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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.

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