Mathematics and the WWW

Section 1:
Conclusions: Where are we going?

2 April 1997

The web proceeds slowly forward with a tremulous motion ... J. Nicholson (1825)

You probably can't avoid the World Wide Web, and there are reasons for embracing this future along with being aware of current problems with the medium (Section 2). The Web is permeating the world of mathematics (Section 3) for good reasons (Section 4), from research mathematics (Section 5) to college teaching (Section 6), and it may actually help with some other problems facing us (Section 7). There are good evolutionary changes in store (Section 8).

One effect of Web encroachment will be that we won't be as isolated as we have been in pursuing our mathematical and teaching interests. In particular, research collaboration with colleagues at other institutions will become vastly easier as the capabilities of Web programs that combine whiteboards, audio, and video improve and the technology becomes more readily available. (See Section 8 on whiteboards and multicasting).

In teaching, when we spend time making up a neat example, we'll put it on the Web for our students to use and to share with colleagues elsewhere. (After all, when we need a neat example and don't have time to make it, it will be nice to borrow one). We'll get a much better sense of our common problems, more easily find kindred souls with common interests, and have great possibilities of expressing our individuality. Just take a stroll around EPADEL in the postlude at the end.

For both teaching and research, the World Wide Web will become a major form of communication (see Section 5, How will the Web change mathematics publications?, and Section 6 under How the Web will change our teaching). Although print (and printouts) will continue to be useful, the possibility of electronic searching and going immediately to examples, other references, definitions, etc. will pull us Webward. Also, as Herb Wilf asserts, Web pages will just be prettier. Our students will gravitate toward Web pages for the same reasons we will, and soon will complain bitterly at having to use a monochromatic medium without interactivity -- what, no applet to do symbolic integration or 3D graphics? Last but not least, for financial reasons those radicals, the librarians, will provide a powerful push toward the Web.

For thoughtful and in general less optimistic (and non-mathematically oriented) views of the future, NETFUTURE is a newsletter that deals with issues of technology and human responsibility. "It seeks especially to address those deep levels at which we half-consciously shape technology and are shaped by it. What is half-conscious can, after all, be made fully conscious, and can become material for public discussion and policy-making." My goal, too.

The Web is changing the world of mathematics. In only four years or so it's changed how we can communicate, how we can publish, how we can present ourselves, how we can teach. Soon it will be how we do communicate, publish, present ourselves, and teach. We're in the midst of a revolution, folks, and there are immense possibilities for improving the entire world of mathematics. Also immense possibilities for great disasters (e.g. distributed teaching on the Web results in all calculus nationwide being taught from Saxon University, which causes a thousand Rochesters to bloom.)

If you don't believe there are real and immediate possibilities for disasters, look at "Problems with the Web and teaching" in Section 6 and check the beginning of Section 7.

For the revolution to take positive turns it's necessary that there be a lot of people out there trying to make these turns. It's possible for individuals to make a difference, too. For example,

There has never before been such a far-reaching and rapidly spreading revolution in communication. It is destined to make broad changes in our professional (and maybe our personal) lives. We're not likely to see or experience anything like this again. It's exhilarating to be involved in this revolution and to try to get it right. Come join the fun and help make it good.

Prediction is difficult, especially of the future - Neils Bohr

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Gene Klotz