We publish philosophy like hardware even though we write it like software.
Word count: 1,203
(update, 19/03/2017: I notice this has now been picked up on reddit in both philosophy and badphilosophy. As context, I wrote this a couple of days ago to vent my frustration at how slowly philosophy (including my own) gets done, arguing people should be prepared to share half-formed thoughts rather than sit of them for months. I’d typed it up in a couple of hours as a test of the ‘lean philosophy’ method I was espousing. I’m unsure if I should count this as success or failure. After it, this blog is least ten times more popular than anything else I’ve ever written and I did it in about 1/5th of the time. On the other hand, the first time I write and publish thoughts quickly it ends up on reddit’s bad philosophy. The irony is not lost on me.)
As someone who’s simultaneously trying to start a start-up and finish a PhD, I’m often struck by how radically different academia and tech entrepreneurship approach getting stuff done. When I started working on my happiness app, Hippo, I arrogantly thought that my background in precise-thinking, distinction-making philosophy would be really useful, my superior mental training allowing me to breeze past all those business school dummies. What’s really surprised me is that I’ve come to think of it the other way around: the more I’ve been exposed to the entrepreneurial approach, the more critical and frustrated I’ve become with the glacial pace of professional philosophy. I wanted to write this to share my observations and set out some criticisms. I’m going to quickly explain how start-ups are advised to think about getting stuff done, then contrast that with what philosophers do. What I say could probably be applied to other areas of academia but I’m not familiar with them.
Anyone who knows anything about starting a start-up knows the key words are ‘lean’ and ‘speed’. Rather than trying to build what, in your head, is the perfect product, you should build the simplest version that solves the problem you’re interested in. This is known as the ‘MVP’ or ‘minimum viable product’. And you should do this as quickly as possible. Why? Several reasons. For one, software is really easy to change. If you make a mistake, you can just go back and fix it. For another, there’s probably someone else out there with the same idea too, so you want to learn as fast as possible so that you can improve your idea and stay ahead. To quote a philosopher, Voltaire “the perfect is the enemy of the good” (this is about the only time a philosopher turns out to be useful in this post). And the other reason you need get your product out there is to find out if it’s actually something people want. You came up with a great idea about a Facebook for pets and think you’ll become a billionaire? Great. Now you should go and ask people if it’s something they’d pay for. If no one wants it, you’ll have saved yourself a bunch of evenings building the purrfect (#puns) ‘Petbook’ website.
As someone who has spent basically their whole life in academia, I found this new approach psychologically hard and confusing. What do you do when you want to write a philosophy essay? First, you pick a topic you think is interesting, regardless of whether anyone inside or outside of philosophy cares. Then you sit in your bedroom by yourself thinking about it, occasionally pausing to consult the written work of other people who have also thought about lots of things whilst sitting in their bedrooms. Almost never do you talk to anyone else. Why would you? Unless you’ve got it worked out and neatly presented they’ll just think that you are stupid. After all, no other philosopher produces half-finished pieces of work, except maybe to close friends, for commentary. You eventually start write and re-write and turn over every single word until it’s perfect or you run out of time. Then you hand it in to be marked or submit it to a journal and that’s it. It’s possible you’ll present it some colleagues at a conference but that’s only after you’ve already spend ages perfecting it in your bedroom.
Philosophy is really like software: we can improve or re-write it in a moment. Weirdly, we approach philosophy like it’s hardware. What do you do if you’re in a hardware business like selling cars? Well, if you’ve built thousands in the factory, put them in the dealerships and then you realise you’ve forgotten to puts the wheels on, you can’t just pop around all the dealerships and change things. You’ve got a serious egg on your face. If you’re building hardware you employ a different approach: you test it and test it and test it before you roll it out.
The more I think about it, the more it frustrates me that academia doesn’t function like a Silicon Valley software business. The current make-it-perfect-first-hardware-type model philosophy uses is deeply inefficient. Why the hell shouldn’t philosophers find out if a topic is important to someone and abandon it if no one else cares? If we did this, maybe we’d focus on the crucial problems first and we’d get back to questions like ‘how many parts make a whole’ when everything else is figured out. If a problem is important, why shouldn’t we produce a rough series of thoughts immediately that we share widely so other people know about it? That gives us quicker feedback on our work and gets the insights to other people working on the same problem. Once we’ve got that feedback we can go back to our research, improve it and then show it to more people. To quote from Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn (who also did post grad philosophy at Wolfson College, Oxford): “If you’re not embarrassed by your first release, you’ve waited too long“. The idea is that if something is so polished you’re not ashamed of it, then you’ve been wasting time. If you’d shown it someone earlier it could have been even better by now.
I think it would be much better if we did ‘lean’ philosophy: developed ideas quickly and then, following Hoffman, shared them with each other whilst we were still embarrassed at not having the perfect draft. Others would provide swift critiques and suggested readings. It makes me wince when I think of much time we (i.e. academic types) spend spend alone, ignoring each other and perfecting our own work rather than talking to each and collectively making progress. This is a huge opportunity lost. On the (perhaps questionable) assumption philosophy actually matters, helps us gain insight and learn how to live our lifes, wouldn’t it be better if it took the faster, iterative approach pioneered by start-ups?
Of course, this won’t happen. Philosophy isn’t more like tech because the incentives are either perverse or absent. Philosophers are rewarded with economic status (i.e. increased job prospects) and social status (people thinking you’re smart) only by producing exceedingly good philosophy they can publish and that is attributable to them. Tech companies like Google make money when they produce a product that is actually useful to people, even if it’s not perfect. In philosophy, producing something bad is often worse, in the eyes of one’s peers, than producing nothing at all.
So how about we move to world where we’re all much less critical of each other’s work, much less interested in jousting for intellectual superiority, and much more interested in sharing bad ideas and turning them into good ones?
Stupid idea? Yeah. I thought so too. Nevermind, I’ll see you in the library tomorrow then? Well, I say ‘see you’, I mean I’ll have my headphones in and I’ll be staring at my laptop focusing on re-writing each sentence of an essay I’ve already written so you’ll think I’m smart. So, I won’t actually ‘see you’. But you knew what I meant, right?