Review – Simulation and Its Discontents

Use of computer simulation in science, engineering and for design gained rapid pace in the 1980s, with the advancement of computing technology. While there is no dearth of material on the use of simulations in different fields, the impact of growing computing power on simulations and the limitations of simulations, there is little about the perceptions of simulation by its practitioners and those who shaped this particular method and technology. Sherry Turkle’s Simulation and Its Discontents is a collection of five essays on the very same topic. In her words, Turkle attempts to:


….give voice to how scientists, engineers, and designers have responded to simulation and visualization technologies as these became central to their work over the past twenty-five five years.


In the first essay, Turkle draws on two ethnographic studies she was the principal investigator for: a study of the reactions by the faculty and students to the Project Athena (an MIT project which began in 1983, and aimed at introducing the use of computing in education at MIT), and a National Science Foundation funded project in 2004 studying the use of simulation and visualization in contemporary science, engineering and design. The following four essays are case studies on the perception of simulation by its practitioners in outer space research, deep sea research, architecture, and in life-sciences pedagogy.


There is particular importance in the choice of the term “discontents”. Before reading it, it seemed to me  that the authors meant “limitations” when they said “discontents”; but the book isn’t really addressing the limitations of simulations – be it technical or otherwise. Turkle and her co-authors address how the practitioners of simulation in sciences, engineering,  design, and architecture have viewed simulation methods since their rapid diffusion into these fields since the 1980s, what their reactions to them were, and eventually how well practitioners adopted (or did not) to his new technology. The term “discontents” is probably the most apt.


Turkle presents fascinating debates around the use of simulation: how some practitioners found that it made them more creative while a few others thought it made their work more mechanical and wanted to preserve tradition in their field; how certain practitioners viewed simulation as just another tool to complete the job, and how certain others chose to incorporate it into their work and create a new ethos in design and science.


The views around use of simulation in the scientific community versus the engineering community was, to me, of particular interest. While practitioners in the engineering disciplines adopted simulation methods rather easily, we see that some practitioners in the scientific community were wary of the same. This, according to these scientists, was because engineering disciplines, unlike sciences, were not rigorous enough  and so could make do with some of the problems associated with simulation! We see that the some faculty at MIT were wary of students using simulation as-is without attaching an element of doubt around it. Given the the nature of simulation systems  (not all had the source code available; the philosophy of open source itself wasn’t mature then) and the technical training  of the faculty and students (not everyone knew how to code) then, simulations could essentially be viewed as a black box without students being able to learn the internal workings of the simulation.


However, one particular instance of the discontents stands out. This was the perspective of the chemistry faculty at MIT, to computer simulation:


…their teachers were upset by how a representation had taken on unjustified authority. Faculty began conversations by acknowledging that in any experiment, one only sees nature through an apparatus, but here, there were additional dangers: the users of this apparatus did not understand its inner workings and indeed, visualization software was designed to give the impression that it offered a direct window onto nature.


A powerful statement! This digs into the heart of what simulations are, what they are meant to do, how we as practitioners can use them, and how we ought to be well aware of its limitations and not be carried away by its “mesmerizing characteristics” (she gives instances of practitioners getting carried away as well – very engrossing but well out of scope for this article).


Turkle starts the essay by asking “What does simulation want?”; and provides an apt ending:


Perhaps we could say, with no irony, what simulation really wants – not to replace the real but to reveal.


The four case studies following the main essay focus on the Mars Exploration Rover, a deep-sea diving robot called the ROV,  architecture firms using CATIA (Computer Aided Three-dimensional Interactive Application), and in molecular biology pedagogy; and how practitioners in each of these cases dealt with simulation in their workspace. Here, the essays move away from looking only at computer simulations, to a more general meaning  of simulation: as something of the real world being represented using appropriate methods. We see how the team working the rover on Mars essentially simulated scientific expeditions using the rover, as the rover functioned as their hands, feet, and eyes on Mars. We see how architecture firms have adopted to simulation methods, which has also resulted in new forms of jobs being born. We see how simulation can also mean physical representations through even hand movements to represent molecular structures.


As a practitioner of simulations today, this was a very interesting read. However, there was one aspect constantly niggling me throughout the book; the authors have not defined what they mean by simulation, modelling and visualization and have used the terms interchangeably. That may have been on purpose, but it wasn’t clarified in the book. While these terms might have been used by practitioners interchangeably in the 1980s, it doesn’t seem like the case today, and it certainly requires more research to ascribe definitions to each of those terms. That being said, it is a thoroughly engaging read, especially for the current set of practitioners using simulations in one form or another.