The future is already here: it’s just not very evenly distributed

It is not 9am yet. Nevertheless, I got a lot done:

  • I attended the thesis proposal of my student Eduardo via Skype. I was literally in my basement with a fresh cup of coffee, attending a presentation hundreds of kilometers away. Beside myself, there were professors from two different cities attending.
  • I watched a recorded concert of the latest Japanese rockstar, Hatsune Miku, on YouTube. Oh! And she is a synthetic character.
  • I read my morning news on my Star Trek-like iPad. I received my news from a hand-picked lot of 50 or so people worldwide. It has been months since I last read a newspaper.

Though I tried to convince my wife that the future has finally arrived, she insists that we always live in the present.

Well. Some people certainly insist on living in the past:

  • Canada’s largest science funding agency (NSERC) sent me a funding proposal to review. They had to send it to me on paper, by mail. The file has dozens of pages. I had to carry it home. I will have to find a way to recycle it after shredding it. What is wrong with giving me access to a PDF or HTML copy of the proposal? Can’t the person in charge of printing the proposal find another occupation?
  • Even though I have not had to look up a research article on physical paper in nearly a decade, a leading journal asked me to include page numbers in all my references. But these page numbers only make sense if you are holding the physical copy of the journal. Why would anyone look up articles from the physical copy when they can find and download research papers in seconds? I’m even told that graduate students in several schools are trained in how to use a (physical) library to look up references. Oh! The pain! Why do librarians insist on teaching obsolete skills? There is no shortage of useful skills a librarian could teach students in 2010. Indeed, I am amazed at how little most graduate students know about tracking research papers online.
  • My employer still sends me, every two weeks, a little enveloppe with a single paper in it which tells me how much money they put into my bank account. Of course, I know exactly what this amount is, as I can see it listed through online banking. So what is the point of this piece of paper? Create employment at a local printing press? Tracking pieces of paper is time consuming. Worse: the information is incomplete, even incomprehensible at times because of the  lack of physical space on the paper. Why can’t Human Resources setup a web site where I could get all the information I need to understand all the mysterious deductions appearing on my fake pay check? Why must they insist on printing useless pieces of paper? Why can’t they provide useful and modern tools instead?

Source: The title of my post is a quote from William Gibson.

Daniel Lemire, "The future is already here: it’s just not very evenly distributed," in Daniel Lemire's blog, October 21, 2010.

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Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

13 thoughts on “The future is already here: it’s just not very evenly distributed”

  1. @Poloni

    Simple. I follow several people on Twitter. I carefully picked them. Every day, they share links and newsbites. I read them. That’s all.

    I am very careful about who I follow on Twitter… to make sure that there is little noise in my Twitter feed.

    99% of Twitter users misuse it by following all their friends, collaborators and so on. That is not how Twitter should be used. I don’t decide whether to follow someone based on whether I know them, whether they are smart and so on. I choose to follow people who post content I enjoy at this time. Whether I like someone has nothing to do with whether I follow them on Twitter. Hell! I might follow someone I dislike if their content is good.

    With this system in place, I don’t need news sites, newspapers or any other system. I just check Twitter.

  2. A few minor comments:

    * Canada seems (maybe it can afford to be) less advanced than New Zealand in this respect. All grant proposals that I am aware of are dealt with via electronic portals, I don’t get any paper, just go to the HR website, etc. My parenthetical comment is also related to the observed apparent negative correlation between strength of a university research programme and the physical/administrative resources it has. Visiting Berkeley I could hardly believe some of the buildings compared to ours at home. But who cares when you have such good people?

    * On page numbers: not only do they not have much point these days, for many journals they don’t even exist (e.g. Electronic Journal of Combinatorics, some physics ones). Since I have never seen a citation in a journal article that needed to point to an exact page, I don’t miss them. But bean-counters will have trouble, not knowing the length of the papers!

    * Note: I failed your spam filter by answering in alpha, not numeric. Should have read the example.

  3. @Mark

    But bean-counters will have trouble, not knowing the length of the papers!

    There are people counting the number of pages? I hope they correct for the font size.

    I failed your spam filter by answering in alpha, not numeric.

    It is a bit of a pain. But you have to admit that I’m at least a bit original.

  4. Amen!

    I could add that I have one third of my meetings on-line now. (FlashMeeting is kind of nice…) That I listen to recorded talks while driving to work. That I work at home one day a week. That I almost never read the paper versions of magazines that the ACM or IEEE keep sending me.

    At least my university sends the envelope only once a month 😉 Maybe they also pay only half of what you get?

  5. So true!

    All the letters that the university and the government agencies sent to me, I don’t know what to do with it. You cannot simply dump it.

  6. @Duval

    That I almost never read the paper versions of magazines that the ACM or IEEE keep sending me.

    I left IEEE because I was getting sick of all these magazines. I am still an ACM member, but I don’t even remove Communications of the ACM from its plastic wrapper. I just dump them somewhere in my house. I think that my wife must make them silently disappear.

    I am seriously thinking about quitting ACM precisely because they refuse to offer a paperless membership.

    Oh! And I will definitively terminate my newspaper subscription this year.

    Maybe they also pay only half of what you get?

    People typically get paid weekly or every two weeks in North America. Maybe it is more common to be paid monthly in Europe?

  7. @Weiwei

    You cannot simply dump it.

    I have this large stack of paper in my home office. While it is vaguely categorized, none of it is indexed. The only way to find something is to search through it in linear time.

    This system totally ignores decades of research in Computer Science. There is no B-tree, no inverse index. Nothing. Just a stupid, unintelligent stack. No search engine. Nothing. The cost of randomly accessing something in the pile is crazy.

  8. Just something… in and out of context 🙂
    Some time ago somebody said that we all live in past 🙂 theoretically it is like that…at least all we perceive have happened at least some seconds ago…all we say/represent we have imagined before… 🙂
    In the sense of using modern technologies… it have always been like this…somewhere some used a train to travel and at the same time somebody somewhere still used cartage 🙂

    Maybe … for sure i am old fashioned 🙂 because i still love read books (in standard way, not digital), also publications for review for me it is easier to read printed way 🙂
    But it is great that many things can be done electronically it ease and speed up so many works in our life’s 🙂

    However for some living in the past is the only way they know and they can 🙂

  9. Unless UQAM has much better financial systems than UW, I’d keep getting the paper pay stubs. Here, every time there is a change of some sort (summer salary, partial payment of salary from a grant or different internal budget for whatever reason), there is a reasonable chance of a screw-up.

  10. Way to go on opting out memberships like IEEE and ACM (on top of newspaper subscriptions) who keep sending paper junk regularly. It not only wastes trees, it wastes time sorting, disposing, etc. I’m personally gutting many professional association membership not only b/c of the lack of value, but also b/c I’m no longer practicing what I’ve learned in college directly.

    If you’re looking to reduce your physical junk and paper-work even more, consider checking out Leo Babauta’s e-books (especially the Simple Guide to a Minimalist’s Life) to rid the junk papers one step further.


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