Laureate or leave it

The geniuses of the new millennium had better get a good T1 connection if they want to win a Nobel prize.

On Tuesday Cisco Systems released the results of a survey in which one third of the living Nobel Laureates endorsed the Internet as a tool that can speed innovation while expanding knowledge, education and excellence in human behavior. It would have been really funny if some of them had branded it as the work of the Devil, but perhaps the silence of the other two thirds speaks for itself.

On the bright side, 69 per cent of those surveyed think the Internet would have accelerated the completion of their own work. Eighty-two per cent predict that it will speed up innovation and 72 per cent of the Laureates think it will play a large role in improving living standards worldwide.

Where is Alfred Nobel when you need him?

The Swedish chemist, who gave birth the foundation that awards the legendary prizes as part of his last will and testament more than 100 years ago, wanted to honour those whose pursuits changed the world for the better. He may not have put the Web on that kind of a pedestal.

There isn’t even a Nobel category for math, let alone the kind of mathematics that evolved into computer science (and, later, the Internet). This has actually been a sore point for decades among Nobel-watchers, and rumors abound as to why math was excluded. The best story I’ve heard speculates that a woman Nobel was having an affair with cheated on him with a mathematician. The official Nobel Web site has a simpler explanation. “He didn’t care much for mathematics,” it says, “It was not considered a practical science from which humanity could benefit (a chief purpose for creating the Nobel Foundation). “

For the record, the six Nobel categories include literature, physics, chemistry, peace, economics and physiology/medicine. It is telling that of the 71 Laureates surveyed for the Cisco study, more than half the responses came from those in medicine, physics and chemistry. It would probably be hard to get positive comments from the literary Laureates, many of whom still have problems with word processing. Saul Bellow, who won for Literature in 1976, still composes by hand on yellow notepads. Ernest Hemingway, who won in 1954, wrote standing up — not exactly the best posture for Web surfing over long periods of time.

There are obviously ways the Internet has served to further the efforts of some Laureates. The Cisco survey highlights the Amnesty International Campaign Against Torture, which uses its Web site to attract letters of protest. Some of the physics Laureates would no doubt have saved a lot of time at the library if they’d had a good Yahoo! account (though only because they had cultivated some solid offline research skills that many of today’s students lack).

My problem with this sort of evangelical exercise is that it attempts to elevate a product or medium into a stratosphere where it doesn’t belong. The Cisco release quotes the company’s corporate marketing vice-president Keith Fox as follows: “Through the power of the Internet we can bring education to more people faster than any other traditional means.” The Internet can bring text, images and voice, but education is a process that begins in the student’s mind, not through the form the curriculum arrives. Giving someone a textbook does not necessary educate anyone. Likewise, automation can speed up tasks, but innovation cannot be accelerated by artificial means. The Internet can assist brainstorming among far-flung researchers, but it does not in itself make the mind work faster.

This probably sounds like I’m nit-picking, but it is the natural outcome of what was probably a multiple choice survey which any self-respecting Nobel prize winner should have laughed at. It certainly accounts for the contradictions: while 85 per cent agreed that the Internet has had an “overall” positive impact on their work and lives (this is a reasonable response), around half of them said they were also worried about privacy issues, political inequities and increased alienation.

Not long ago Jack Kilby, who won the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work in developing the integrated circuit, was asked what kind of credit he should be given. His answer: “Oh, I think my work probably started a new way of looking at circuits and began a new field, but much of the progress since is not a direct consequence of my work.”

We could use some of this humility in IT. We all know the Internet is a useful tool, but there’s no need to make more of it than it is. Strange as it sounds, some of these Nobel Laureates need to smarten up.

sschick@plesman.com

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