Too Much PSST in Texas

"and these rulers were clear sighted enough to see that the simplest way of getting mathematics out of a mathematician is to pay his living expenses."

E.T. Bell

These days, supporting science is more complicated than it was for the rulers E.T. Bell refers to: they could restrict their support to people like Euler and Lagrange. In the name of progress, a much larger proportion of the population is now involved in the scientific endeavour. But is it progress? By necessity, the majority of the people involved now lacks the proper credentials, and the result is a lot of PSST.

Concerning computer-related PSST at UT, it goes without saying that an overwhelming amount can be found in the Departments of Management Science & Information Systems and of Electrical & Computer Engineering respectively, since both lack the proper tradition of research. Moreover, with their close ties to industry, these departments are structurally unable to nurture on a regular basis the type of intellectual radical, the type of "misfit" that is needed to change the status quo. Personally I am always amazed that such departments do not understand themselves that they lose most of their credibility by the respective additions "& Infromation Systems" and "& computer", since these make it so obvious that they jumped on a bandwaggon. But my amazement is naive, for PSST cannot be separated from bandwaggons.

Our own Department of Computer Sciences —note the plural!— is not free from PSST either. It would be a miracle, if it were. For instance, whenever in an area the teaching is kept primitive so as not to frighten away our unsophisticated students, PSST can be observed, and PSST comes in by the carload when an area is promoted because it yields so many thesis topics that are popular with average graduate students and employers. (So-called Experimental Computer Science, specifically created to help the universities to compete for young CS graduates, is particularly vulnerable to infestation with PSST.)

Besides UT, Austin has many industrial organizations involved in computing (IBM, TI, Motorola, Lockheed, you name them). My knowledge about them is fragmentary, very dependent on whom I happened to meet under what circumstances. My overall impression of the industrial organizations is —not surprisingly— that they display the usual kind of incompetence, ignorance, backwardness, and short-sightedness, but less of the dishonesty that fosters PSST at political bodies like MCC (and, in all probability, Sematech). Those that have joined the Software Engineering Movement are, of course, deeply involved in PSST.

Please don't think that the high frequency and the degree of acceptance of PSST are harmless. They have been a major consideration in the decision of colleagues to leave UT —people don't say so in public because they don't want to be unnecessarily offensive— , may cause others to leave, and have almost certainly thwarted more than one recruitment effort: since PSST corrupts, it is particularly repulsive to scientists of integrity.

We have no influence on what happens outside our Department, and only little influence on what happens inside. But we can discourage internally PSST as much as possible, and dissociate ourselves as clearly as possible from the PSST happening elsewhere. For instance, all over the world EE Departments, sensing their academic respectability in jeopardy, have been observed eager to merge with or rather to absorb the local CS Department so as to boost their academic status; the message, loud and clear, that we are not available would create a clarity that never hurts. When, for instance, the Institute for Creative Capitalism organizes a workshop on the Crucial Importance of the Software Industry for the Austin Area and the Essential Role of The University of Texas at Austin as Technological Support for Etc. Etc. Etc., I don't think we should be involved. It was, by the way, most heartening to see how many people, on seeing its announcement, instantaneously wrote off this workshop as one more PSST-promoting event.

Finally, human nature being what it is, we can fight in the Austin area PSST as fiercely as we like without the danger of reducing it to an acceptable level before the end of the century.

Post Scriptum At the beginning of this text you may have noticed that I did not define PSST. I hope that, as you continued reading, you have noticed that the absence of that definition did not matter. You are perfectly free to use the term PSST for the rest of your life: I donate it herewith to mankind. If you insist on seeing it as an acronym, I can divulge the secret: it actually emerged as an abbreviation for Pompous Simulation of Science and Technology. (End of Post Scriptum)

Austin, 23 September 1991

prof.dr. Edsger W. Dijkstra
Department of Computer Sciences
The University of Texas at Austin
Austin, TX 78712-1188

Transcription by Hai Zhou.

Last revised on Sun, 6 Jan 2008.