Serious Fun: Rajesh's Newsletter #1

I want to thank you all for signing up for my newsletter. There's a story behind why I want to create this list; let me try to condense it into a few paragraphs.

I came to the US as a graduate student in the early days of the internet. I still remember the first time I bought a downloaded a paper from the internet archive and remained amazed at the speed at which new developments were made available to mathematicians and physicists. I remember when I bought my first Springer book for 30% off from Amazon (It was Maclane’s Category Theory for the Working Mathematician) and realized that I didn’t have to wait for weeks to pay full price to the University Book Store.

At about the same time, I discovered Asha for Education, an NGO that funds primary education in India. It was started and kept alive by Indian graduate students and software nerds from across the US. When I moved back to India, the internet moved with me. I was able to keep in touch with friends, family and colleagues whether they were in Bogota, Boston or Bangalore. In fact, the traffic in Bangalore being what it is, the internet was my primary means of keeping in touch with fellow Bangaloreans.

All’s this to say that the web has been and continues to shape my experience of the world. It’s not a technology or a service, but a tool for thought. Increasingly, it’s a dysfunctional tool, driving me and everyone else I know to distraction. I want to experiment with a slower internet, where by slow I don’t mean lazy. I mean an internet that helps us build trusting relations with others, where real dialog and debate replaces soundbites and where we can collaborate on projects that really matters.

It’s an internet for serious fun. Serious because it’s built on somewhat old-fashioned ideas about trust, character and responsibility. Fun because it’s built on play, that people can create amazing new things while enjoying each other’s company. I think of it as a contemplative internet, a little refuge, an Ashram, in the middle of the chaos.

You might think this is a romantic vision: don’t we need to be productive when we’re online? I don’t care much about productivity, but even if that’s of some importance to you, a refuge is essential. Productivity takes knowledge and knowledge needs slow cultivation - there’s the old-fashioned fogey coming out again. Learning and knowledge take time. They need careful, step-by-step progress from first principles and I hope to create a little corner for serious play online and maybe, just maybe, that can move into the real world too.

For now, this is a private list, made available to friends and people they trust. It serves two purposes. Every week, I will send a newsletter with some thoughts that I want to share. It will build on writing that I will be sharing publicly, but might have some extras as well. I am starting with my thoughts because they’re the ones I can commit. I would be delighted if you want to add your thoughts to the mix; just reply to this email if you would like to do so. Be warned though that I will want to edit or debate your thoughts before they go out.

The second purpose is to have online discussions and dialogs - on video - with each other and to use that as a way to design a slow internet. If we conduct these conversations on a medium such google hangout, we can even let others get a glimpse of what we’re thinking about. If that goes well, we could start little discussion groups and mini-projects around themes of common interest, but I am wary of imposing structure. This is meant to be a conversation among friends and the closer we stick to that mode of interaction, the better.

Let me end with links to a couple of articles I wrote this week. If you have written something that you want this group to know about, do send it to me and I will include it in next weeks newsletter. Ideally, this this newsletter will become a somewhat private collectively produced document, like the underground samizdat’s in the Soviet era.

  1. The Subject Formerly Known as Mathematics.

  2. Designing Knowledge 2: Books

  3. The Mystery of Education

I would love to hear your thoughts via reply email, especially if you would like to contribute to future newsletters.