The internet is a Toyata-thon of Death — or is it? [philosophy edition]

Life sometimes seems like a Toyota with a stuck accelerator, thanks to ever-improving communications media. Saying that the internet speeds up life is pretty banal, but sometimes it just strikes home in a way that makes you stop and think that maybe there is hope for us after all – if we can figure out how to harness it.

Take philosophy. In an effort to prevent atrophy, I was reading through Isaiah Berlin’s classic essays on liberty the other day. My edition starts off with an Introduction by Berlin from the 1969 edition, which collected earlier works, including the 1950 work ‘Political Ideas in the Twentieth Century’, a controversial 1954 essay on determinism, ‘Historical Inevitability’, and the seminal 1958 essay ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’. The first interesting thing about Berlin’s 1969 Introduction is how directly he responds to his critics, more like a blogger than a philosopher.  The second, and more important, point of interest in the Introduction is how long it takes for Berlin to respond in the first place. He devotes most of his time in the 1969 Introduction to responding to critics of his 1954 determinism essay, particularly arguments advanced by:

  • Amartya Sen, 1959, ‘Determinism and Historical Predictions’ [fun side note: Sen was still teaching at Harvard as recently as 2008 when one of my best friends took a grad seminar with him. The man is a machine.]
  • J. A. Passmore, 1959, ‘History, the Individual, and Inevitability’
  • Ernest Nagel, 1959-60, ‘The Structure of Science’
  • Edward Hallett Carr, 1961, ‘What is History?’

Just to highlight the chronology here, Berlin writes an influential essay criticizing determinists for being inconsistent in 1954. Several prominent determinists write cogent and not-so-cogent responses from 1959 to 1961 — i.e., more than 5 years after Berlin’s original essay. Berlin then waits another 8 years or so to publish his own responses defending his original essay and engaging with the arguments of his critics. That’s a 15 year response lag.

Maybe I’m being unfair in using publication dates here. Academics attend conferences and chat, so maybe the first critiques came much earlier than 1959 from these authors, and perhaps Berlin’s responses in the 1969 Introduction are just compiled bits of rejoinder from the past 15 years. But knowing the insularity and stately pace of life in academia, I’m inclined to believe that the time lag really was one the order of years.

There are two main points I want to draw out here:

  1. Response times have narrowed across the board in the last 20 years, in news, many sciences, politics, policy, and personal communication. These days, even my mother feels guilty when she misses a call on her cell phone. RSS feeds, email alerts, and social networking mean we get notified when something of relevance to us happens in the world, and similar technologies let us respond quickly.  This gives us all the ability to speed up debate (witness the flame wars on the Internet).
  2. More importantly, because debate can be faster, there’s a growing ethos that is should be. We all have a limited number of days, so productivity gains are individually important. We are still only a short way along the information superhighway, so productivity gains are socially important (in nearly the same way that economic growth is socially imperative given the need around the globe). Centuries ago it took a lifetime to copy books, borrow books, read books, respond, have responses copied and lent out, and have the process start all over again. The pace of knowledge discovery was very limited. Fifty years ago the world was much more connected, and responses came in 15 years — just half a generation! But these days, 15 years seems like an inexcusably long time to wait. True, high-level academics is often complicated and it takes expertise and time to formulate proper theories, critiques, and responses. But it’s not that complicated, and, excluding issues of data-gathering, there’s nothing involved that would take a competent grad student more than a couple months to cobble together.

So my prediction is that while a 15-year response time may have been perfectly reasonable for Berlin’s generation, the new generation of scholars is going to live and die by response time. My worry, though, is that academics is permanently hampered by medieval (or maybe just pre-modern) institutions like trade journals and academic presses. Compared to the infestation of non-academic blogs, academic blogs are few and far between — and often grow up in and are contaminated by the milieu of their non-academic cousins. Truly academic blogging is rare (and just in case you’re wondering, no, I certainly don’t count Joint Stock Company as a truly academic blog). If we really want to unleash the power of the Internet-as-Toyota-thon-of-Death model, we need to kill the journal/academic press system – or at least its worst excesses – and make revolutions in technology relevant to our thought-leaders.

Update: Does anyone know of any good studies that try to measure response times in academia or in the broader blogosphere? It’d be great if we could measure response rates over time and break down the information by discipline, to get a handle on what we’re talking about. I’ll add this is the Questions page.


6 Responses to “The internet is a Toyata-thon of Death — or is it? [philosophy edition]”

  1. 1 JSC5 March 10, 2010 at 6:37 pm

    I guess I should clarify: Clearly tenure decisions are heavily based on volume and perceived quality of published work. But the way tenure committees perceive quality seems skewed to me. Sure, institutional prestige is a useful instrumental variable/brand/signal of worth, especially in a complicated world. If Prof. X publishes in Well-Respected Journal Y, that’s better than if Prof. X published in Bottom-Feeding Journal Z. Journals give tenure committees useful shortcuts to see if a professor’s work is useful to the broader academic community. They also give us consumers of academic research a useful shortcut. Thank God I don’t have to keep up my subscription to Bottom-Feeding Journal Z. But I think all too often, we take a marker of a trait, like prestige as a marker for quality, and turn them into identities in our minds. Prestige = quality. But that’s dangerous. And it makes it too easy for academics to operate under the guise of real communication when really what they’re doing is pretending to communicate with each others’ ideas. It seems to me (i.e. someone with connections to academia but not actually in it) that one of the smarter ways to advance as an academic right now is to never respond too directly or too promptly or too voluminously to your critics, but instead to remain just slightly above the fray. Don’t piss people off, don’t tarnish your theory by subjecting it to real debate on someone else’s terms. Talk the talk of debate but don’t put anything really valuable on the line by being too direct in your responses. Communication is compromise, and current incentives point towards pseudo-communication and pseudo-debate in academia. Would a faster tempo and a technology-heavy, link-based format of scholarship help this situation? Maybe. People still dodge real debates all the time on the Internet, but at least the incentives are better than the current system.

    • 2 JSC7 March 11, 2010 at 3:16 am

      Counterargument: the amount of experience and thought we have, per lifetime, is finite (not fixed, but with a substantial upper cap). Significant experience and thought occur even (especially?) during boring downtime like walking to a library or copying a book or buying postage stamps or reading Isaiah Berlin in your mom’s basement. If you reduce the amount of time it takes you to respond, n, by orders of magnitude, you are also reducing the finite amount of new significant experience and thought that you can summon into your response. In other words, a large n will force us to iterate between a number of good responses just because there’s nothing else to do, while a small n will incentivize us to go with the first good one we think of. (The underlying problem, in this scenario, being that as people we’re not very good, when we think we have a good idea, of thinking we’ll have a better one later)

      • 3 JSC5 March 11, 2010 at 11:55 am

        But what if expected future thoughts (EFT) at any point in one’s life is a result of the constructive interactions of the number of thoughts you’ve previously had up to this point in life (Tyou) and the number of other people’s thoughts you’ve ever seriously engaged with up to this point in life (Tothers)? TEFT = f(Tyou, Tothers). That seems like the proper large scale model to me, over time. Clearly at the small scale of individual thoughts themselves, there’s another function based on n where quality of thoughts declines as n decreases. QT = f(n). But my hunch is that we’re not really anywhere near the n where that factor would predominate in this world relative to the first function. I mean, do you think the problem is that people currently do to much thinking, or too little?

      • 4 JSC5 March 11, 2010 at 11:58 am

        Also, parents’ basements are so last week. I hear beautiful South African gardens are coming back in style.

  2. 5 JSC7 March 11, 2010 at 5:10 pm

    Of course, the problem, as always, is people are thinking too little (when hasn’t that been the issue, really?). But, I would say that fast response times decrease both Tyou and Tothers, and so reduce TEFT over time. I guess the best analogy would be poverty traps – you don’t have enough money to eat well to become more productive, but without being more productive you can’t earn that money. Or a situation where you spend all your time fixing holes in your roof and you don’t have time to build a new one, if even the latter option is long-term optimal. In the intellectual debate case, you don’t have enough intellectual stature to not have to respond fast, but you respond with a just-good-enough argument that’s not groundbreaking, thus preventing you from gaining that stature. I’m not 100% convinced of this myself, but I think it’s at least part of the equation.

    • 6 JSC5 March 11, 2010 at 8:22 pm

      I guess I don’t buy the model of intellectual advancement that focuses on great insights and leaps of understanding by individual people. My value-added idea spoken today on a fast turnaround time gets turned into someone else’s input instantly and helps make their response even better. And then I get a chance to chime in again and improve the discussion. And so does everyone else. Flashes of deep insight are really, really rare in this world. They were rare back when turnaround times were on the order of generations, but they were the only things going, so they’re prominent in the history of ideas. But once turnaround times got going faster and faster, we’ve had much more rapid progress on what may be an equal amount of rare flashes of insight. Or not. Like you, I’m not sure I’m right on this.

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This is a group blog. JSC5 currently writes from the US. JSC7 writes from behind the Great Firewall of China.

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