The first talk I attended at this year’s JMM in Seattle was Tim Gowers’s lecture on how the internet and mass communication might change mathematics. Tim started out by listing some of the more dysfunctional features of how we do mathematics today, then suggesting how they might be improved. I very much agree with that part, and I would like to mention a few points from it here.
Our basic and most important unit of discourse is a research article. This is a fairly large unit: effectively, we are required to have a new, interesting and significant research result before we are allowed to contribute anything at all. Any smaller contributions must be bundled and packaged into units of acceptable size, or else they go unacknowledged. A comparison that came to my mind was having to conduct all transactions in twenty-dollar bills. Whatever your product is, you would have to sell it for $20 or else give it away for free, with nothing in between. It should not be difficult to see why this would not be am ideal environment for doing business. We should have smaller bills in circulation. It should be possible to make smaller contributions–on a scale of, say, a substantive blog comment–and still have them count towards our professional standing.
Our culture is extremely competitive. We value beating others more than we value helping them. All that matters is getting “there” first and scooping everyone else on our way. Intermediate results are worth far less. Additionally, this prioritizes one specific type of contributions over all others, even in those cases where a different order of priorities might be more reasonable. A good expository paper might have more impact on its area of mathematics than a middling research article; and yet, expository work is rarely, if ever, taken seriously by funding agencies and tenure committees.
We spend a great amount of time and energy on reinventing the wheel. A mathematician working on a problem might start with relatively small reductions, observations and lemmas that, by themselves, do not qualify as journal-publishable units; if that effort is not successful, these smaller contributions are lost and the next person working on the same problem has to reprove them all over again. Moreover, information such as “this method didn’t work, and here’s why” might be very useful to that next person. If nothing else, a great deal of time might be saved that would otherwise be spent on trying out unsuccessful approaches. Yet, there is currently no system in place to circulate such information and reward those who provide it.
Consider also how we work and collaborate. We are all gifted in different ways: some are better at imagining new ideas, some at asking questions, some at turning informal sketches into rigorous proofs, some are walking encyclopedias of the relevant literature. Yet, we have decided that each of us has to be self-sufficient and do all of these things equally, instead of allowing people to focus on what they do best and forming collaborations based on complementary skills. (I’d add that such collaborations obviously exist, including in my own experience. We just pretend, at least in official paperwork, that this does not happen.)
I agree with all of this, and I’d love to see us abandon the old ways and adapt new ones. We are far too invested in forcing everyone to fit the same mould. In a profession we like to call creative, I’d love to see more diverse and varied career paths and modes of expression. I’d love to see the flow of information a little bit less hampered by our ambition and competitive instincts. Think of all the theorems we could prove if we allowed more people into the field and, instead of hampering their intellectual power, harnessed it to the full.
I do not believe, however, that such changes are inevitable, and I have very little faith that they will be forced by the internet and other means of mass communication. It takes more than technology to change the culture. The early evidence is not encouraging. The basic discourse unit is still the research paper, except that we now post these on the arXiv. Other types of research contributions are still not being counted towards career progress, even as the subject comes up in discussions over and over again. We are as competitive and territorial as ever. The Polymath projects came and went; one was successful, another one was somewhat productive, others fizzled out. They did attract more participants than conventional math collaborations, but they never became truly “massive” as originally envisioned. People still ask questions on Math Overflow, and sometimes they get useful answers, but it never became the universal communication and collaboration platform that some of its early enthusiasts seemed to imagine. Other, smaller discussion boards went mostly unnoticed. There’s not much actual research that gets done on public blogs or social networks.
At the end of the talk, someone raised the diversity point in a question. The participants in Polymaths, Math Overflow and other similar projects are even less diverse than the general population of research mathematicians. Is there a reason why women and minorities tend to stay away from such venues? What can mathematicians do to ensure that all of us feel welcome to participate? I do not feel that Tim really answered that. He said (and I hope that I’m summarizing it fairly) that all those changes are just going to happen, like it or not, because they bring a more efficient way of doing mathematics and nobody will want to give up on that. It is an unfortunate fact that some people feel less comfortable on the internet, but in the end we will all just have to get over it.
I would like to suggest a different answer.