Thursday, February 5, 2009


What interests me most about Timothy Gowers' experiment, is massively collaborative mathematics possible? is that to my knowledge it's the first example of a collaborative effort that is collectively self-aware. To be a little more concrete, he began by proposing a set of 'rules of engagement', and the discussion began by discussing those rules. Every collaborative community has such rules, but typically they aren't actively discussed.

We have learned quite a lot about the human brain, and I like the analogy between an individual brain and the "collective brain" of a successful community. In this context, the idea of introspection is useful. People have learned to introspect, and on occasion they learn about -- and eventually change -- some aspect of their behaviour through introspection. In an analogous way, I think it's useful for a collaborative community to occasionally direct its collective attention to itself.

One obstacle to introspection is that it can be a sensitive subject. In every collaborative community of which I'm aware, for one reason or another, the topics about which introspection is most needed correspond closely with the topics which are 'taboo', e.g., prohibited by the explicit or implicit rules of the community.

I don't want to mention too many examples, for the reasons discussed above. Instead, I'll choose one: I think the massively collaborative mathematician is going to have to address the 'problem of the cv line' -- how are the people involved in the mathematically collaborative mathematician going to get credit for their work. I'm not convinced by gowers' proposed solution (make it all public, and leave it up to the outsider to sort it out).

I would be very interested to hear of other examples of 'self-aware collaborative communities', or to hear what you have to say on the subject.

1 comment:

  1. The following fortuitous post appeared in my reader yesterday, Mixing Oil and Water: Authorship in a Wiki World. It is extremely relevant to the mathematical community's 'problem of the cv line', and so I recommend it highly in the context of these discussions.