We’re living in the age of touch enabled wireless devices that are connected to Internet almost always. We can have instant one-to-one video communication very easily and cheaply. It is possible to organize video teleconferences with many participants instantly (well, the last part might be a little exaggerated). Scientists and programmers separated from each other by thousands of kilometers and many time zones can work and collaborate on projects daily. It is almost natural to think that, without such technologies, we would be living in dark ages, and our greatest thinkers would suffer from isolation miserably. But is it really the case?
The following pages are from the chapter titled “Was Cantor Surprised?”, from a popular mathematics book, The Best Writing on Mathematics 2012:
Let’s focus on those particular sentences:
… Dedekind immediately noticed that there was a problem. On June 22, 1877 (one cannot fail to be impressed with the speed of the German postal service!), he wrote back pointing out a slight problem “which you will perhaps solve without difficulty”.
Cantor’s first response was a postcard sent the following day. (Can one envision him reading the letter at the post office and immediately dispatching a postcard back?)
Apparently two of the greatest minds in the field of mathematics, namely Georg Cantor, who built the set theory as we know it, and Richard Dedekind, who, in addition to collaborating with Cantor, had his share of great contributions to mathematics, did not need any modern and fancy technology to work on difficult problems; the German postal service of 19. century seemed to be just good enough for those great minds.
One might rush to say that the work of those two great minds is very abstract, mathematical and nowhere near the complexity of engineering and scientific projects we tackle today. Therefore, looking at a complex engineering project, such as the Apollo space program by NASA, the one that put the first man on the Moon, might be more representative. The Apollo program started in 1960s, and Neil Armstrong became the first man to step on the Moon in 1969. What was the state of the Internet, e-mail and collaborative technologies during such a big engineering and scientific feat? Engineers and scientists certainly had postal service, and they were also able to “fax” documents, and “telex” urgent messages in 1960s. But many Internet technologies and collaborative technologies that we take for granted today did not exist during the Apollo project. The e-mail as we know it, barely existed back then. A young engineer that graduated in 2015 could be easily forgiven if he claimed that a multi-billion $ engineering project such as Apollo, which, among being very expensive, spanned many organizations, agencies, and companies, leading to great organization, communication and synchronization efforts, could not have been achieved without today’s communication and collaborative technologies. He would be corrected by history.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not preaching yet another form of neo-luddism at all. I, for one, am thankful to the current communication and collaboration technologies, and using them daily to do my work, and I also think it would be not very easy to do that kind of work without such technologies. Having admitted all of that, I still dare to ask the question: “Do great minds need fancy technology to collaborate?”
The answer seems to be similar to the jazz standard: It Ain’t Necessarily So.