Math as a Social Medium, Part 2

There really shouldn’t be a Part 2.  I was going to report on a proposal for scientific publication that circulated on a forum called Math 2.0 around the time of the Elsevier boycott.  Remember that one of the premises of the boycott was that practically all the work in publishing is done for free by the mathematical community, and that Elsevier was making exorbitant profits from its ownership of copyright, independently of their often questionable commercial practices.

At the time, lots of people were quoting an article by Michael Clarke entitled “Why Hasn’t Scientific Publishing Been Disrupted Already?”  Clarke identified five functions of scientific publishing:  dissemination, registration, validation (generally by peer review), filtration, and designation.  Henry Cohn, one of the signatories of the Statement of Purpose mentioned in the last post, added the function of archiving.  It was taken for granted that the technology existed to archive and disseminate the results of mathematical research and that commercial publishers were unnecessary, as long as we didn’t insist on printing hard copies that libraries had no space to store anyway.  (So it’s more than a little ironic that the archives of Math 2.0 that I was hoping to quote seem to have vanished without a trace.)   Registration should also not pose a problem.  The last three functions had to do with quality control.  Nobody wanted to give that up.  One of the proposals discussed on Math 2.0 was to institute a system akin to Amazon Customer Reviews.  Any paper could be posted, and the market of potential readers would select the interesting ones, look at them carefully (because they look interesting), and then validation, filtration, and designation would be measured on a continuum by the number of five-star reviews.   Of course the model would have to be refined.  The reviewers would themselves have to be reviewed (Amazon has a way of doing this).  Since no one is taking overall responsibility, some papers that don’t immediately appear fashionable might fall between the cracks.  Safeguards would have to be put in place to avoid takeover by new generations of commercial operators.  But the community has no shortage of good will, and tinkering with the model would eventually lead to a stable and harmonious solution.  (This was before the Snowden revelations; maybe the open web is no longer perceived to be such a harmonious place.)

In this way mathematics would become a social medium.   Of course sites like MathOverflow are already bubbling with meaningful social activity, and participants are ranked for their contributions to the community, but they don’t serve the traditional functions (that are not all that old, in point of fact) of scientific publication.  The new model would combine the conviviality of the participatory sites with the microeconomic logic of the market to provide these functions in a way that is organic, spontaneous, and fun.  (I’m beginning to embellish because I don’t have the texts in front of me.)  Authors would be encouraged to explain and defend their contributions by responding to questions from the market in real virtual time.

That last suggestion did not appeal to me.  I don’t like the fact that unpaid Customer Reviews have undermined professions (as Tom Waits pointed out).  I’m wary of replacing a practice that has evolved over several centuries to serve the needs of the profession by a model of sociability that in less than a decade has led to the creation of massive fortunes and an enormous shift of power with practically no democratic oversight.  But I didn’t have time to make the argument, so I just said that I didn’t want to make publication conditional on surrendering control of my time to the marketplace.  Someone asked:  if I wanted to publish, shouldn’t I be willing to engage with the community?

As I remember it, the objections became more strident.  Someone intimated that my attitude was elitist.   I took that as a signal to quit.  Dave Eggers published The Circle a year later, and when I read the mottos “secrets are lies”, “sharing is caring,” and “privacy is theft,” which are supposed to be an accurate representation of much of the Silicon Valley ethos, I was reminded of this interaction.  But it’s unfortunate that the content of my supposed elitism was not examined.  The practice of mathematics is based on a recognized hierarchy of values that is hard to reconcile with our notions of democracy.  I don’t know that anyone has even tried. 

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One thought on “Math as a Social Medium, Part 2

  1. Pingback: Caring For The Community – Study Score Calc

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