Jasper: Problem-solving skills from computer science can aid social progress

Mila Jasper, Op-Ed Contributor

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American political news has been painful to read lately. The polarization, political doublespeak and inflammatory rhetoric, bigotry and fragmentation are disheartening. This quarter I decided to take a computer science class, which has become a welcome escape from the political climate for 50 minutes three times each week. I didn’t think it would expose a new mindset regarding political progress — one that suggests solving social problems from a wholistic perspective.

Computer scientists have made incredible progress over the past 60 years, and not only because of the consumer demand for better, faster and smaller devices. The methodical processes computer scientists use to think about problems is essential to innovation. Computers run simple, familiar algorithms to accomplish tasks. Because of this, computer scientists are always thinking at multiple levels of abstraction, from groups of small details to the big picture. They try to work at a more universal level in order to solve an issue’s underlying cause, not just its symptoms. They work to see if they can rewrite the rules of the game to eliminate as much error as possible while maintaining easy-to-run, adaptable algorithms.

These processes should be extended past the realm of computer science. We should engage in this type of thinking to reduce major social and political issues to a manageable size, allowing society to operate more effectively.

This is not to say the rate of humanitarian progress can be quantified, or that it should match the speed with which the tech industry moves. However, it is hard to ignore that 60 years ago the computer industry was barely taking its first steps, and now we can buy self-parking cars and communicate through supercomputers in our hands. Yet in the political spectrum, we are regressing: a small subset of Donald Trump’s followers actually wants the 19th Amendment repealed. We have seen a return to mercantilist ideals of economic policy in the belief that imports are bad, and we are losing if foreign businesses are winning.

Our protocol for solving political problems is largely reactionary. This means our algorithms grow to match the complexity of society, which seems logical. However, by editing the algorithm to solve every low-abstraction detail, we create algorithms that are slow and clunky. Instead, we should use this computational thinking to try to minimize error so that problems are shrunk to a manageable size. Instead of trying to come up with a solution to a particular political or social problem, of reacting to police brutality or sexism with band-aid solutions, we could rewrite the framework in which we try to solve problems so that solutions are more universally applicable.

Mila Jasper is a Medill freshman. She can be contacted at milajasper2020@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.