Grady Booch, who I admire immensely, has a long-term project entitled Computing: The Human Experience where, in his words, he is “engaging audiences of all ages in the story of the technology that has changed our civilization. The story of computing is the story of humanity.”
I think that this is a fantastic endeavour and, as a European, it is good to see that Grady, unlike so many American commentators, understands the contributions that have been made in Europe to the development of the discipline. Recently, he has created a list of several hundred candidates who “we consider the most important computing people”. He invites the readers of his site to vote on these using a somewhat curious pairwise voting system.
I say ‘somewhat curious’ because it makes a (presumably) random selection of 2 candidates and asks the voter to select who is the ‘most important’. Therefore, you might be asked to decide whether Alan Turing is more or less important than Bill Gates. This vote appears to be given exactly the same weight as a situation where a voter has to chose between Alston Householder and Jean Hoerni (If you have never heard of these guys, join the club). The pairwise voting system is such that you get bored quite quickly and give up after a few attempts so that after 2 votes your view (as represented here) may be than Alston Householder is more important than Bill Gates. What!
The list of candidates is also odd – and I wonder if it has been created automatically by data mining sources such as wikipedia. It does include obvious major intellectual contributors to the discipline such as Alan Turing, John Backus, Maurice Wilkes, Tim Berners-Lee, Vint Cerf and Dennis Ritchie as well as commercial contributors such as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckenberg and Sergey Brin. It also includes a very much longer list of people who may have made some contribution (computer graphics seems heavily represented) but I immediately thought of people, such as Brian Randell and Cliff Jones, whose contributions are at least comparable but who are not included. I’m sure there are many more than I’m aware of. There is also a number of bizarre candidates who has far as I can see have contributed nothing to computing such as Julian Assange, Alan Sugar and Jimmy Wales.
The problem, of course, is that there is no objective means to judge importance. All sorts of factors come into play that depend on the world view of the judge. Is a commercial contribution more important than an intellectual contribution? Is research more important than practice? Is engineering more important than mathematics? How much background knowledge does a judge have? Are historical contributions (which have been assessed) more important than new developments (which have not)?
I think it is perfectly reasonable for Grady to pick his own list of who he considers important although I think that he should classify this to recognise (at least) the differences between intellectual and commercial contributions. He should also shorten it significantly – lists of any kind that are too long become meaningless. I appreciate that he is trying to emphasise that there is a wide diversity of contributors to the field not just the well-known names but I don’t think that this is the right way to do it.
But asking people to vote on ‘importance’ is a daft idea – it’s like asking people to vote on whether Coca Cola or Facebook is most important. Unless we have a set of parameters to form a judgement, then all we’ll get is a reflection of the knowledge (or lack of it) and prejudice of the voters.