The era of the solo contributor is dead

I have been reconnecting with some of my academic friends. We all belong more or less to the same age cohort. In recent weeks, I have been watching them interacting with one another on Twitter and through various other media. They each have achieved considerable degrees of success in their chosen fields – all have tenure at global top-50 ranked institutions. Through my observations, I have come to the realisation that the era of the solo contributor is dead.

The hero complex

My generation have been raised on competing narratives. On the one hand, our parents were deeply influenced by the social changes of the 1960’s. We learned to treat people equally, respect others’ opinions, and play well together. On the other hand, opportunities to get inside various gilded castles before the draw-bridges are pulled up have been disappearing just ahead of our maturing. When you look at how easy it was, in terms of publications and international collaborations, for my PhD supervisor [~15 years older than me] and his cohort to gain permanent tenured positions you quickly realise that their publications would barely gain them a PhD today!

Nowadays you need to demonstrate a messianic level of both reputation and performance in your chosen field in order to gain entry to the chosen guild. This has driven a natural selection for high-performers and/or for narcissists. The high-performers are naturally driven, obsessive, etc. The narcissist are far from stupid, but maybe shout louder than they perform. This all feeds a (mathematical) power law. And the smarter high-performers quickly realised that even they need to portray themselves as heroes in order to survive the selection process.

Back in the real world

Meanwhile the world has become increasingly collaborative. Michael Ehlers has written one of my favourite articles about how research works outside of academia. No major breakthrough is developed in a vacuum.

If I think of two of my scientific heroes: Charles S. Peirce and Nikolai Tesla. I see this even in their historic contexts. Peirce went further than almost anybody (that we know of ) in developing mathematical logic. However, he did his work outside of existing networks. Even today, he is largely unrecognised. Rather, we acknowledge him after we have reinvented something that he already knew. Tesla fought with Edison for recognition and largely lost. This despite Tesla being far in advance of Edison in terms of discoveries – he just couldn’t effectively share them with his peers.

Similarly in the technology world, we have Linux – initially the work of one man, even then built using tools provided by a community of contributors. The entire Linux ecosystem drives the internet today and is completely made up of interoperating components from many individual contributors.

Redirecting efforts

Nate Silver makes an argument for contribution which I still rebel against, but I see his funamental logic. His message is essentially a restatement of a lesson I learned many years ago as a top athlete. It’s the law of diminishing returns: as average performance in a field edges upwards, ever greater effort will lead to smaller and smaller returns. This rule results in the power law which we see in top-performance.

The ultimate outcome of diminishing returns is an energy crisis in which the rewards cannot sustain the greater efforts. The solution to such an ‘energy crisis’ is a redirection of efforts towards a new field. At present, however, it appears that we are reaching the limits of fields which can be created anew by individual contributors.

Rather, we are in a practical era in which newly combining existing elements is the intellectual pinacle of our age. This will be an exciting phase, but it will be different from the one we all thought that we were training for.

Summing up

I am wrong on many things. But even though the current common wisdom goes against my preferences I think that it is fundamentally true.

Most hard things in coming years will be built by teams.

Today, we still reward for solo-achievements. But this is incongruously rewarding an egotistical smash-and-grab approach. This mixed-signal is one source of our current mixture of outcomes on large-scale research projects. I am no longer such an idealist that I believe that we can top-down reengineer the rewards in the system to lead to greater success. But somehow we will eventually end up at such a solution.

We still need outliers in society. But it is no longer feasible to be Peirce locked away for years with your own thoughts. Fields are moving forward far too quickly for any one person to do everything. Being part of a collective will be the way to ensure your own ongoing seat at the table.

What is most difficult right now is that we are still very much in transition.

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