Communication and the future of research

This week I was thinking about how the internet has fundamentally changed how we communicate and gave us boundless possibility for creation.

We connect with people across the world at the speed of light. In less than half a second after I push publish, this essay reaches you, even if you are on the other side of the world. Magic 🧙‍♂️

The pandemic has made more of us aware of the consequences of communicating at the speed of the internet.

Here, I want to reflect on the changes that might unfold in the next decade.

I’ll start with this question: how can we reassess the meeting in the context of creative knowledge work? Why do we meet?

Meeting in a group to talk is primal. It’s the way we gathered as a species since the dawn of civilisation. From getting together around a fireplace to tell stories, to the family meal, group meetings are deeply fundamental about being human. Breaking bread has been used for millennia to build trust between people.

Meetings in our DNA. But are they the right medium - the right form of communication - for the type of work that I care about: innovation, creativity and knowledge work?

Marshal McLuhan coined the concept the medium is the message. The medium that we use to communicate fundamentally alters the things we can say. We see this every day. We talk in a different way than how we write. You may be able to show a dance move to someone, but you won’t be able to describe.

What other media exist?

After speaking, came writing. Writing caused a fundamental shift in the way we think. Suddenly, our thoughts were available for critique by us and by others. The printing press supercharged writing, and now our thoughts could be mass produced and available to everyone. A single text could move millions. Writing and the printing press changed the way we think, and led to a culture of the essay and the rise of the Enlightenment.

The internet has further supercharged the writing culture. From Basecamp’s culture of writing to CEOs who use writing instead of presentations, writing is seen as a superpower for decision making. Writing allows decision makers to structure a narrative and refine their ideas and requires a certain discipline of thought that refines the way that we think.

After writing came graphics. The Visual Display of Quantitative Information shares the story behind the invention of the first chart. William Playfair was trying to understand the exports and imports of England. They were represented as tables of numbers. To better make sense of them, he drew those numbers on a page, producing the first line chart.

The invention of data graphics allowed us to see patterns that we cannot see otherwise. Rather than a narrative, it allowed us to see the big picture in data.

This is a tradition continued all the way through to modern data graphics such as those made by Our World in Data. It’s beautiful to see how the style of graphics has changed little in 300 years, yet we can trace back to the first moment written knowledge was turned into drawings.

The next evolution is the computational medium. Instead of having static representations of knowledge, you have dynamic ones. You can interact with an explanation and embed models in it. One of the best examples of this style of communication is in Nicky Case’s What Happens Next? COVID-19 Futures, Explained With Playable Simulations, where text and simulation are weaved together seamlessly.

After the computational medium comes the post-computational medium. This is a dynamic medium where computational lives outside a glowing rectangle. In its infancy now, but with great power to take thoughts from our minds and into our bodies and the environment around us. Experiments include Bret Victor’s Dynamicland, Marshmallow Laser Feast’s Ocean of Air, Simon Heijden’s Lightweeds and Imogen Heap’s MiMU gloves. The post-computational medium is the avant-garde, equally explored by technologists as by artists.

So, now we have an axis of content: the stuff we make, the what of our creativity. Oral → written → visual → computational → post-computational.

Let’s enrich this picture with more dimensions, starting with where. Do we create in physical space (think a live performance) or in virtual space (a Clubhouse room).

Then we have the when. Virtual worlds fragmented the notion of time. In the physical world, if I wanted to communicate with you, we needed to be in the same place at the same time. The virtual world has made asynchronous communication possible.

A fourth axis is how improvisational we are. We could schedule when we communicate or we can be spontaneous. Think meeting-in-the-calendar versus texting your friend: hey, coffee in 10?

Finally, we have size. 1-1 (walk with a friend), few-few (group dialogue) and 1-many (broadcast).

These axes give us over 100 possibilities to communicate. Just pick one from each row and play.

[sync | async]
[oral | written | visual | computational | post-computational]
[spontaneous | planned]
[physical | virtual]
[1-1 | few-few | 1-many]

Let’s pick a few and map then to ways of gathering.

  • Group meeting: [sync + oral + planned + physical + 1-many]

  • Zoom group meeting: [sync + oral + planned + virtual + 1-many]

  • Walk with a friend: [sync + oral + planned + physical + 1-1]

  • Text message: [async + written + sponteneous + virtual + 1-1]

  • Group chat: [async + written + sponteneous + virtual + 1-many]

  • Audio message: [async + oral + sponteneous + virtual + 1-1]

  • Webinar: [sync + oral + planned + virtual + 1-many]

  • This newsletter: [async + written + spontaneous + virtual + 1-many]

  • Pop-up Clubhouse room: [sync + oral + spontaneous + virtual + few-few]

We can now invert and ask. What are some novel combinations?

  • [async + visual + sponteneous + physical + 1-many]: maybe a street art project like Mobstr’s Curious Frontier of Red? It’s not consumed when it’s produced (thus async), it’s done in the spur of the moment (spontaneous) but it’s physical and seen by many.

  • [sync + computational + sponteneous + virtual + 1-1]: collaborating over Jupyter notebooks feels very much like this. I could message a fellow researcher and say: hey, let’s discuss there virtual screening results. Then, I can pass a link to a collaborative notebook where we can both analyise the results together.

  • [async + computational + sponteneous + virtual + 1-many]: a GitHub repository with a notebook and instructions on how to run it.

Finally, let’s think about the cost of these dimensions.

Physical is more costly than virtual. You need to book a room. You need for people to drive or fly to the same place. Physical has a cost in both money, time and carbon.

Sync is more costly than async. You need to synchronise calendars and resolve conflicts. You might need to sacrifice time from your personal life to fit with different timezones.

Planned is more costly than spontaneous, especially for creative work. Creativity does not thrive on a schedule.

Thus, the cheapest form of communication for creative knowledge work is virtual, async and spontaneous. These removes the costs of transport, the friction of synchronising calendars and the friction of being creative on a schedule.

Here’s my thesis: we can supercharge research if we move it to a virtual, asynchronous and spontaneous mode of communication.

The good news is that this mode of communication thrives on the internet. We have podcasts (oral), newsletters (written), videos (visual) and computational (Jupyter notebooks).

My vision, which I am refining here, is to build a research lab in the cloud. A networked research lab, where information can flow freely at the speed of the internet. This essay added a piece to the puzzle: researchers should communicate not through meetings or even text messages. They should communicate through working togehter on a shared repository of knowledge. Each researcher adds, edits and shapes that repository of knowledge through their process of creation. A distributed, asynchronous and spontaneous process of research.

Last year has offered me a glimpse of this future. I have seen its power.

Now it’s time to refine the vision.

If this resonates, DM me on Twitter or reply to this email and let’s chat.