The working lives of scientists are of greater interest today than at any time in human history. They seem, by closing the time gap between speculation  and remediation, to have completely changed roles in society. The person in the white lab coat is no longer obtuse, threatening or just eccentric – the scientist will now, with a wave of his network, solve global warming, feed the unfed and cure us all of the illnesses we have yet to contract. The other day I was sent a fascinating article on Open Science by a researcher and software developer plainly angry that “Open Science” is getting such a popular exposure ( while the normal benefits of regularly networked science are being ignored. And it gets one thinking, because it raises a set of issues about the relationships of professionals and their lives in networked societies that has real consequences for all of us.

After I read the above note I then read Jack Stilgoe’s review of Michael Nielson’s book in the Guardian (26.11.2011). While I have yet to read the book, my head is already in the debate in a micro-sample of three views and you, if indeed you are, make up a fourth. Whether you pass your views on to others or not, we are participating in a rapid sharing process which must have effects of its own on communication. If we were scientists and practising what Michael Nielson preaches we would be sharing our thinking, and our results, in very much the same way, standing aside from the competitive sides of our nature to create progress by collaboration within the network. Question: when we say that living in a networked society will cause all sorts of changes to the way we communicate and act, do we mean that these will be changes for the better in our fundamental characteristics as people? Dear Reader, are you an optimist about the improvability of mankind through communication – in which case Facebook may be the saviour of the race? Or, do you believe, like some philosophers of evolution, that the changes that occur will be random mutations, from which some, over time, will become built into the  prevalent response mode of network users?

This week I have been thinking a great deal about teachers as well as scientists. Teachers now accept the potential gains from sharing content in a way which would have been anathema to their predecessors. We now have approaching (early next year) 2 million teachers from all over the world sharing their own treasured and successful routines with each other on TES Connect ( This is a huge demonstration of altruism, and a strong desire to be recognized by peers. In appealing to his fellow scientists to adopt Open Science, Michael Nielsen seeks that same altruism, and argues well for the effectiveness of collaboration, but he is doing so in a context where peer recognition is baked into the way scientists report and publish. Of itself, the network will not change that, and all players (scholars, publishers, schoarly societies and librarians) have colluded willingly with the transfer of the networking of the paper-based world into the digital network with great enthusiasm.

So is there no effective collaborative science? Certainly there is. A very good example which I seem to have been writing about for a decade is Signalling Gateway (, where users greatly appreciate the need to share results – and analytical techniques and tools – in a very rapid time frame , but where participant research teams seem to retain identity (and probably funding sources). Nothing is more competitive in research than access to the money. Yet collaboration is present, and in neuroscience, or the Polymath mathematics project, or in the human genome  research programme, there are good examples of  collaborative success and altruistic sharing. So, if you think this is a desirable outcome, how do you breakdown the conservatism of scientists?

Much as you breakdown the conservatism of teachers, I imagine. You help them to create local, team or institution -based networking which returns real rewards in terms of workflow and productivity. Just as the school budget and timetable system, and resource sharing  amongst a community of schools to raise standards through shared content have made a real impression on how schools run and teachers teach (I was impressed this week to see that every US state has now adopted iSchool standards which allow for virtual education systems) so I know that as research teams build better internal network usage and more effective control of content, then the confidence required for Michael Nielson’s wider aims will emerge. So hopefully no government will start flinging funds at Open Science: it would be better spent mandating network compliance on the use of lab chemicals and ensuring that networked analytics were available to ensure that what is known to the network at present can be shared by all participants in the network.

And these are thoughts for publishers and information providers too. We are often faced with a radical urge to change emanating from the top of a deeply conservative community of users. Our task, surely, is to work on the infrastructure and let the profession in question take care of the timing. This can be hugely frustrating, but like Michael Nielsen, we too cannot force a model of change on marketplaces.

Michael Nielsen’s book is “Reinventing Discovery: the new era of networked science” (Princeton University Press). I note with pleasure that it was sponsored by George Soros, a man who has done more good than most on this planet, and whose belief in Sir Karl Popper’s Open Society theories, ingested from the great man himself at LSE, have been a lifelong inspiration. But every change has a precurser, and putting Open in front of something does not change anything. A recent Washington Post article on Virtual Schools was contributed by my best reader/editor:



Its obvious, isn’t it? Any voice application is bound to be a winner. We all love being spoken to in leisure or learning moments. What is the easiest way in which to absorb information? Have it spoken to you. From the audio book to the sat nav machine, voice works. As humans, we can project so much onto a voice. Its “colour” gives instant clues, and even the road directions to Southend-on-Sea can become injected with implied threat or promise. And hearing things is restful, even absorbing. Having a novel read in one ear can be superbly engrossing, and while there is always the risk of being alienated by the reader’s interpretation, chances are that the audio book will be the way we “see” that text, once we have heard it, for ever. I have an old record of T S Eliot reading The Waste Land which I can no longer play because I have no form of media that will play it. So I naturally became an early user of the App, which has 9 versions of the poem being read, including the poet himself. Most of them are far better, but because I heard it first, when I read the poem aloud myself, I find that I use the poet’s cadence and timing. In other words, voice imprints and can be unforgettable.

Which brings me to Siri. The Apple iPhone voice App has now had three months of shrill publicity ( and (

Given its ability with natural language searching, which gives it a degree of “intelligence”, reviewers think this should be a winner, and I agree on one level. On another I have some reservations, and these are largely concerned with our apparent inability to position and market voice services effectively.

Twenty years ago a senior executive at Random House told me that I was wasting my time with “Multimedia”, which was what we were then working on for CD-ROM. All the market wanted, he said, were good audio readings to play in the car on long distance travel, and he introduced me to his bright young manager who was providing just that. That manager told me two things that have stuck with me: one was the now obvious reflection that publishers were rubbish at marketing anything at all, and this would never change since they believed that they could sell anything. The second was that voice markets appeared to him to be finite: you quickly reached the voice susceptible segment, then growth got very hard. It is a thought that comes back as even Barnes and Noble discover digital (–noble-sees-bright-future-in-digital.html). And who would have thought that would happen!

My young friend of then is now the manager of an important media venture fund, so I will preserve his anonymity. And I do not want to argue that eBook or digital versioning is similarly finite. But I do want to suggest that voice is a vital component of the network and thus of digital service provision, that we grossly neglect its impact in product and service development, and that but for two unfortunate voice misuse environments we would be using a great deal more in more intelligent environments. I am told for example that voice search is now a really easy application to roll out in many service contexts. However, the reason given for its relatively modest showing is the prevalence of hugely annoying telephone voice menu systems, which daily have reasonable people howling in frustration. Having discovered a rare four tier example this week in a hospital group, I am tempted to initiate an award scheme for organizations who employ human beings to answer the phone. The second is automated public service messaging in airports and elsewhere, but in terms of both the problem is not voice, but marketing. I even encountered an airport lounge in my October travels which announced, every five minutes, that no flight departure announcements would be made and that passengers should consult the information screens!

For all of these reasons the future of voice is vital. Siri may point the direction towards intelligent guidance, but completely voice-directed computing has been feasible for a long time and must be a part of the five year scenario. And you do not need to have a Babelfish in your ear to believe in voice/language text translation, which the network is begging for in countless sectors and which is increasingly feasible at a basic level. Slowly we will edit out poor voice practises and it will become rare for web environments to lack audio components as it is for them now to lack video activity. I have had the pleasure recently to work with a group in Dublin who are creating virtual environments to help students pass tests in proficiency in spoken languages. There is an early example at but there is much more to come. The network is the ideal environment for voice-based training, language learning and virtual voice service development. Eventually the digital communications revolution will come full circle and re-integrate voice as the critical element in networked communications that it always has been, and we shall wonder why this component took so long to fall into place.

And then, we shall call the health insurer through the network and hear his computer say, “Forget all those options and numbers – tell me how I can help”!

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