A new canon. Understanding IT.

Just after I left  university there was quite a lot of controversy about  Harold Bloom’s Western Canon. Bloom stripped the veneer of literature as politics or sociology away, and suggested that we enjoy literature for its aesthetic value. He was criticized by some as perpetuating the dominance of the DWM. (Dead white male), but  I do like the idea of a set of great books, things that we should read. Sometimes it is great to read light and fluffy stuff,  but I also like to return to the classics.  

IT as a discipline is relatively new. It has to borrow from adjoining disciplines like computer science, economics, and law. It is still finding its place in curricula at business schools, business literature  and in undergraduate teaching.  Sometimes it is hard to define what information systems study really is.  Studying the Internet and its impact is even newer, and therefore even harder to define. 

Politics, Law, Economics and Maths all have their Canons.  Keynes, Friedman, Smith, Ricardo, Marx,Schumpeter, Rousseau, Hobbes, Locke, Fuller, Hilbert, Euclid, Plato, Riemann,  Gaus, Boole … If you study any of these subjects, you get to read some classic works, and study how they have succeeded or failed. Many of these theories wax and wane, but they remain lodestones. No one theory is ever perfect, but they help us shape our thinking.

I’m really pleased to see the Web Science Research Institute  announced by the University of Southampton, one of the UK’s top universities, and MIT. 

The Web Science Research Initiative (WSRI) will generate a research agenda for understanding the scientific, technical and social challenges underlying the growth of the Web. Of particular interest is the volume of information on the Web that documents more and more aspects of human activity and knowledge. WSRI research projects will weigh such questions as, how do we access information and assess its reliability? By what means may we assure its use complies with social and legal rules? How will we preserve the Web over time?

The academics involved are heavyweight indeed.

Tim Berners-Lee, director of the World Wide Web Consortium, senior research scientist at MIT and professor at the University of Southampton; Wendy Hall, professor of computer science and head of the School of Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton; Nigel Shadbolt, professor of artificial intelligence at the University of Southampton and director of the Advanced Knowledge Technologies Interdisciplinary Research Collaboration; and Daniel J. Weitzner, Technology and Society Domain leader of the World Wide Web Consortium and principal research scientist at MIT.

I look forward to seeing this research move into teaching programmes, not just in computer science, but in the social sciences and business too.

I can’t help thinking that information systems and the study of the web badly need a core body of theory, too often we lurch from trend to trend.  I’ve quoted This one from Prof Thomas at Oxford elsewhere in my ramblings, but it is relevant here too.

 We are as an industry very much in the early stages. The industry is only 50 years old. If you compare that with civil engineering, which is several thousand years old, we are tackling some of the most complex engineering designs and building some of the most complex engineering systems that the world has ever seen, essentially using craft technology. If you looked at the methods that are employed in most companies you would come to the conclusion that actually IT system development is a fashion business, not an engineering business, because they jump from one methodology to another year after year so long as it has a whizzy name, “Agile this” or “Intensive that”. The underlying engineering disciplines that every mature engineering discipline has learnt it needs to use in order to be able to show that the system it is building has the required properties have not yet been employed in software and systems engineering, and that is at the heart of why these things do not work.

Perhaps the students of today have access to sound body of research  but as a someone working in Information Systems in the industry,  I’d appreciate the opportunity to read the 30 great books or articles that have shaped the space.

What would be the ideal reading list, not only in order to get  through an MBA or other course, but one that would give pleasure and insight?  Something to dip into when the latest wave of buzzwords  threatens to drown out the basic truths.

 I would like to see an IT canon.  What are the works in Information Systems that anyone deeply interested in the topic should read?  For something to be relevant for the Canon it must have stood the test of time, and it should have some canonical strangeness.  That is tough in IT, as we seem to invent new trends and concepts weekly.  There is a  marketing msima that is hard to penetrate.

Where are the texts that will not date, that will serve as the key building blocks for future endeavors, and that continue to challenge our thinking? Can we project forward? What are the books or articles written today that we will continue to find relevant 5 -10- or 15 years’ hence. Guessing them might be fun too.

Where would you start?  What are the 10 key works that shape our understanding of IT and the web? Perhaps it would be worthwhile setting up some sort of list where folks can add and maybe vote. It might be fun to come back and reassess it over time. Any suggestions on how to set up such a list? There is probably some cool  site somewhere that we could run this on. 

The categories

The Canon. Historical stuff, I’ll suggest here  pre 1990.


 this year.

Any takers? 


5 thoughts on “A new canon. Understanding IT.

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