Content over form bias


Content over form bias is the term I use to describe an attitude that information being conveyed (content) is more important than the manner in which it is expressed (form). I realize that some people might deny that any clear-cut distinction can be drawn between content and form, but I mostly use the term mostly in a descriptive manner, in an attempt to explain behaviour, so all that really matters is that many people do believe in the distinction. And there is no question that many people do, at least in the world of technology, the world with which I am most familiar. Much of the virtue of technologies such as LaTeX and CSS apparently lies in the fact that we can use them to separate content and form.

I am not using the word “bias” pejoratively. Everyone is biased, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. As far as I’m concerned, nobody has a responsibility to be objective in typical circumstances.

As for the behaviour I think I can explain? Here are some examples…

  • Computer science students tend to pay relatively little attention to their own appearance.
  • Computer science students often have negative attitudes toward arts students.
  • Very few computer science students are girls, at least in this part of the world.
  • Programmers who write software for free often neglect user interface and focus only on optimizing functionality.

The explanation I am proposing here is that the culture of the field of computer science is heavily laden with content over form bias. Students who have a content over form bias (such as I) are more likely to select themselves into the field, and this in turn cements that aspect of the field’s culture.

Thus:

  • A person with a strong content over form bias is likely to pay less attention to their own appearance (form), because they believe that it is less important than their skills and personality (content). (This is certainly the case with me.)
  • They are also more likely to value technical skills over artistic skills, because of a view that the skills of artists are more in the optimization of form than content. (I’m not saying I agree with either judgement; here, in particular, the distinction between content and form becomes hazy.)
  • The combination of the content over form bias of the field of computer science with the gender roles imposed upon girls and women, which entail a strong form over content bias, may be discouraging girls from choosing to study computer science. (No, I’m not denying that there are other factors.)
  • User interface is considered an aspect of the form of a computer program, whereas its functionality is considered to be its content.

Computer science has always been strongly associated with mathematics, and viewed as a primarily quantitative subject. This is, in my opinion, probably the origin of the content over form bias in the field, as functionality (content) can often be quantified and rigorously defined and tested whereas form is subjective and not quantitative.

The bias also seems to have some justification in computer science. Typically, if a program provides the functionality you need but has a poor user interface, you can still use it, though you might not enjoy the experience very much, and you might switch to a program with better user interface once one becomes available; on the other hand, if it does not provide the functionality you need then you will not use it no matter how friendly its user interface is. I’m not sure, though, whether it could have been possible for things to gone the other way around in some alternative history of the subject.

If you find the hypothesis compelling that early programmers deliberately and systematically excluded women from the field, I suppose it might also be plausible that the content over form bias was deliberately introduced into the field for this purpose, in accordance with the third point above, but I view this as less likely.

I would be interested in finding some way to collect actual evidence of what I have said above, as right now it is nothing more than speculation. Otherwise I might simply be committing hasty generalization and falling victim to confirmation bias.

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About Brian

Hi! I'm Brian Bi. As of November 2014 I live in Sunnyvale, California, USA and I'm a software engineer at Google. Besides code, I also like math, physics, chemistry, and some other miscellaneous things.
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