Last week I was lucky enough to spend five days in North Carolina at the Triangle Scholarly Communications Institute, an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation funded initiative that brings teams together on a retreat style meeting to work on specific projects. More on that, and the work of our team, at a later date but one thing that came out of our work really struck me. When we talk about the web and the internet, particularly in the context of scholarly publishing we talk about how the shift from an environment of scarcity limited by the physical restrictions of the print world to a world of abundance. Often we focus on how thinking shaped in that old world is still limiting us today, often invoking that deity of disruption, Clayton Christenson in the process. So far so obvious.
What struck me as we prepared for our final presentations was that these narratives of scarcity don’t just limit us in the world of publication. I am lucky enough to have been to quite a few meetings where great people are sequestered together to think and discuss. These meetings always generate new ideas, exciting projects and life changing insights that somehow dissolve away as we return to our regular lives. The abundance of these focussed meetings, abundance of time, abundance of expertise, abundance of the attention of smart people gives way to the scarcity of our day to day existence. The development of these new ideas falters as it has to compete with scarce time of individuals. When time can be found it is asynchronous, and patchy. We try to make time but we never seem to be able to find the right kind of time.
Many of us reflected that it was a shame we couldn’t always work like this, focussed periods bringing groups together to do the work. But it struck me that, just as the web provides a platform, an infrastructure, that makes publication cheap, that the Mellon Foundation through the SCI Program has also provided an infrastructure that creates an abundance of time and attention. The marginal cost of each project is minimal compared to investment in the program. It is the program that makes it possible. Could the same be true of that archetypal form of scarcity in research, the grant? Could we imagine infrastructures that make the actual doing of research relatively cheap? Is that possible in a world of expensive reagents and equipment? Are the limitations that we see as so self evident real, or are they imposed by our lack of imagination?
And yet there’s also a dark side to this. It is a privilege to attend these meetings and work with these people. And I mean “privilege” with all the loaded and ambivalent connotations it has today. The language of abundance is the language of the “disruptors” of Silicon Valley, a language of techno-utopianism where, with the money you made from your dating app for Bay Area dogs you can now turn your attention to “solving someone else’s problem” with a new app or a new gadget. It can be well-meaning but it is limited. The true challenge is create the opportunities for abundance where it wasn’t before, supporting the creation of new infrastructure and platforms that truly create abundance for those who will most appreciate it. Tim O’Reilly‘s “X as a Platform” agenda pointed in this direction but in a limited context. The web is not (yet) that platform as the rumbling debate over the Wikipedia Zero program shows.
Each time I look at the question of infrastructures I feel the need to go a layer deeper, that the real solution lies underneath the problems of the layer I’m looking at. At some level this is true, but its also an illusion. The answers to questions of biology do not lie in chemistry, nor do the answers of chemistry do not lie in physics. The answers lie in finding the right level of abstraction and model building (which might be in biology, chemisty, physics or literature depending on the problem). Principles and governance systems are one form of abstraction that might help but its not the whole answer. It seems like if we could re-frame the way we think about these problems, and find new abstractions, new places to stand and see the issues we might be able to break through at least some of those that seem intractable today. How might we recognise the unexpected places where it is possible to create abundance?
If only I could find the time to think that through…