Post industrial rehab

So over a year on from leaving the world of computer games megacorporations and big budget movie special effects, it’s maybe time to be a bit less terse than usual and compare and contrast against life in the shadowy world of arts, academia and free software.

There are fairly obvious benefits of leaving the 9.00-6.30 if-your-lucky world, free to work from home, a shared “space” or a greasy cafe with stolen wifi and no set hours are great. No need to harp on about that. One of the best things I’ve noticed is that my life is now more varied socially, with different projects I’ve met and worked with people from disparate backgrounds in the last year. In a company it’s very easy to just mix with people with similar outlooks as yourself, and it’s generally simple to explain what you do. The world I’m in now is much more messy, more of a network than a hierarchy – and it’s challenging to fit into the often surprising situations that arise.

What I want to concentrate on however, is what I think both academia and arts could learn from the commercial world. It’s not something I hear much about, as it seems the unwritten agreement that it should always be the other way around.

It seems noticeable to me now that teamwork is more critical in a company than elsewhere. In fact the best people I have worked with have exhibited some degree of ego loss, sometimes an almost fanatical desire to make ‘the right decision’ for everyone – not because they will be praised for it, but just because it makes sense and to do otherwise would be abhorrent. In games or film companies, people like this are highly sought after, whereas my feeling is that people who shout a bit too loud or desire a bit too much recognition tend to get weeded out after a time. It seems to me that the worlds of academia and art seem to have their selection biased in the other direction – as they are based on highly individualistic metrics.

Focusing on academia, I’ve been surprised at how much the publication system forces a secretive, protective culture where exposure of material has to be sensitively stage managed. I can clearly see why this arises, but the culture it enforces (a default distrust of one’s peers) seems counter to the core business of what being a scientist should be about. Several projects I’ve been involved in have found it difficult to negotiate the methods of open source development because of this.

I think the assumption that individualism and the competitiveness that it fosters is the obvious way to achieve the best results needs to be reconsidered. It seems in some cases to be restricting us, and that perhaps (to paraphrase foam) these are the times in which we need more branching out, more interdisciplinary thinking which all requires more default trust between us individually, and our many tribes.

So this brings me back to free software. While it can hardly be credited for lacking people bordering on the egotistical, there is something about the openness, and the endless reports of mistakes you’ve made from complete strangers which I think encourages this more humble mentality.

7 thoughts on “Post industrial rehab

  1. Interesting comparison. But I’m a bit puzzled – in my experience I’ve never really noticed a default distrust nor much secrecy. People often (seem to) give seminars on things at the same time they’re submitting them for publication, and in my experience academic openness is the most productive strategy since it leads to random collaborations with people when you make a connection with someone over something you’re currently interested in.

    The main time when I see secrecy and distrust is when there’s a patent involved, which is for obvious reasons and nothing specific to academia. I’ve seen this a couple of times, when a free-flowing academic chat hits a wall of “we’ve got a patent application underway so I’d better not say much about that”. It’s fine, I’ve nothing against patents in general (although software patents and other specifics of current patent systems are damaged…).

    So I wonder if you could say a bit more about how/when a secretive attitude shows itself in academia?

  2. The instances I’ve come across is where code has to be hidden until publication – which can take a long time, or where all code is held back until all potential publication possibilities have been exploited. This means open code repositories, and normal free software practises are problematic. When your job depends on your publication record, this doesn’t seem surprising behaviour to me.

    Things seem to vary widely depending on the field though. It’s related to open access in a way – physics, biology and bioinformatics seem to embrace it while only one of the top ranking computer science journals even has an open access policy. If publication and peer review was faster, and available online by default, I think the situation would improve.

  3. Interesting observations. I can’t so much comment on the academic or commercial world but I’d like to point out a aspect I think you may have missed. The art world does have things like (loose) collectives and underground labels (that can function as one). There collaboration becomes much more important, especially as things often need to be done on very small budgets. I’m thinking for example of small labels that have a much easier time getting bookings for artists if they can offer a venue a “package deal” that fills a club for a night, or even simply turn a empty space into a club for that period.

    It’s likely different for very famous artists, who can afford to be very individualist but for others it’s hard to get a foot in the door of larger events and often that would lead to a context for the works that the artist himself would be less happy with.

    That situation in turn leads to people with very diverse skill-sets aside from their specialities. Aside from playing music or setting up PA’s I may end up doing stage-management or even work the bar, set up lighting or be a doorman at a given night, this isn’t unusual at all in my social circle. What might be most interesting here from the perspective that you are talking from is that it makes it quite likely that two people who need to reach some sort of agreement quickly under pressure and in chaotic conditions will have done the other person’s task on some other night, leading to more understanding. This also leads to groups that can be very effective in very small teams, decreasing the need for lots of individual fame as the income can be split over less people.

  4. Hi Kassen, yes this also describes the situation with most groups that I work with too – they weren’t really the target for my slightly confused rant.

    I guess the problem I have is with the artist-as-genius myth, which is more or less absent from the more obscure scenes that we’re fortunate enough to be involved in :)

  5. True… but then there are also myths about scientists as geniuses (bloated papers containing about a paragraph of interesting bits in between the obfuscated language…) and especially the “manager” or ceo as a genius that somehow deserves a performance bonus while the company slides down (see you local news…).

    Networks will “deal with” such people while trees have a much harder time with them. A section of a company might function as a network still, of course.

    As I see it your post relates more to the difference between a network and a tree than to the difference between the artistic, academic and commercial worlds. The downside to networks is of course how they scale.

  6. Maybe I was lucky with the companies I worked for, but I never really came across the ceo-as-genius, and if it did sometimes look that way for marketing purposes, it was always treated as a bit of a joke and not reality.

    I’m not really sure what I was getting at now really, I suppose I’m trying to figure out why these different fields attract different sorts of people, and how I see the need for more of a mix. It’s nice to have some feedback to help work it out a bit :)

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