Reflections, Three Years In . . .

The guiding spirit of "The Geyser" has been optimistic criticism. Is there hope?

Last month, “The Geyser” quietly celebrated its 3rd anniversary. This far along, the initiative feels like a success. Naysayers initially asserted nobody would subscribe (after all, who would pay a subscription fee these days???), yet hundreds have subscribed, and renewal rates are strong (thank you, everyone!). And there are days when it feels like all the work is making a difference.

But not every day. There’s still a smugness, a lack of humility, a techno-utopian hubris amidst our tribe that seems impervious to fair criticism, as bags of wind push away the probing questions and penetrating analyses that might pop their bubbles or challenge their pet theories.

Given this, there is a bit of an existential concern always hovering around the main aspirational goal of the newsletter — “optimistic criticism.” When being critical, the aim has been to follow Jaron Lanier’s mantra, which he stated as:

. . . criticism has . . . optimism built in. . . . I think in the very act of criticizing it I’m expressing a hope that we’ll find our way out.

But what if that hope fails? There have been occasions when I’ve thought long and hard about critiquing something, pushing a provocative analysis, or making a concerted argument because it seems hopeless to do so.

What if we lose hope that things can improve?

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A little cloud of hopelessness crept in when I realized we’ve now raised an entire generation of people to accept vaccine skepticism as normal, even though we know better and purportedly have been in control to some extent of information flows and policies. Where were we during this time? Asleep at the wheel? Or simply cut out of the picture by Google, Facebook, and others? If so, where was our activism on behalf of science and society when it came to their transgressions? Where were our meaningful innovations? How did we spend our time on the pitch?

We like the fancy phrase, “unintended consequences.” What we really mean is, “What went wrong.”

There has been another stated motivation for “The Geyser,” which springs from the legend of Cassandra:

Cassandra was right.

The idea here is that there are people who can work out very likely scenarios about the future, whether that future is five months, five years, or five decades out. One of my favorite books (“The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century”) illustrates how structural features — memorably, that the US is the only superpower with a large navy and major developed coastlines on the Atlantic and the Pacific — can drive the future or hold change in abeyance.

But people don’t heed predictions, and aren’t given to ceding intellectual ground to those who may know better or see farther, especially these days. So, the legend of Cassandra remains salient, as we haven’t learned our lesson about the lesson of learning.

I do think, for instance, that it was predictable that biomedical preprints would prove far too risky and difficult to manage to justify the loose platforming of them we’re currently seeing. Things need to change here, or we’re going to continue to peddle confusion and/or misinformation, further breaking trust in science (and us). It was fairly easy to see that Meta was among the walking dead back in February, making its shuttering about a year later far less surprising. (Facebook’s appropriation of its assets and brand was surprising, however.) It’s also easy to see that the APC is fueling predatory publishers and quantity-based publishing, neither of which helps advance science in a meaningful way, so I’ve been predicting — and trends continue to point in the same direction — that business models have to revert to something more user-driven. PLOS’ CAP model and S2O are both major hints that the future is going to more closely resemble the past than some think.

Finally, there has been this additional inspiration for “The Geyser”:

So was Colin Kaepernick.

Kaepernick’s story is riven with issues of race and power, and the NFL should be ashamed of how they’ve treated this superb athlete and magnanimous individual. We all should. But in the setting of “The Geyser,” Kaepernick’s name is intoned for two reasons: to support him by keeping him front and center until the scales of social justice balance better, but also because this story speaks to how underdogs and individuals can, in the long haul, become centripetal forces in a culture, revisited again and again as the times change and their values remain centered. “The Geyser” is not part of the mainstream, in that it is not associated with an existing membership organization, large publishing company, or major funder. It’s independent, a gadfly, a voice on the outside, and a bit of an underdog in that sense. But I try to remain rooted in larger values that are about substance, not style.

So, as “The Geyser” heads into Year 4, its tripartite mission stays the same — but there is a higher sense of urgency. Those in the information space are taking too long to make things right — the current travails of Facebook have been known and openly studied for years and years now. Scholarly and scientific publishers have had decades to make OA work, yet its false promise remains as false as ever, while its risks and downsides are clearer than ever. Many in our orbits seem to avoid embracing our role and doing our job, while posing as radicals and transgressives with hopes — too often realized — that they will advance by so doing. By allowing transgressives and insurrectionists to suck up more oxygen, we’ve abdicated our position as trusted intermediaries in ways large and small. All these things will have long-term negative effects, similar to those we’ve already seen and perhaps sadly become resigned or accustomed to. But the sooner we fix them, the faster the world improves.

Fixing things instead of breaking them — but with a sense of urgency. Let that be a guiding principle as we forge ahead . . .

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