Electronic Communication
Section 9.
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Using the Internet to Get Work Done

Dale Amon

There are a number of problems (and advantages) with most forms of internet communications when they are related to real problem-solving.

  1. Growth - The net is growing so fast that there is an eternal supply of newbies ready, willing, and able to tell us all about the New Ideas and Startling Tidbits they have. All of which were last discussed with the batch of newbies 3 months ago... And thus it has been for 15 years...

    This may change when the net reaches a market saturation level. When that happens, newbies will be real children instead of cyberspace children.

  2. Focus - It is very difficult to solve problems unless there is direction, focus, goal-seeking, problem space pruning and an identifiable "deliverable" as an end point. None of these exist in the typical unmoderated (or moderated, for the matter) groups.

  3. Creativity - The net comes up with high marks because even off-the-wall ideas are discussed. There are few mechanisms of brainstorming that can match the freewheeling nature of the net.

  4. Globalization - As human knowledge explodes, individual specializations have become narrower and narrower by necessity. The downside is that it becomes more and more difficult for the researchers in a narrow area to communicate with each other. Fields stagnate without the intellectual ferment caused by bull sessions and esoteric argumentation between peers. In the internet world we can have a few specialists sharing a narrow interest act as a virtual institute on that subject.

  5. Synthesis - Specialization has also had a down side. The narrower the areas of research, the more there is that falls in the cracks. And the number of cracks is probably more like a polynomial explosion than a linear one. But the ease of access to discussions on the net means that it is easy for cross-fertilization to happen. If a statement is made by a researcher in a physics speciality, it may end up being cross-posted and mailed to hundreds or thousands of others in different specialties. This can and does spark debates and new research.

How do we structure information systems so that real work can be accomplished? Let's start with idea generation and progress through to a definable product.


  1. Virtual Pub / Dorm Lounge / Student Union Snack Bar

    This is the open mail list or newsgroup. People come and go, dip into discussion as they feel like it. Little real work gets done here, but new ideas are generated and old truths demolished.

    Ideas start from bull sessions. The ideas might pop up spontaneously, or they might be tossed into the the shark tank by the spacecraft development team. In the former case, ASI is feeding ideas to the spacecraft team; in the latter, spacecraft designers have a problem for which they need ideas or an answer.

    But bull sessions do not a product make. Something further has to happen. One suggestion is that a monitor from the spacecraft development team watch the open discussions and when an interesting idea comes up, that idea be assigned virtual office space. At this point we stop being democratic and start working. One individual is assigned as the team leader. Others who are interested in developing the idea are given the option of being a part of the team. For better or worse the team leader is boss and may fire those who are disruptive, fail to complete assigned tasks, or who continuously stray from goal directed behavior.

    In turn, the team leader is assigned a deadline and milestones by the spacecraft development manager. The deliverable is a technical report, possibly with a minority report attached. A team that fails to meet its deadlines can be disbanded by the management. Teams are disbanded and members reassigned when they complete their projects.

  2. Virtual Office

    A place where a group with an interest in a particular topic works in a structured environment with responsibilities and accountability enforced.

    When a draft report has been completed, it is then thrown open to general debate in an open "peer group" forum. This could consist of making it available to the members of the bull session and to relevant newsgroups.

  3. Virtual Conference Hall

    A place where reports are presented and open debate held on their content. Off-topic debate is forbidden. Only matters relating to critique of the report are allowed.

    A specific time limit is placed on the comment period. When that period is ended, the team filters through the comments and generates a final report. The final report is published as part of a body of high quality reviewed design and research on which the spacecraft team can base their plans.

  4. Virtual Library

    A place where final reports are available for search and reference. Now how do we go about creating a structure like this? We certainly don't want to go out and write new tools. That would delay any such efforts by years. It is also probably unnecessary. Most of it can be accomplished within the framework of existing tools, given that spacecraft development team has people assigned to create teams and monitor results. At some point this should be a full-time professional position.

Now the mechanisms:

  1. The Pub is simply the artemis-list mailing list, as it curently exists. (See the description of artemis-list in section 9.3 of the Artemis Data Book for more information about it.) Noisy, high volume, some gems and a fair amount of chaff.

  2. The Office is a set of small mailing lists with a limited group of people on it. Requirements for these mailing lists are described elsewhere in the Artemis Data Book. The spacecraft design team assigns the leaders and sets the goals and deadlines. Each team leader has rights to hire and fire his volunteers as necessary to complete the job. When the job is done, the mailing list is disbanded. Some groups might be longer-lived if they are really good at producing results on an ongoing basis. It is even conceivable that the best of the best might one day become a real set of employees in the spacecraft develoment team.

    But the watch word is "Only Results Count". And the spacecraft team defines what Results means.

  3. The Virtual Conference Hall could be based on the Web site recently created by the MIT Media Lab for their discussion. It has all the right properties. We would place the draft reports on the web site and all comers could read them and make comments. The comments are stored and the team leader could collect them on a given "end of comment period" date. The Team then discusses the comments and writes the final report.

  4. The Virtual Library is simply the Artemis Data Book. Final Reports are put on-line when they have been approved. There might be a need for two areas: one which is reports that deal with "official" Artemis Project positions and plans; and one which is more speculative or not directly related to primary goals of the Project.

    As technologies (or more honestly, time and people and resources to implement existing technologies) become available, search engines and the like can be added to make topics more easily accessible.

Nothing is static. There must always be feedback and continued debate. With this procedure we end up with quality information. Then, when a newbie debate begins, or when wizards rehash an old truth with new facts, a starting point can be pointed out which is accessible to all. With some luck that will raise the overall level of debate even in "the Pub".

Electronic Communication

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