Issue No. 06 - November/December (2007 vol. 9)
DOI Bookmark: http://doi.ieeecomputersociety.org/10.1109/MCSE.2007.124
Norman Chonacky , Yale University
This past spring, I wrote a first word column commenting on a decision by our editorial board to begin experimenting with CiSE activities on the web. I appointed a small ad hoc committee to handle this task, and the group is examining what we might feasibly try. Even before I hear what they have to say, though, I want to share some thoughts about my own recent run-ins with information technology. It's a cautionary tale that starts with a recent visit to my CiSE-Editor@aip.org email account.
As with many prior visits, I had delayed this one because I didn't want to face the spam and well-intended but inappropriate technology announcements that this account accumulates. Expectations of such "clutter" convinced me to set up this mailbox in the first place, to separate it from my professional and personal accounts. When I first started my term as EIC, I got an insignificant number of legitimate email messages, so the costs of not visiting the account were insignificant. My latest visit proves this is no longer the case: in addition to having to write apologies for "justice delayed," I've missed some valuable opportunities to do work in the pastures of the scientific computing community.
So, in part, this is a public apology and an occasion to make an early New Year's resolution to mend my ways. It's also a justification for some deeper thinking about my own credulity about the wonders of the Web for networking. I'm a big believer in using the Web to support collaborative work for both research and professional development. Early on, even with somewhat clunky software and a lack of experience in how to organize work activities to fully exploit the possibilities, it was fairly clear to me that collaboratory technology had a future. I find that small groups of professionals with a good work ethic and high motivation to solve a problem together benefit the most from such collaboratories. My subsequent experiences with educational collaborations taught me another important lesson: this works only if users' mindsets are prepared for it to work. Important parts of a well-prepared mindset are confidence and discipline. Work habits must change to exploit the technology and to suppress the temptation to blame it rather than learning to use it effectively. (Naturally, this assumes that the technology is designed sufficiently well to be capable of being effective.)
My experiences with restricted, professional email lists for which participants are screened and discussion moderated further support this conclusion. These lists use a well-understood medium—email—and transactions are disciplined, so the cost (time) is low and the benefit (usefulness) is high. I'm not sure if or how these qualities and my conclusions will apply to CiSE's putative web-based services.
My mixed experiences with information technology also prompted some musings on the connotations of the word "web." The most obvious reference is to connectedness, and who could think ill of that? but another reference is to entanglement—and there's the rub. My aversion to reviewing my editorial email was related to the perceived cost/benefit of wasting time versus timely response. If we build web services, people might not come if they aren't efficient, even if they're useful.
Of course I welcome you, our readers, to offer suggestions about what might be useful for us to implement online. The committee and I are slated to discuss their findings during Supercomputing 2007. Two members have promised to write a pair of At Issue articles about all of this to appear in CiSE. And keep those cards and letters coming—I promise to check for them more faithfully.