What is the Difference Between Computer and Information Science?

Leo Zimmermann

Computer and information science focus on similar areas. Computer scientists study information, and information scientists study computers. The difference between the disciplines lies in their approaches to these areas. Computer scientists are primarily interested in designing and studying algorithms to process information in particular ways. Information scientists study these same algorithms, but they also study the flow of information more broadly, sometimes in ways that cannot be reduced to technical design. Computer science, then, is about making things work; information science is about figuring out what happens once they do.

Scientist with beakers
Scientist with beakers

The difference between computer and information science is comparable to the difference between linguistics and linguistic anthropology. Both disciplines study the way that language is used around the world. Both deal with particularities and abstractions. The linguists, however, try to distill a set of rules for language — just as computer scientists aim to design algorithms and rules to improve processes; the anthropologists, on the other hand, attempt to keep their study of language grounded in the everyday lives of its speakers — just as information scientists aim to relate computer science real-world situations. Information scientists may be more interested in the context of a design rather than in the technicalities of the rules used by computer scientists to compose it.

Computer and information science can be compared anthropologically as well. Computer science focuses on code, rules, and procedures. It has close affinities to mathematics and to science, especially when the science involves large data sets or models. Computer science is thoroughly entangled with, though not identical to, computer programming. Information scientists, by contrast, are more likely to study how the products of computer science, such as algorithms and programs, interact with larger systems. Information science thus connects to disciplines such as law, economics, ethics, and cybernetics. Contemporary information science focuses heavily on the Internet because it generates many different situations in which humans, societies, machines, and data all interact.

An examination of published work can offer a clear indication of the divide between computer and information science. The Journal of Computer Science is filled with ways to do things with information. Almost every article contains an attempt to design or optimize an algorithm for processing information in a certain way. These algorithms can manipulate any kind of data, from engineering models to genetic code, but the focus is typically on technique.

The Journal of Information Science contains a much wider range of approaches. Some articles focus on optimizing technical methods for processing information, and these could be classified as computer science. Others, however, examine the flow of information between humans and computers, or through a corporation. Still others critique the way capitalism produces asymmetrical proprietary control over data. Articles of this type might discuss computer-driven algorithms and databases without necessarily suggesting improvements or making these entities the focus of their argument.

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