The Joy of Collaboration

Leonardo da Vinci said, “The noblest pleasure is the joy of understanding.” But he was wrong — the greatest pleasure is successful collaboration to help others. We can perhaps forgive Leonardo this slip, as no doubt it was hard for him to find co-workers who could keep up with him; I have no such limitation.

Last week my friend David Jeschke, founder of XtraMath, flew to Austin and we hacked together for two and a half days on his project, “Math Tablet”. It is an attempt to build a hand-writing enabled math assistant — a genius looking over your shoulder as you perform pen-and-paper style calculations integrated with little sketches and figures drawn with a stylus. David was kind enough to donate Math Tablet to Public Invention, my non-profit to produce free-libre open-source inventions. Math Tablet, like all Public Invention projects, will be freely usable by all. I’m happy to say that David is the first official “Invention Coach”, and is ready to coordinate volunteers on this project.

Math Tablet as a project is just beginning. Whether Math Tablet will eventually succeed remains an open question, but we certainly made progress last week. We integrated with Mathematica to export graphs of simple functions into our “notebooks”, which we hope will eventually be like magic graph paper.

It meant a lot to me that he came. This is the model that I am striving for with Public Invention — people working freely and closely together for a humanitarian purpose, without the need for profit or an exclusionary status hierarchy.

There is a model in our society of the “lone genius”. I hate it. Most of the people we call geniuses “have seen farther because they stand on the shoulders of giants”, to quote Isaac Newton. (Math Tablet is also standing on the shoulders of giants — so far we have mainly hooked MyScript handwriting recognition to Mathematica.)

I sometimes work alone, but never willingly. Possibly I started Public Invention not as a humanitarian gift to the world, as I tell myself, but rather so my inner child could rely less on imaginary friends.

The truth is in almost any intellectual project, especially a software project, there are a thousand little tasks. The work of performing these little tasks is less daunting when it is shared.

However, collaboration is deeper than just dividing the work. We are not androids performing little tasks, but rather friends affirming and encouraging, and sometimes even correcting, each other. Two minds are greater than the sum of there powers.

Of course, this only occurs if people have the emotional intelligence to limit their own egos and insecurities. I have gotten better at this over time. I am both bossy and insecure by nature, but I have learned to allow others to have their way whenever I am not strongly opposed to something. I don’t know if David has had to learn this as well, but he is easy to work with.

I wish I could give all the lonely people in the world working on math and technology projects the joy of collaboration. Modern technology, has enabled this, even if physical presence is still unbeatable. Imagine what it would mean to the young student, isolated geographically or socioeconomically to always have a friend they can turn to for advice and judgment and assistance, and above all, affirmation.

The world is evolving. In the future, you won’t have to get into a University to have a great learning experience. Already, the Internet has made information free. Knowledge requires work. Collaboration is even harder to come by: it requires organization, and Public Invention is trying to be part of that by joining together inventors, students, communicators and artists around humanitarian projects to usher in an age of abundance.

Let’s do it together.

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