinking being good with computers would be handy with whatever I ended up wanting to do. Doing my degree was when I truly got an insight into the actual scope of just how much computer science involves and how many topics it covers.

Once I arrived at university, there was a wide range of subjects to cover, from coding to digital architecture, but the module I found most interesting was one which talked about computing in society and how systems are used. This module interested me as it wasn’t something I was expecting and was my first introduction to understanding human computing as a topic. It was an interesting opportunity to explore computers in how they interact with society and how they integrated into wider systems beyond an individual program or software.

To help understand this I would define computer science as having two primary domains which can be split between the human side of computer science, and the technical side of computer science. These two very broad categories can be used to describe the focus of many topics as lots of work falls into both. For example, artificial intelligence algorithms and how they are built would fall into the technical side, while the understanding of how we can use artificial intelligence and the impact it can have would fall more into the human side. While different people have different interests in the different aspects of these domains, the most important takeaway is to remember that you can’t have one without the other, without people we don’t have anyone to use the tech, and without the tech we have no interactions to look at and improve.

These two domains cover a huge area of work, as while a lot of people think computer science is all about coding and building, there is an incredible amount of consideration that goes into (or should at least) how we build things and the impact our work has on society. There are also areas of computing that are almost exclusively focused on the human side, such as things like social engineering which is under cyber security and looks at how you can design and present things in such a way that you fool the human aspect of a security system, or user experience design which falls under human computer interaction and examines the human experience of using a system and the scenarios they might perform while using tech.

While I could fill a post just talking about all these different areas of computing, I think I should probably talk about why this is quite important. It hasn’t been 100 years since computer science started to be established as a discipline, and yet in that time it has become integrated into almost every discipline and industry in the world. From the digitisation of historic texts, to the computations and designs of physical engineering, even just using the internet to get a recipe. And while all of that isn’t the technical side that most might associate with computer science, it does still fall under the umbrella. My own work on digital accessibility of technology to support students in education would be seen by some as educational research, but it does still fall under computer science as I examine how we interact with technology and how technology can work better for users with disabilities. This is because computer science has become a hugely interdisciplinary field which works with subjects from the sciences to the arts, and has been integrated into every facet of our lives. This comes from the fact that computers and how they are used have become integrated into every aspect of our lives. It is hard to think of any other technological development that has had quite the same impact as modern computing and its ability to not only give us instant access to information, but connect us globally and help us with both technical and day to day tasks.

Now this is important to talk about, as while computers and their influence can be seen everywhere, there are big disparities in who can use technology. There are issues with making technology accessible, especially in a cost effective way as being able to keep up with modern technology is almost a requirement to be able to engage in society now. For example, one thing I some times do at the start of the academic year is working on the IT help desk to help students get onto the wifi which is eduroam and is used by universities in over 100 countries. However, due to the security requirements on the network, older computers struggle to connect meaning students might have to get new devices just to use the wifi when at university. Another group who might struggle to engage with technology is people who are of an older generation who have not been able to keep up with the rapid development of technology meaning they are unable to learn the skills to engage meaningfully with modern society. Simply keeping connected with family through social media, or managing shopping using online ordering for delivery can all present a knowledge barrier for those who aren’t in education any more and being taught how to use this rapidly advancing aspect of the world.

All of these problems fall under computer science, how do we make technology more affordable and better at lasting, how do we make it easier to use when new technologies are developed at a rapid pace, how do we ensure that using technology is an easy and rewarding experience. All these questions are important and driven by the human side of computer science. These reasons are also why it is important that the education system does more to educate people in the entire spectrum of what computer science is and how understanding our modern digital world is becoming a life skill just as much as being able to cook or manage your time. I think it is also why it is important that digital accessibility become a much bigger focus for us all, because if everything becomes digital, then it needs to be usable by everyone, regardless of background, generation or ability.

The purpose of this post is to just give a sense of just how massive a topic computer science is and can be, and to encourage people to ask more questions about just what kind of problems we can fix with modern computing, but also remembering the barriers that can be caused when it is implemented in a way that doesn’t consider all the factors. Encouraging the diverse application and research that can be found in computer science can lead to fantastic outcomes and opportunities and makes it a fascinating field to keep an eye on in the future. So for people reading this, keep an open mind, and for anyone interested in computer science, I recommend giving it a go, as with the amount of variety than can be found within, I have no doubt something will catch your eye and let you understand just how exciting this field of study can be.