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No Talking in the Corridors of Science

John Locke

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.

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