Re: Papers vs. Email & Books (was: language)

Peter C. McCluskey (
Mon, 18 Jan 1999 15:42:14 -0800 (Robin Hanson) writes:
>The related thing that most strikes me is the unfortunate
>lack of paper-length contributions on the topics which
>frequently appear on this list.
>There is a natural spectrum of "length" of contributions on
>a topic, ranging from off-the-top one sentence comments
>to detailed book-length or longer analyses. In between are
>email posts and paper-length discussions.

>On many novel topics on this list I think discussants
>too quickly begin with email, and would do better
>initially with the flexibility of a phone conversation.

I find phone conversations generally less flexible because of the need to synchronize communications. I don't like interrupting people or being interrupted to initiate a new conversation, and I usually want to reflect for minutes or hours before responding to novel ideas.

>Why? It seems to me it is because of jumping too
>quickly to book-length contributions, where paper
>length contributions would be more appropriate.

Your advice makes perfect sense in an abstract world where we ignore the details of the communications infrastructure and the adaptations of the human mind to particular modes of communication. In practice, I think that the mode of communication supported by mailing lists gets treated as a variation on the kind of conversations we would have if we were talking face to face, and that when a single contribution reaches some size threshold (maybe taking long enough to write that the subject is no longer fresh in people's minds, and/or passes some threshold for the time/effort required to read it), it no longer fits within our idea of a conversation. You want a continuum between the concept of a conversation and deeper communication modes, but I suspect there is a partially innate category of conversation that hinders the development of such a continuum. And when we switch to non-conversation modes, we use very different filtering mechanisms to decide when to read and write ideas, which don't fit well with the mailing list approach and probably produce fewer (or at least less immediate) psychological rewards. ("Billy Brown") writes:
>Part of the problem is the nature of the topics we discuss. Honestly, how
>many of us are qualified to write a rigorous analysis of a topic that spans
>half a dozen disciplines? A detailed justification of any particular
>Singularity scenario, for example, requires an understanding of every field
>of technology you want to take into account, plus a bit of political
>science, history and economics. It is very easy to be overwhelmed by the
>impossibility of covering the entire topic, and end up writing nothing at

The fact that on some absolute scale few people have the understanding to write a good essay isn't a good reason for those whose understanding is relatively good to avoid the topic or let people who oversimplify dominate.

Peter McCluskey          | Critmail ( | Accept nothing less to archive your mailing list