Frictionless, Packaged Reality

A world devoted to "artificial intimacy" and frictionless burlesques is unreal and unreliable — but also seductively comfy

I was recently listening to a podcast from Esther Perel which included in the title the phrase “artificial intimacy” (AI).

This term gains a lot of definitions throughout the episode — from the fact that relationships via social media aren’t real (“I can have 1,000 friends but nobody to feed my cat”) to the way we think life is elsewhere, with one salient example being people insisting on taking pictures as the food arrived for a great meal (“the camera eats first”) to broadcast their experience to people not present, rather than just enjoying the people, moment, smells, sights, and flavors as they exist in the moment. “Being there without being there” is the prime form of artificial intimacy.

Perel addresses how artificial intimacy comes from living in “a contactless world, where there is very little friction.” Rather than the messy, think-on-your-feet, read-the-room, smell the pheromones, and watch the microexpressions physical world, which has more bandwidth of information than we ever get through fiber optic, we spend more time locked into screens, addicted to posts and alerts, and focused on a polished, programmed world rather than the physical human realm we actually operate within.

Those devoted to frictionless scientific publication processes embrace preprints, and choose this lazy burlesque — this artificial intimacy adjacent to the scientific record — over the more fraught, uncertain, friction-filled world of journal submission, editorial scrutiny, possible rejection, and revision and resubmission.

This is one of the real dangers of insurrectionists like those at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and cOAlition S advocating preprints as a viable alternative to journal publication — it puts artifice over reality, the appearance of rigor over the actual achievement and tangible benefits of participating in a rigorous process to improve a work, and the typically collaborative, serious, and thoughtful editorial and professional teams at journals in the role of villains because they want to have a relationship with authors to help them move their articles forward in the best way possible, ferreting out problems, conflicts, errors, and inadequacies along the way.

Preprints are artificial in appearance and affect, and they are misleading.

In the midst of all this, one short passage from the podcast jumped out at me:

. . . if everything is supposed to be polished or glossed, then you don’t get to experience experimentation, doubt, friction, conflict, that are part of . . . fierce intimacy, and then you start to have all these experiences of artificial intimacy.

Funders have been out of control for a long time, have been played again and again by smarter commercial entities who know how to extract money from simplistic funding programs, and have only become more radical as they refuse to give up on their plan to disrupt — an anarchist’s vision.

As techno-dystopians, they view scientific publishing as something you can plop on a server with a standard templated interface over it, some unique identifiers, a modicum of traditional formatting, and it magically becomes legitimate. That’s their version of artificial intimacy — the ResearchGate, Rxiv, platform solution.

And, they never want to actually engage in a serious debate about their approach, in a serious and fraught discussion about the value of scientific publishing and gatekeeping, in seriously learning what they’re doing and why most authors view journal publication positively, noting that their articles come out better because of the interactions with editorial teams and reviewers.

Instead, they hire people with artificial intimacy relative to journals — librarians who haven’t been in the midst of a strong journal’s daily routines, or technologists who think they understand the underlying mechanisms of knowledge generation because they’ve programmed some interfaces. They have artificial intimacy relative to what they seek to control.

Going through an editorial review process is a form of “fierce intimacy,” and it can be scary, frustrating, deflating, and humbling. It can also be thrilling, beneficial, helpful, and encouraging. And it can be all these things at once, because that’s how fierce intimacy works. It’s complicated.

Yet, the increasing intolerance for and inexperience with the messier, less designed, less-polished physical world seems to make more and more people want to retreat to a safer zone — one consisting of screens, apps, well-trodden interfaces, small and safe interactions, and packaged ideas.

cOAlition S portrays the recent Gates and cOAlition embrace of preprints as “freedom for authors.” But freedom from review, accountability, collaboration, guidance, feedback, scrutiny — that’s just freedom from the fierce intimacy of journal publication.

Focused on the individual, screen life also rob us of what Émile Durkheim called “collective effervescence,” the coordinated experience often created by music, theater, religious services, or other social activities that elicit synchronized group activity or responses.

In the scholarly publishing world, journals and books enter into the realm of “collective effervescence” as they are designed and produced for communities. Well, they were, until the article economy overturned the idea that communities matter more than throughput — that actual collective intimacy via identity and shared professional values and norms mattered more than a scattering of articles discoverable only via search algorithms that provide artificial intimacy with the community, with context, temporal relationships, and other community signals stripped away.

In this world of Perel-like AI, authors may be less likely to put their papers through editorial review, peer-review, conflicts review, and statistical review. It may be deemed too much trouble, too much friction, too filled with the fierce intimacy of editors, reviewers, and staff interacting with them, questioning their work in a collaborative manner, taking time to deal with their work seriously, and ultimately guiding them through to a better paper with greater impact.

Instead, the artificial intimacy of preprints — where authors get a DOI, a citable work, a paper that has HTML and PDF versions that resemble full papers, and a chance to make a weeklong splash on their socials — may win in this era where friction makes people too uncomfortable, or where collaboration, conflict, feedback, questions, and accountability seem to “fierce” and intimate, too scary, too intimidating — where asking for and receiving help from experts is viewed as too risky, too friction-filled, and too intimate to tolerate.