Monday, August 02, 2004

Strangers in the Same Place

Professor X and Professor Y from the same university attend the same conference. At the end of the conference, Professor X says in a surprised tone "That's the most time I have talked with Professor Y all year." He shouldn't be surprised; this is a story I've heard over and over again (and have even told myself).

A professor's life has many responsibilities. Teaching and research of course but also paper writing, grant proposals, meeting with students, and administrative tasks including seemingly endless committee meetings. When I visit another university I leave most of these responsibilities behind so I can focus on research. I also expect the people who invited me to make time in their schedules so we can work together. That way even a short visit can be quite productive.

As the length of the visit increases it becomes harder to avoid these other responsibilities and the amount of research time per day decreases. In the extreme, two people who work at the same university for years end up spending very little time talking research together.

This explains why teleconferencing will never replace traveling no matter how technologically advanced. The social requirements of a short visit require people to spend time together in ways a teleconference cannot. What teleconferencing will do is "allow" me to attend those endless committee meetings wherever I am.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting. Of course, if teleconferencing gets "too good" (i.e., cheap/high quality), then that means that, even when traveling, you're still tethered to the other responsibilities. Imagine that you travel the distance of four time zones to get to work with someone, and even there you still have to meet with students. Similarly, all of the paperwork will come with you too.

    Without introducing artificial constraints, the art of communication might become more base in a world without communication boundaries. Otherwise, you might have to be 12 time-zones away to be left alone, or you might have to go to Mars to use the speed of light as the constraint.

    (I myself wouldn't mind the practice of actually living with your collaborators for a week or so to get things done; though our culture is not built up for that: New Yorkers seem to understand how to live with large amounts of other people, but Southern Californians still "need their space".)