Anyone will tell you that academia is broken.
The why varies, of course: some blame publication pressure, or greedy journals. Some think it’s the fault of grant committees, or tenure committees, or grad admission committees. Some argue we’re driving away the wrong people, others that we’re letting in the wrong people. Some place the fault with the media, or administrators, or the government, or the researchers themselves. Some believe the problem is just a small group of upstarts, others want to tear the whole system down.
If there’s one common theme to every “academia is broken” take, it’s limited resources. There are only so many people who can make a living doing research. Academia has to pick and choose who these people are and what they get to do, and anyone who thinks the system is broken thinks those choices could be made better.
As I was writing my version of the take, I started wondering. What if we didn’t have to choose? What would academia look like in a world without limited resources, where no-one needed to work for a living? Can we imagine what that world might look like?
Then I realized I didn’t need to imagine it. I’d already seen it.
Let me tell you a bit about Dungeons and Dragons.
Dungeons and Dragons doesn’t have “pro gamers”, nobody makes money playing it. It isn’t even really the kind of game you can win or lose. It’s collaborative storytelling, backed up with a pile of dice and rulebooks. Nonetheless, Dungeons and Dragons has an active community dedicated to thinking about the game. They call themselves “optimizers”, and they focus on figuring out the best way the rules allow to do what they want to do.
Sometimes, the goal is practical: “what’s the best archer I can make?” “how can I make a character that has something useful to do no matter what?” Sometimes it’s more farfetched: “can I deal infinite damage?” “how can I make a god at level one?” Optimizing for these goals requires seeking out obscure rules, debating loopholes and the meaning of the text, and calculating probabilities.
I like to joke that Dungeons and Dragons was my first academic community, and that isn’t too far from the truth. These are people obsessed with understanding a complex system, who “publish” their research in forum posts , who collaborate and compete and care about finding the truth. While these people do have day jobs, that wasn’t a real limit. Dungeons and Dragons, I am forced to admit, is easier than theoretical physics. Even with day jobs or school, most of the D&D optimization community had plenty of time to do all the “research” they wanted. In a very real sense, they’re a glimpse at a post-scarcity academia.
There’s another parallel, one relevant to the current situation in theoretical physics. When I was most active in optimization, we played an edition of the game that was out of print. Normally there’s a sort of feedback between game designers and optimizers. As new expansions and errata are released, debates in the optimization community get resolved or re-ignited. With an out of print edition though, that feedback isn’t available. The optimization community was left by itself, examining whatever evidence it already had. This feels a lot like the current situation in physics, when so many experiments are just confirming the Standard Model. Without much feedback, the community has to evolve on its own.
So what did post-scarcity academia look like?
First, the good: this was a community highly invested in education. The best way to gain status wasn’t to build the strongest character, or discover a new trick. Instead, the most respected members of the community were the handbook writers, people who wrote long, clearly written forum posts summarizing optimization knowledge for newer players. I’m still not at the point where I read physics textbooks for fun, but back when I was active I would absolutely read optimization handbooks for fun. For those who wanted to get involved, the learning curve was about as well-signposted as it could be.
It was a community that could display breathtaking creativity, as well as extreme diligence. Some optimization was off-the-cuff and easy, but a lot of it took real work or real insight, and it showed. People would write short stories about the characters they made, or spend weeks cataloging every book that mentioned a particular rule. Despite not having to do their “research” for a living, motivation was never in short supply.
All that said, I think people yearning for a post-scarcity academia would be disappointed. If you think people do derivative, unoriginal work just because of academic careers, then I regret to inform you that a lot of optimization was unoriginal. There were a lot of posts that were just remixes of old ideas, packaged into a “new” build. There were also plenty of repetitive, pointless arguments, to the point that we’d joke about “Monkday” and “Wizard Wednesday”.
There was also a lot of attention-seeking behavior. There’s no optimization media, no optimization jobs that look for famous candidates, but people still cared about being heard, and pitched their work accordingly. We’d get a lot of overblown posts: “A Fighter that can beat any Wizard!” (because he’s been transformed by a spell into an all-powerful shapeshifter), “A Sorceror that can beat any Wizard!” (using houserules which change every time someone points out a flaw in the idea).
(Wizards, as you may be noticing, were kind of the String Theory of that community.)
Some problems in academia are caused by bad incentives, by the structure of academic careers. Some, though, are caused because academics are human beings. If we didn’t have to work for a living, academics would probably have different priorities, and we might work on a wider range of projects. But I suspect we’d still have good days and bad, that we’d still puff ourselves up for attention and make up dubious solutions to famous problems.
Of course, Dungeons and Dragons optimizers aren’t the only example of “post-scarcity academia”, or even a perfect example. They’ve got their own pressures, due to the structure of the community, that shape them in particular ways. I’d be interested to learn about other “amateur academics”, and how they handle things. My guess is that the groups whose work is closer to “real academia” (for example, the Society for Creative Anachronism) are more limited by their day jobs, but otherwise might be more informative. If there’s a “post-scarcity academia” you’re familiar with, mention it in the comments!
I think a similar, albeit less cerebral, example is mixed martial arts discussion groups. I don’t follow it that much these days, but remember seeing some quite involved discussion and debates at http://www.sherdog.com/ .
“If there’s one common theme to every “academia is broken” take, it’s limited resources. There are only so many people who can make a living doing research.”
Given the advances made in physics from the dawn of time until 1970, and the limited results after, one wonders if in fact the problem is somehow related to an overabundance of researchers and research dollars. The total amount of hours dedicated to physics since 1970 dwarfs all the hours spent before 1970.
The problem might be instant global communication. There is no time to nurture obviously silly ideas in a research group, as the global village of physics cohorts in any subject matter rejects new ideas. Note – it’s not the individual physicists who are unwilling to accept new ideas, it’s the social construct of a global village itself that stops new ideas from forming.
Another example of a “post-scarcity” academia I’m familiar with is the Conway’s game of life community. Here’s a link to a portal that would direct to some of what’s going on. This community resembles academia in manner and content more than the D&D fandom does. In fact, there are published papers on cellular automata but most progress is made by hobbyists outside of academic channels. There are many subtopics and techniques, such as glider synthesis, engineered spaceships, search programs, Herschel tracks, etc..
A little less esoterically, there is the huge Stack Exchange community.
Good point. I do wonder how much it varies with subject: my guess would be that subjects that also have a professional community have different dynamics from those that don’t. Also curious how often someone publicizes a new “discovery” of their own versus answers someone else’s question.