Technology and Triva

Herbert S. White

    During the course of my professional career, I have had the opportunity to work directly with three of the most amazing and innovative pioneers this profession has known: Hans Peter Luhn, Mortimer Taube, and Eugene Garfield. Any of the three could be the source of reminiscences by me of how the development of this young field was profoundly affected. However, as instructed, I will limit myself to only one such instance, and it concerns Hans Peter Luhn.
    In the early 1960s, when we both worked for IBM, Luhn was concerned that promising new ideas were not being distributed throughout the corporation as rapidly and as fully as they should be. This was in part because of communications delays, in part because innovators did not necessarily know whom to tell, and in large part because bureaucratic managers would inhibit dissemination, perhaps, to protect their own managerial credit. What Luhn wanted to do was establish a channel through which professionals with ideas could communicate those ideas immediately and directly to other professionals, without worrying about whether or not some individuals were being reached who perhaps did not have "need to know". Luhn's idea, of course, was not new. It was exactly the same premise as that developed by individuals such as Vannevar Bush, George Kistiakowski, and Karl Compton to speed up scientific and engineering communication during World War II. During wartime, waiting for formal communications patterns could have been disastrous. Luhn's contribution was in the use of the still young but nevertheless operational IBM computer system. Corporate management, whom Luhn could easily reach because of his many earlier accomplishments, agreed readily, and his idea was implemented, over the objections of cadres of bureaucrats who wanted chain of command.
    Luhn's idea worked, but he could not or at least did not foresee that individuals could and would misuse this new informal communications channel, by using it for self-enhancement and self-publicity, and by posting frequent (even daily) messages of "accomplishments" even when they had nothing to communicate. Eventually the system fell into disuse, because really productive innovators could not risk exposing their time to trivial and self-serving inquiry.
    I am brought to mind of the fact that we presently face a more modern version of this same dilemma. E-mail and list-serves allow us to communicate meaningful information rapidly and to a large audience. It also allows us to communicate trivia and garbage in the same manner. The limitation in all of this is that while technology has progressed rapidly, people have remained pretty well the same. It is for that reason that I, in my active and busy retirement, have limited myself to communication access which requires an individual effort. That means snail mail, telephone (I have no call waiting or message system - if there is no answer try again later) and FAX. All of this requires individual effort. I trust the technology - I just don't necessarily trust the people who use it.

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