The Shifting Sources of Hostility to the Accelerated Academy

The hostility to speed in the ‘accelerated academy’ predates the current fashion to complain about it and blame it on neo-liberalism. I was already reviewing a book by the Dutch sociologist and public intellectual, Dick Pels, on ‘fast science’ for the British Journal of Sociology in 2004, where he basically advocated ‘slow science’ on the model of ‘slow food’, something nowadays popular with the anti-accelerationists. (Unfortunately Pels used the stilted phrase ‘unhastening science’).

What people complain about – sorry I meant ‘critique’ — as the ‘accelerated academy’ is a personalization of a phenomenon that was already recognized at the aggregate level a half-century ago: namely, that the research frontier moves more rapidly as more people are brought into the knowledge production process. This is an idea that goes back to Condorcet and the Enlightenment and justified the promotion of education to unleash humanity’s hidden potential to build a Heaven on Earth. It was seen as a relatively good thing back then – a less science-fictional version of Ray Kurzweil’s visions of the Singularity today.

By the early 1960s the physicist-turned-historian Derek de Solla Price was charting the various acceleration curves based on citation counts in scientific journals, which had become easy to do with the creation of the Science Citation Index (now ‘Web of Science’). Indeed, Price was the first to use such counts to measure and evaluate knowledge production in general – and draw some interesting policy conclusions. It was the start of the field of ‘scientometrics’. On this basis Price coined the famous little/big science distinction, which continues to frame science policy discourse.

However, the sense of ‘acceleration’ of concern to Price and most policymakers ignored the micro level – that is, what effect it would have on individuals facing an already competitive world opening up to many more competitors. Economists know about this scenario, and reckon that to survive under such market conditions one needs to produce more efficiently. But they’re still looking at it from a macro-level because they imagine that this will drive down prices for existing products which in turn will draw in more consumers, which will enable everyone to live happily ever after.

But at a micro-level this means that you can end up driving yourself and others to ground. Even before neo-liberalism, a gender-based critique of the natural sciences emerged because if you need to spend 24/7 in the lab to get competitive results, then women with child-caring duties are disadvantaged. In any case, complaints about the mentality and lifestyle that it takes to survive in the highly competitive world of the natural sciences predate neo-liberalism.

What’s distinctive now about the ‘accelerated academy’ is less to do with people working more hours than that they need to divide those hours between doing the work and accounting for the work. That places the real psychic burden. In the past, the main regular accounting that academics had to do was in the form of peer reviewed publications, which to be sure can be a real psychic burden! But now add to it the need to write grant proposals – regardless of whether one truly needs them – and the periodic self-reporting of activities and achievements, often to more than one authority.

From Derek Price’s standpoint fifty years ago, this development would appear to be a wastage unleashed as a result of more people having been brought into the knowledge production process. But it’s not clear how he or his peers from the 1960s would have addressed the matter. It’s entirely possible that they would have simply called for the use of more ‘unobtrusive measures’ of accountancy, to use a phrase of the time. Nowadays we call it surveillance.

Postscript: When I reviewed Pels’ book, I observed that the sort of people he classed as ‘slow’ — e.g. Ludwig Wittgenstein — simply did not publish a lot in their lifetime. But after they died, it became clear that they had been writing quite a lot. In other words, the illusion of slowness in someone like Wittgenstein reflected Pels’ implicit association of speed of publication with speed of thought. What Pels valorized and others might abhor as ‘slow science’ was ultimately about slow accounting for science. It’s easy, then, to see how the neo-liberal style of knowledge production starts to get an intuitive hold.

Categories: Accelerated Academy, Outflanking Platitudes, Social Theory

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