Computers & Society/Setting the scene/Learning how to ask questions

We take many things for granted. It is natural and normal. But sometimes we need to examine some of the things we take for granted. In this book on Computers & Society we will work together to try to make sense of the Internet world in which we live. We do it together precisely because in this Internet world everything is obviously connected. Physically, you the reader may be located on the other side of the planet (and maybe even you are on some orbital space platform above). But if you are connected you will probably have friends also connected and maybe also physically very far away. This awareness of the other, physically distant but present, brings her or him to mind and (s)he becomes again an intimate part of your society.

When you are reading a novel do you not forget yourself for a moment and become part of the story? Does it not seem that the characters you meet appear to take on real personality, a sort of life of their own? And do you not become involved? Do you not lose yourself, begin to care about the other, the one who is speaking, acting, living in the book? Let us imagine that you are a fan of Harry Potter? Do you remember how you felt as the story progressed?

We may transfer this experience of the novel to the other modes of contemporary life, the society in which we move, even if at a distance. Do you not become involved in the movie you watch? In the music your hear? In the theater where the play, the ballet, the performance entrances you? Are not all these doorways or gateways into another world, another society, even if only for a short period of time? Afterwards, maybe much later, do you not remember the experience of going through that doorway? Do you not remember, being there? Is it not a part of you now?

Everything has a beginning. And sometimes we remember that the same everything has an ending. Perhaps we cannot yet imagine what the ending of the Internet world will look like? Will we see the end of the Oil world first? We are going to look at our world, our society through the eyes of the Internet world. We are going to put ourselves at the center of the Digital Society with its own Digital Culture and we are going to ask ourselves how did we get here and where are we going?

In our Internet galaxy we are always finding new ideas, new phrases, new words, turning all the time. That is the nature of our world. If we say that we are in the Digital Society then we can always check to see if the phrase captures the idea world-wide. It is certainly the case that there is the widespread idea of the Digital Divide, highlighted by Manuel Castells in his 9th Chapter "The Digital Divide in a Global Perspective", p. 247-274 of The Internet Galaxy, published in 2001.

But, let us take time to imagine, to be creative, to explore, to invent. Let us play? Let us grab the word "Divide". How can we use it, play with it? What ideas come to mind? Surely you will remember jokes where "dividing up" is the key idea? There are sports, such as football in the UK, where football teams are placed into divisions. And isn't the same idea used in war? If we have "Divide" then we might ask ourselves what is its opposite? Is it "Join" or "Unite" or "Get together"? Doesn't this give us another idea of the "Digital Join"? Could we use it to describe the interconnecting of networks that had never been connected before? How can we check to see if this little language game is interesting? Well, that is where the Internet Society fits in. We are online, connected. Go search!

In the rest of this chapter "Learning how to ask questions" we are going to look at some very famous questions that are always asked. We are going to ask ourselves if the question could be re-phrased. Maybe we will be challenged to ask ourselves when was the first time we heard the question. Or even, we will try to remember where we were or how old we were when we heard the question for the first time? If we go down that route we may find that we were taught the question in elementary school or in Sunday school, or at home. Then we might suppose that the question is framed in the way it is, precisely in order to get the "right answer". The first major question we look at here may seem to be trivial. It is a "Who" question like „Who is your father?“ or „Who is your mother?“ or „Who is the President of the United States?“ Let's take a look at this little question and answer game?

Q. Who made the world?Edit

Did you think of an answer? Write it down somewhere. On a piece of paper maybe. Now let us ask a question about this sort of question? The first word in the question is the "Who" word. So! We say that this sort of question is a Who-question. And we say that the answer expected is a Who-answer. The usual answer is the name of a person. Many people, when asked this question, will automatically respond with the answer "God".

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by

Q. How did the world come into being?Edit

There are exactly 6 sorts of questions that we might want to begin with. Each has a different question word. We have already met the Who-word. The other question words are "What", "Where", "When", "How", and "Why". Instead of asking the Who-question: Who made the world?, we can try the How-question: How did the world come into being? Have you got an answer? Write it down. Many people, when asked the question in this form, will answer immediately "The Big Bang". To learn more about this answer, one can click on the link to view the article in Wikipedia.

Let us take "the world" as the focus for all our questions. And let us ask questions about its beginning, where we use each of the question words in turn:

  • Who? Who made the world?
  • What? What is the world made of?
  • Where? Where exactly is the world?
  • When? When did the world come into existence?
  • How? How did the world come into existence?
  • Why? Why did the world come into existence?

Q. How did the World Wide Web come into being?Edit

Instead of asking questions about the world, let us focus on questions about "Computers & Society"? One of the most important aspects of our world today is the existence of the Internet. So! Questions about the Internet are important. We need to be able to ask the right sorts of question. We might try a Who-question:

The answer to this seems to be very difficult. Why? Because there were many people and organizations involved. It might take a long long time to get the answer. A similar sort of question is:

What might a simple answer to this question look like? We know what an encyclopedic answer looks like. Click on the links to see.

Q. Where do the names of the days of the week come from?Edit

To gain experience in learning how to ask questions, it is usually a good idea to start with those everyday things that one already knows well. Why not start with the days of the week? There are 7 of them. Let us put them in their natural order:

You may ask why is this order called natural? That is a very good question. And the obvious answer is that Sunday is named after the Sun. It is really Sun-day. You probably can guess that Monday is named after the Moon. It is really Moon-day. Let us skip over Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. These seem to have very particular sources, quite different from Sun and Moon. Saturday is Saturn-day. But if you have clicked on the links above you will already know the answers.

  • Let us try something a little bit more challenging? There are 7 days of the week. Not 6! Not 8! So, it is worth asking why there are 7 days? Try this now for yourself. Do not search the Internet. Do you not look up the answer in a book. Do not ask a friend. See if you can imagine can it came into being from the very beginning. Write you best guess down. Then go and check to see if you are right?

Challenge—Months of the YearEdit

From "Days of the week" to "Months of the year" is an obvious next step. Here are the months of the year, listed in the usual order. Again, like the days of the week we work backwards. We start with the largest common suffix and split it off to see what we get.

Name of Month Splitting Commentary on the splitting
January Jan-uary ?
February Febr-uary ?
March ?
April ?
May ?
June ?
July ?
August ?
September Septem-ber septem => 7
October Octo-ber octo => 8
November Novem-ber novem => 9
December Decem-ber decem => 10

In this simple game we use pattern matching. What is the same and what is different? In matching, we either begin at the front and try to find the largest pattern in common. Such a pattern is called a prefix. Alternatively, we can start at the end and proceed in the same way. The largest common pattern found in this way is called a suffix. For convenience the suffix is marked in the table shown. Such matching lies at the very center of Computing.

What other sort of question and answer game would you like to play? In other words what interesting questions can you ask? To play this game, you might choose a friend, someone with whom you are connected. This is a lesson in self-discovery. When you have finished playing you may want to take a look at some possible questions and answers in the back of this book?

Challenge—Seasons of the YearEdit

In this language game we will take two lists for the seasons:

  • Spring
  • Summer
  • Fall
  • Winter


  • Spring
  • Summer
  • Autumn
  • Winter

Perhaps you can make up three types of questions about the seasons. The first type will be "easy". The second type will be "difficult". And the third type will be "surprising"? Have a go!

Challenge—Question WordsEdit

Did you ever stop to think that of the 6 usual question words in English, who, what, where, when, how, why, there is an "odd man out" question word. Which one is it?

And now that we have used „Which“ to ask a question why don't we include in our list to make 7? And if we do, where in the list will we put it?

Maybe there is yet another question word we have missed?

Q. What has Copernicus and Galileo contributed to Computers and Society?Edit

In our world of computers, the technology is constantly changing and surprising us. And with the changing technology there is an ever-expanding, surprising, flourishing of applications. The combination of Copernicus and Galileo with Computers and Society is an obvious anachronism. The juxtaposition is deliberate. Therefore we may infer that there is an important message to be decoded.

Briefly, Copernicus had an idea (which was not original really) that the Earth moved. Specifically, the Earth moved around the Sun. The idea is crazy, of course, or so it would appear. Anyone today can tell you that the Sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Our language (and not only English) embodies and (en)codifies this reality. We speak of sunrise and sunset.

Copernicus idea was just a theory. How could it be verified in practice? Practice means application and application requires machinery or technology. Galileo provided the technology. What exactly did he do, this Galileo person? What sort of technology did he use? And to what purpose? And why was he absolutely right?

The Structure of Scientific RevolutionsEdit

Once upon a time, there was a man, whose name was Thomas S. Kuhn. Perhaps he is most renowned for the book entitled „The Structure of Scientific Revolutions“?

Of course, the title owes much to the Copernican Revolution (about which he wrote in 1957).

"Consider the compound sentence, “In the Ptolemaic system planets revolve about the earth; in the Copernican they revolve about the sun.” Strictly construed, that sentence is incoherent. The first occurrence of ‘planet’ is Ptolemaic, the second Copernican, and the two attach to nature differently."
What are Scientific Revolutions? The Road since Structure. Thomas S. Kuhn, p.15. The University of Chicago Press, 2000.

What is the point? Well, if people can (still) be fooled by what they see and take for granted. And if the language itself encodes the deception then how can we know and understand and speak about the revolution we are undergoing right now?

What revolution you ask? Why... the revolution that goes by the name of... That thing which is happening to us all and which we want to talk about under the title of „Computers & Society“.

So! The real question we need to ask is this? How can we use technology (just like Galileo did) to show that there is indeed a real earth-shattering revolution happening now?


Reading linksEdit

  1. Castells, Manuel (2001). The Internet galaxy : reflections on the Internet, business, and society. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0199255776 (pbk).  There is also the hard back version ISBN 978-0199241538. This is a particularly important text for many reasons. One of the most significant reasons is that it appeared in same year as and before 9/11.
  2. Kuhn, Thomas S. (1957). The Copernican Revolution. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press: Planetary Astronomy in the Development of Western Thought. ISBN 978-0674171039.