Johannes Gutenberg’s introduction of the printing press around 1450 was one of the defining moments of the modern age, ushering in a new era where knowledge could be cheaply reproduced and widely distributed. Since then the printed word has come to dominate our understanding of what information is.
Whether it be a book, a pamphlet, a newspaper or magazine article, a letter, a legal document, or these days a pdf or ebook, we have been completely ingrained to understand that information is printed information, and that to learn something means more or less to read it and understand it. This is the bedrock of the educational system, including of course tertiary education; with its heavy reliance on textbooks, libraries and learned journals.
All true, until now.
In only the last five or perhaps ten years, a new paradigm is suddenly upon us, sweeping through the modern world like a wildfire fanned by the deep untapped desire of people to learn by watching and listening, not reading. We are talking about video, my friends: most notably YouTube videos, but also of course iTunesU, Vimeo, Coursera, OpenLearning etc. Young people increasingly go to YouTube as a default if they want to know something; now already the 2nd largest search engine in the world—next only to Google—and moving quickly to become one of the prime repositories of really useful knowledge on the planet.
For one-sentence knowledge, the printed word will remain king. What is the circumference of the earth? Who was the president after Lincoln? Where was the first mammoth discovered? For such tidbits of knowledge, the printed word is optimal. For large-scale knowledge, the printed word may also be harder to replace. But for everyday middle complexity information, which requires, or at least requests, something of an explanation, video will rule.
How do I fix my lawnmower? Who were the greatest conquerors in history and why? What is Rational Trigonometry, and why is it so superior? Where are the best surfing spots in Sydney? What is the best way of chatting up a girl? For this kind of important info, and much, much else besides, most of us would rather get the answer from a person, using a combination of audio and visual representations. Video cannot be beaten here in my opinion.
While MOOCS and all kinds of fancy e-learning systems are much the rage in tertiary education these days, it is useful to keep in mind that the key ingredients are almost always the videos themselves. We are returning to the rhythm and logic of an earlier vocal tradition, where knowledge was memorized and passed on from father to son, from mother to daughter, from leader to followers—by talking, explaining, showing. This is far closer to our biology than the current arcane system of letters and numbers that form our printed sentences, like this one. If I was reading this out loud on a video, then my emphasis, pauses, expressions and posture would convey just as much, maybe more, than the words themselves. As it is, you have only the words.
Video as information is an idea which may well prove to be more interesting and important than video as entertainment. It is happening now, as we speak. When I started posting math videos on YouTube in 2007, most of my colleagues thought it was a strange use of my time. Don’t academics spend all of their energy writing furiously to continuously augment their all-important list of printed publications? What’s the point of posting videos that you will get little academic credit for?
Some of my colleagues probably still feel this way, but I bet they are a lot less confident now. They are perhaps starting to acknowledge something that students have long known—that even interesting and pretty mathematics may be difficult or painful to learn from an article or book! And some of them are starting to realize that if you don’t join the video revolution, your work runs the risk of being left behind, forgotten and unused, no matter how good it looks officially on a CV.
A salutary story for me: when I was a graduate student at Yale, I had a desk in the annex of the library on 11 Hillhouse Avenue; a somewhat dark and hard-to-find room in the basement which was stacked to the rafters with ancient math journals (for which there was no more room in the main library upstairs). Late at night, bleary from too much mathematical pondering, I would pull down a volume from on high and have a look into journals from the 1800’s. Creakily the dusty tome would relinquish its grip on its neighbours, having been unmoved in at least half a century: then I would skim these lovely, elegant articles, thinking—why is no one reading this great stuff anymore?, and— is this what will happen to my work once I am gone?
This need not be the future of today’s mathematicians. Well-presented videos of interesting topics embodying deep understanding will be regarded like gems of classical music to future generations of students and scientists, is my guess. Maybe this is a tad poetical, but I really do believe in the huge potential for broadening understanding and interest in the general public towards mathematics—that most beautiful of disciplines!
So, young mathematicians, take my advice—by all means play the game of oft and repeated publication in learned journals, but also spend some time developing your skills at explaining and presenting your knowledge and work through videos, so that your ideas will be accessible, useful and engaging to a wide spectrum of listeners. It is the future of publication, as much as it is the future of knowledge distribution.