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Rethinking intellectual production models (How Academia Got Pwned 7)

6 min
Research  ✺  Strategy  ✺  The Institutions  ✺  Jumping Ship

This is the seventh post in a series about the glorious completion of my academic career, the internet, and the future of intellectual life. This will probably become a book. If you'd like to hear about that when it happens, be sure to subscribe.

You’ll recall from my last post that one of my goals is to rethink the production model for what I was clunkily calling serious, high-brow, radical intellectual production. I need a better shorthand for that, but I’m just referring to the small percentage of every generation that is smart, educated, and possessed by that particular lust for knowledge beyond what is considered reasonable or appropriate by bourgeois society (and beyond what is marketable to mass audiences). I argued that nobody has quite yet nailed down a model for doing this in a way that is financially sustainable over a lifetime, in today’s digital context. Some brave souls are figuring it out quite impressively, but it’s not yet really nailed down. If someone does have it really figured out, they have not yet open-sourced the model, because as far as I know, there does not exist any known path for doing this. This is what I want to do, this is what I am trying to do. In the last post I sketched some generalities, but in this post I want to start sharing the concrete details of my logistical calculations.

What I’m going to share here is only one, pretty arbitrary, back-of-the-napkin exercise. The model I will present may turn out to have some erroneous assumptions, that will need to be corrected along the way, but the beauty of innovating a radically independent and idiosyncratic lifestyle experiment is that I can be very quick to update and iterate the model as I go. Also, in practice, my life over the next year is almost certainly not going to be as neat as this model looks. I’m sure there will be unpredictable roadblocks and snags of all kinds, so I don’t intend to project a dishonest degree of certainty, organization, or formality that never really existed until I sat down to write this. I have no idea how things will really work, this is just one quick effort to formalize the kind of thoughts I’ve had in the shower every damn day for the past three years. These are the same conjectures that Other Life has been built on, and they seem to be working according to plan, but I’ve never really sat down to sketch out the idealized model. This will take a few posts, which I’ll intersperse with the other plot.

By the way, just yesterday, I was assigned to a new investigation meeting. This is strange given that a hearing was already announced, but I suppose they want to squeeze in all the incriminating evidence they can. And boy is there a lot of it now! The new charges? Basically they’re all for writing this very string of blog posts. The evidence file is just copypasta from what you’ve been reading the past few days. That’s right, I just broke the fourth wall. You’re now a supporting character in this grand narrative. How does it feel? It will be fascinating if they go and include this post in the evidence against me. That’s like breaking the fifth wall. Also, the new charges are quite creepy to be honest. One of them is: “breached the implied duty of fidelity.” I couldn’t produce better language for this absurdist drama if I were an actual novelist.

Currently, mature academically-oriented intellectuals produce a few types of products and services, in order to shape the culture and earn an income. Scholarly research articles presenting novel theoretical or empirical findings; academic books doing the same at greater length; mass-market books doing the same but making them accessible to a popular audience; teaching lecture-based courses (transmitting their knowledge); teaching seminar-based courses (facilitating mature students’ independent development); one-on-one mentorship/support/advice for students. I and others have written extensively about how extraordinary are the costs and taxes on providing these products and services through currently existing institutions, so I’m not going to make that case at all here. I’m just going to show you what I hypothesize to be the optimal way for any academic (or any sufficiently smart, educated, and productive person) to offer this whole suite of products and services in a way that is radically liberated from nearly all political correctness and institutional constraints more generally; more productive of true knowledge; more efficient; more satisfying; more fun; more ethical; and, I believe, financially sustainable over a lifetime.

Right now, there is a big heavy anchor hiding beneath the surface of every academic intellectual’s entire life. It’s whatever they did their PhD on. This is the center of the diagram from which almost all of their later intellectual products and services must flow. In the institutional game, very little is possible that gets too far from this. Certainly most of your novel contributions to research knowledge, your courses, but also most of your public-facing work too. (There is a vanishingly small set, in the highest strata of the cognitive elite, who may, after at least a decade of paying dues, have an influential career writing and teaching on truly diverse topics; these people enjoy such rare gifts of intelligence plus conscientiousness that it’s best to ignore them as outliers irrelevant to the comparisons and choices made by the much larger set of mere mortals, like me). In so many ways I cannot begin to explain here, this whole framework for an intellectual life is just hopelessly sub-optimal.

In my model, the central unit of intellectual production will be the individual, stand-alone book. This has always been seen as the primary unit of high-brow intellectual content, so it makes sense to start here, and ask: How can we design a life for the optimal production of these objects over time — where “optimal” refers to some weighted function of truth-content, intensity, quantity, cultural impact, or whatever, conditional ultimately on the strengths, weaknesses, and preferences of each particular author. How can one write the most significant, most original, most impactful books — and as many as possible — in a way that is financially sustainable? To be honest, that’s all I ever set out to do with my life, and here I am with a “secure” academic career, no shortage of ability or discipline, but still not even one book published. This is why I’m here, screaming from the rooftops.

Culture changes so rapidly today, that we also need our model to be as nimble and agile as possible. Here serious intellectuals on a mission to shape the culture need to steal from tech startup culture: Most of what succeeds in the world today leverages rapid prototyping, minimum viable products, constant experimental (“a/b”) testing, and the capacity to update/pivot, sometimes dramatically. The underlying principles are constant flows of measurable, external feedback and everything organized to be capable of updating swiftly and responsively. This is not capitulation We want our visions to look far ahead, and we want our whole project locked unshakably on the truths we see as far ahead as possible, but the problem is we don’t really know what those are, exactly, already. The feedback we are concerned with is not “sales” or “customer satisfaction” levels, rather we need signals from the outside about what is really true and what makes truth resonate. These factors are very likely correlated with metrics such as sales and website traffic, but this does not invalidate the distinct authenticity of the intellectual warpath — it only reflects why these other criteria are such dangerous temptation-traps that have captured and neutralized so many radical intellectuals of the past.

The solution is not to mock and avoid the measurement of “key performance indicators (KPIs),” as if your lazy half-assed writing career is really destroying neoliberal governmentalities because you heroically don’t understand how to setup Google Analytics. Lazy academics and so-called critical theorists have made a whole cottage industry around how they are too good to have any idea about the effects, consequences, success, or failure of anything. This doesn’t make them good, it rather ensures they will not accomplish anything, and makes them feel noble for what is only a confused and helpless fidelity to all currently existing institutions. The solution is better KPIs, custom fit for a mature and militant intellectual enterprise. I have much more to say here (such as this, but this suffices for us to proceed with the basic logic of the new model. We each want and need an individual vision, to which we hold tight over the long-run, but while minimizing path-dependencies that lock us into incomplete models of the world. Thus, an attraction of the book as the primary unit around which we should wrap everything else, is that it’s a good compromise between patient, focused commitment to something substantial, while also permitting virtually unlimited change between books.

I should say up front that I am assuming a previous history of research experience, a personal library (in the mind but also on the computer), solid writing skills and speed, etc. What I’m going to describe is certainly doable for people who do not yet have these as much as they would like, but my time estimates will need to be increased for such cases. This is actually one of my points, insofar as my project is a call to arms for other academics and bourgeois professionals: academics have built up a lot of skills and resources that would make them very effective, very rapidly, if and when they could just free themselves from all the fetters.

That summarizes a few key points about the background logic of where I’m going with this. But it’s already too long for one post. Tomorrow we’re going to start immediately with the model itself. I’ll start to give you estimated numbers, sequences, and projections.


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