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No Talking in the Corridors of Science

John Locke

According to the late media guru Marshall McLuhan, the nature and significance of a tool is usually not truly understood, even by the inventor, until it has been used for some period of time. Then, and only then, can it be known what the tool has become, therefore what it is. This basic principle has applied at least from the invention of the printing press and electricity to the telephone and airplane.

This principle of retroactive discovery also applies to the panoply of electronic tools of communication that are now engulfing the recognized institutions of society, from the military and academia, where they got their start, to small business and large industry as well as private individuals. E-mail and the Internet form the core of this tool chest, but there is no shortage of related paraphernalia, including systems that convert speech to print and vice versa.

As a result of this propagation, scientists—the universally acknowledged masters of experimental manipulation—are now, themselves, participants in one of the grandest experiments of all time. In this experiment, the scientists are coming together to share ideas and develop working relationships as they always have, but the meeting place is totally different. It is, increasingly, not even a place so much as a corridor—the so-called information superhighway—in which informational traffic flows back and forth at incredibly rapid rates. But unlike all the other venues of spontaneous human expressivity that have predominated from the beginning of time, this one is remarkably still.

The ease and speed of our new message-making systems are, of course, nothing to sneeze at. One can now peruse journal articles on-line, storing and printing the most interesting ones for later use. Increasingly, one can submit "manuscripts" electronically; reviews can be obtained and forwarded to the editor and author the same way. There are also science forums in which researchers can meet in a quasi-public area of cyberspace to discuss and debate issues of mutual interest. Individual scientists are able to easily locate each other and strike up, or continue, written communications about matters of common concern. These and a host of other applications of electronic communication are greatly enhancing the processes of science and, it may be assumed, hastening if not improving the products of that activity.

Efficiency of transmission aside, there are reasons to be concerned about aspects of electronic communication, at least if it takes the place of the social processes and procedures that have served science so well over the decades and centuries. These include two critical elements in science, collaborating and convening.

Collaboration in the Corridor

A critical component of scientific discovery is collaboration. Nobel laureates are frequently investigators who worked together over a significant period of time. Joint effort was successful, in part, because team members had regular opportunities to share their brainstorms in an atmosphere of privacy, intimacy and trust—preconditions, one assumes, for effective collaborations in any domain where the problems are complex to the point of near-intractability.

We human beings are wonderfully adapted to collaborative effort. The ability to cooperate and work together has been indispensable to our species for scores of millennia. The legacy to us moderns is a set of specialized neural processing systems that detect facial and vocal variations, reporting to higher brain systems that inform us when individuals' intentions conflict with their superficial linguistic behaviors. Some of my colleagues have given these elaborate devices a starkly functional name—"cheater-detection mechanisms."

If some significant number of our communications occurred outside the range of these cheater-detection mechanisms, we would be skating on very thin ice indeed. Effective collaboration requires trust, which is facilitated by the transmission of personally readable behaviors—eye movements, facial expressions, vocal nuances. These cues are difficult to pick up and convey electronically. Even those with state-of-the-art teleconferencing systems comment that there is "a lot of little stuff" that they cannot receive or interpret without being physically present. But the "little stuff" is not little at all; without it, people lack confidence that they know the whole story, and without that confidence may be reluctant to act.

Future Tense

Although linguistic capacity is deeply embedded in the human genome, communication can be astonishingly brittle when it depends only on words and sentences and the conscious intention to convey thought. We can say what we mean with words, but colleagues cannot know whether we mean what we say without access to our face and voice, and the output of these "nonverbal" systems is irreducible to alphabetic letters.

At one time these behaviors were the name of the game. The social anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski observed that in early 20th-century New Guinea, speech was used "not in order to express any thought [but] to establish bonds of personal union between people brought together by the mere need of companionship." Malinowski suggested that only members of "civilized" communities used speech to express thoughts. In actuality, we moderns speak to accomplish both purposes, but when speakers give more emphasis to message content than to listener reaction, communication tends to break down.

If misunderstandings develop among highly competitive and independent-minded investigators, it is inevitable that there will be tensions, perhaps even overt hostility. In a British study of office e-mail users, 51 percent of the respondents reported receiving personally abusive "flame mail." Thirty-one percent had responded to these flaming messages with one of their own. Nearly an equal percentage had been forced by electronic abuse to quit responding with a colleague or experienced a desire to do so. Eighteen percent of the respondents said that the relationship had irretrievably broken down after a flaming e-mail message.

Excessive reliance on e-mail can also have unpleasant intrapersonal effects. Robert Kraut and his colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University monitored Internet use in an experimental sample of Pittsburgh-area residents while periodically evaluating certain psychological variables. They found that heavy users were more depressed and lonely, by their own report, than those who used the Internet only occasionally. Moreover, the heavy users' old social networks appeared to shrink over the course of the two-year study. Kraut and his colleagues speculated that the psychological changes occurred because the new Internet relationships—which were generally weak since they involved people who could not be asked for favors—replaced stronger relationships that had existed previously.

The electronic systems now in general use leave behind a nearly indelible trace, a trace that can be picked up and redirected, intercepted, even altered and claimed as one's own. When information lingers, it is vulnerable to interception. This prospect is disquieting; the possibility of "leaks" concerned Watson and Crick nearly a half-century ago just as it concerns scientists who are working today. But even if encryption systems become widely available in the future, I have a hunch that many scientists will not loft their most private thoughts into cyberspace unless there is a lead-pipe certainty that they will land on the intended recipient and no one else.

The Cocktail Napkin

One of science's least heralded tools is the cocktail napkin. When scientists convene at meetings, much of the most interesting action occurs between sessions when informal, sometimes heated, but usually illuminating discussions take place. Theories are sketched out, graphs are drawn, on whatever paper happens to be available. Although they may be indecipherable later, at the moment of scribbling these materials seem, and actually may be, brilliant.

Conferences are indispensable to science. They demystify it for the student. They affirm the promise of junior scientists and confer recognition upon their more senior colleagues. If teleconferencing becomes the mode, we should all become concerned that convening—a behavior that is critical to science—will have to be added to the endangered behaviors list. And this may happen if the proliferation of teleconferencing equipment comes to constrict travel budgets, just as e-mail stands to shrink long-distance telephone budgets.

There are several other potential benefits of computerized communication in science. One relates to the launch-pad for future scientists—graduate education. It would appear that the Internet is greatly facilitating the process by which prospective students evaluate and enter universities. Some distance teaching that is conducted electronically may also lure into an investigative career promising individuals who might normally be left out.

Although I have not systematically surveyed colleagues who have sensory or motor handicaps, my impression is that electronic communication can be very helpful to the blind, who are able to use Braille-to-print and print-to-speech conversion systems, as well as the profoundly hearing impaired. One assumes, additionally, that the increasingly sedentary life of the computer-user may be a blessing to those with restrictive mobility problems.

Although the loom-smashings attributed to the fictitious Ned Ludd took place in the vicinity of Sheffield, England, where I work, none of Ludd's antipathy to "modern machines" has rubbed off on me. Indeed, as a scientist, a writer, and an American living in Britain, I have come to feel that I could not live without e-mail and the Internet. But where dialogue and collaboration are concerned, I do feel there must be a healthy balance between orthographic systems and face-to-face vocal communication. Exactly what mix constitutes an optimal balance, of course, remains to be seen. That is, after all, what this exciting new experiment is all about.

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