My career as an experiment

Acknowledgment: I am grateful to David Price and Fredrik Refsli for reviewing an early draft of this essay and suggesting valuable improvements.

As I recently explained in Polyscopy,  my work during the past two decades has been on an emerging academic and innovation frontier, where structural or ‘paradigmatic’ changes in the way information is created and used are being crafted. We have seen that uncommonly large and urgently needed benefits to our society are anticipated on this frontier – and pursued with diligence and vigour.

“The university should make structural changes within itself toward a new purpose of enhancing society’s capability for continuous self-renewal,” Erich Jantsch wrote in his 1969 MIT report, which was an appeal to the universities to take leadership in developing the frontier. By sharing some of the idiosyncrasies of my career, I want to repeat and re-energise this call to action.

Early in the polyscopy development I became aware that my career acquired a structure of an unusual academic experiment, without me intending that – suitable for testing the degree in which the university (I am using this word as Jantsch did, to denote the institution and not any particular university) might be capable and willing of making structural changes within itself when this is needed to respond to our society’s urgent needs. I have seen, namely, again and again my frontier colleagues and myself struggle with the academic-institutional ecology (distribution of titles and salaries, habitual ways of working, values…), which should indeed – by the nature of the social function of the university, and by the time-tested values that have been the driver of progress in the academic tradition – be there to support us.

I am writing this essay to offer my experiences to what seems to be the next urgent task on the frontier – changing, i.e. further evolving this ecology. 

Two discrete lines of argumentation is here woven into the story about my career, ending with an appeal. One of them is ethical, the other one is legal. Let me separate them here, so that you may more easily follow them in the text, and see how they support the appeal.

The ethical line begins with reported problems in the very way we academic people go about performing some of our key social roles. I had an idea how those problems might be remedied, worked in a most dedicated way and achieved results. To do that, I had to depart from the conventional ways of doing academic work, and develop new ones – which naturally required much higher risk and level of investment compared to my earlier work.

My ethical appeal (to my superiors who are distributing the public esteem and funds to us researchers)  is to reward me accordingly.

The legal line begins by observing that the legal regulation of retribution at our university is written in non-specific terms:

The salary should […] make visible and reward the performance and initiatives that contribute to the achievement of goals in all areas […].

When this regulation is operationalised in terms of various quantitative parameters (publications, grants, students…), a large and unfair disadvantage is given to researchers who do not do their work by using the routinised disciplinary procedures. (An explanation suggests itself – the routine application of quantitative measures relies on the tacit assumption that the academic research is the conventional disciplinary one, which can be meaningfully evaluated in those terms.)

In the legal profession it is common to change the legal practice that violates ethical, constitutional or other norms by focusing on a single case. My legal appeal to you is to use my case, or ‘my career experiment’, to update the practice by which our salary and title promotions are decided.

Formally, this essay is structured as an application for salary raise, in the context of the regular biennial salary negotiations at my university. Those are mediated by the Researcher Forum, which represents us researchers. This framing is chosen as the natural or perhaps the only way for me to submit this matter to my university administration and my superiors and solicit a response.

The issue I want to raise, however, and contribute to its solution by writing this application-essay, is incomparably larger and more important: It is how the selected, trained and publicly sponsored minds are organised in the production and sharing of knowledge globally  – in a most demanding moment in our history, where inspired creativity and the ability to serve new and old purposes in new ways might make a larger difference than ever before!

It is for this larger purpose that I have found it worthwhile to report here about ‘my career experiment’ in some detail – and why I found it warranted to ask for a corresponding amount of your time and attention.

This blog article has two purposes, and therefore two voices.

One of them is to share my experiences – the results of ‘my career experiment’. This I’ll do by telling my story, in the manner that is usual in this blog – by narrating vignettes (crisp, short and sticky real-life stories with a punchline).

The other purpose – to make a clear and logically coherent case for promotion –  is served by the eight titles of the sections in terms of which those vignettes are organised. As you can see, when those titles are put together, they compose a simple logical argument, ending with an appeal:

1. In California I worked and published with leaders in my field, and began a successful conventional research career.

2. In Oslo, my interest shifted to two long-standing open problems, posed by scientists of highest authority more than a half-century ago. Those problems are so central to the social role of the university that we simply have to resolve them. Both problems require an uncommon i.e. transdisciplinary way of working.

3. My work on those two problems was in line with the publicly stated mission of my university. The specific approach I followed was in line with the recommended strategy in my field.

4. And yet I found that my transdisciplinary work during these two decades had been misjudged and discouraged, while being looked at and evaluated by the common “productivity” criteria, which have become common at universities worldwide.

5. A result is that my career and salary advancement came to a standstill – and remained there for two decades. This and the other details of “my career experiment” show that the conventional academic “productivity” measures tend to inhibit the transdisciplinary way of working.

6. The conventional academic “productivity” criteria are incompatible with the codified principles for rewarding researchers. They inhibit the academic and social progress that is now urgently needed. In subtle ways, they violate core academic values.

7. Use my case to change the evaluation practice.

To the above seven-point application I added the eighth point,

8. Concluding remarks

where I make it clear that I have no grievances against my department and university. On the contrary, I give them the due gratitude and credit for making my project possible. Then I offer some thoughts about how our situation at hand, and the global-academic anomalies that my career experiment is pointing to, might be handled.

By writing in those two voices, I am leaving you, the reader, the challenge to see that I am not just telling stories; that my vignettes do indeed carefully support the statements in the above logical argument that organise them into sections. I will try to help you in that by adding brief parenthetical explanations.

1. In California I worked and published with leaders in my field, and began a successful conventional research career

(Here I will allow myself to be a bit more technical and detailed than in the rest of this essay, but please bear with me: It  is an advantage of my ‘career experiment’, however unintended it might have been, that it is resilient to the usual criticism – that transdisciplinary work is a way to evade the rigour and quality standards of the disciplines. As you will see, exactly the opposite was the case! Furthermore I want to build bridges, by allowing you to first meet me on a familiar academic terrain.)

Graduation.jpg

At UCSD I began a successful conventional academic career

At some point during my final year of the Ph.D. study,  János (Komlós, my adviser) showed me a letter he had received from Donald Knuth (one of the founding fathers of our field, and a Stanford University Computer Science Professor) urging him to accept an already offered full professor position in his department, because he, Knuth, so much wanted to work with him. I said “János, now you really have something to show to your grandchildren!”

A reason why Donald Knuth and Stanford University Computer Science Department were so interested in János was that he and his two friends and colleagues,  Endre Szeméredi and Miklós Ajtái, had just solved  one of the key open problems in our field – by creating an optimal sorting network, and thereby showing that parallel sorting (a basic problem in computer science) can be done in optimal, i.e. logarithmic time. In The Handbook of Theoretical Computer Science, Nick Pippenger used a page and a half to introduce this result – by listing other open problems in the field that were solved by this result or the technical idea on which it was based.

But most importantly, Donald Knuth knew that our field had matured to the point where the interesting remaining problems required the knowledge of discrete mathematics, and the creativity and the depth of insight, that János owned.

My dissertation was on parallel sorting. Nothing as earth-shaking as the mentioned result of my mentor. But I did create a sorting algorithm for a less important parallel machine (CRCW PRAM) and I proved its optimality.

I am probably the only algorithm theorist who has co-authored an article on parallel sorting with the famous trio.

In 2012 Endre Szeméredi received the Abel Prize (equivalent to Nobel Prize in mathematics).

At UCSD János was my third PhD advisor.

I decided to leave my first advisor after one year of working together. Having understood that he was about to publish an article about the system we were developing at a very early stage, before we even properly knew what we were doing, I had to admit to myself that “this is not what I came here to learn” and suffer the consequences. (At this point I must make it clear that in the mentioned case, and throughout my career and life itself, I have handled potential conflict by diplomatic withdrawal. Anyone who knows me will confirm that my relationships are strictly non-negative.)

My second advisor demanded that I write long reports for our weekly meetings even when I had nothing new to say. Our difficulties began when I did have an idea – my proposal seemed to lie outside the bounds of the acceptable range of novelty. Can a graduate student model the well-known problem we were working on (mapping parallel algorithms to parallel machines) not only in a new way, but also by a combinatorial optimisation problem that he himself formulated? No, something must surely be wrong with that problem.

It turned out that nothing was wrong. I later published this model as a research article in the Journal of Parallel and Distributed Computing.

It also turned out that the transformation of graphs that this problem was based on, which I called “graph compaction”, was a new concept in graph theory. I later reported it on a graph theory conference in Alaska. It was there that I finally had a chance to meet Paul Erdős, János’ legendary elder colleague and mentor from his former institute in Budapest.

The reason why I got a tenured position at the University of Oslo Computer Science was my third line of work at UCSD, which I did in database theory with my colleague and friend Victor Vianu. Although a year younger than me, Victor was already an assistant professor. It did not take him long to become one of the leaders in his field.

We published several articles together in the field’s highest-rated journals and conferences. Among our results, I will highlight only one,  which was later cited as a curiosity: We formulated a natural and practically relevant optimisation problem (called Parallel Transaction Optimisation) and proved that this problem was not efficiently solvable (i.e. that it was NP-complete), but that it could be approximated efficiently  (in polynomial time) with theoretically smallest error – constant one.  This seems to be the only reported combinatorial optimisation problem with that property.

Each summer Victor and I would rent apartments in Paris, work in INRIA during the day, and spend evenings with culture, restaurants and conversations.

2. In Oslo, my interest shifted to two long-standing open problems, posed by scientists of highest authority more than a half-century ago. Those problems are so central to the social role of the university that we simply have to resolve them. Both problems require an uncommon i.e. transdisciplinary way of working.

The first of those open problems is the inadequacy of the present organisation of creation and sharing of scientific results, and the possibility for its radical improvement with the help of new technology. This problem was formulated by Vannevar Bush (MIT Professor and the leader of the  US WW2 scientific effort) in his 1945 article “As We May Think”, where he identified it as a scientific strategic priority, and urged the scientists to focus on it and resolve it.

Since I already talked about this article in A Collective Mind – Part One, I will here only re-quote a few characteristic sentences:

Professionally our methods of transmitting and reviewing the results of research are generations old and by now are totally inadequate for their purpose. […] The difficulty seems to be, not so much that we publish unduly in view of the extent and variety of present-day interests, but rather that publication has been extended far beyond our present ability to make real use of the record. The summation of human experience is being expanded at a prodigious rate, and the means we use for threading through the consequent maze to the momentarily important item is the same as was used in the days of square-rigged ships.

Bush’s point was that new technology can enable a completely different and far more effective patterns of knowledge creation and sharing (as a single mind might think), than the ones that evolved around the printed paper and similar media. He urged the scientists to develop new patterns of knowledge creation and sharing, and the technology that might enable them.

As I pointed out, Bush’s article inspired Doug Engelbart to dedicate his career to the pursuit of this vision – in which he developed significant parts of contemporary information technology, and made invaluable and not yet properly recognised contributions

As a quick illustration that the problem that Bush was urging us scientists to resolve is still with us, let me just mention that two years ago, when the Researcher Forum was representing me in the salary negotiations I will come back to, “Vi druknar i informasjon” (We are drowning in information) stood on the title page of their journal. This message echoed Neil Postman’s well-known counsel to German computer scientists two and a half decades earlier, which he delivered in a keynote with the memorable title Informing Ourselves to Death.

The second open problem is the mechanistic nature and the limitedness of our prevailing worldview, and of the conventional social creation of truth and meaning that underlies it. This problem was pointed to, among others, by Werner Heisenberg (Nobel Laureate, “the creator of quantum mechanics”),  in his 1958 book “Physics and Philosophy”. Heisenberg pointed out that this problem developed as a consequence of a specific paradigm that emerged through science, and became dominant during the 19th century. He then explained how the fundamental flaws in this paradigm were reveal by modern physics.  Since I discussed this book and its implications in this blog earlier (see Book 3 in Science and Religion), let me here only highlight a few characteristic sentences (the boldface emphasis is mine):

…the nineteenth century developed an extremely rigid frame for natural science which formed not only science but also the general outlook of great masses of people…this frame was so narrow and rigid that it was difficult to find a place in it for many concepts of our language that had always belonged to its very substance, for instance, the concepts of mind, of the human soul or of life…Coming back now to the contributions of modern physics, one may say that the most important change brought about by its results consists in the dissolution of this rigid frame of concepts of the nineteenth century

I here echo Heisenberg’s point – that the “narrow frame” of the 19th century science was so damaging to culture, that its “dissolution” might have been “the most important change” brought by modern physics – as a call to provide another “frame” that would be broad enough and culturally remedial. As we shall see in a moment, it was this Heisenberg’s call, and an idea how it could be answered by resorting to the paradigm developed in my own field, that made me make a career shift that led to polyscopy.

This page-and-a-half excerpt from Heisenberg’s book will illustrate that the mentioned “rigid frame” and the corresponding cultural biases are still impregnating our culture.

Let us approach my next point, that those two problems are “so central to the social role of the university that we simply have to resolve them”, with a moment of reflection.

Try to imagine how an algorithm theorist – who is trained to look at man-made things and see how they could be altered to work better, or even to work at all – might see ‘the largest algorithm on our planet’ – the information creation and sharing as a whole. Notice, to begin with, that this ‘algorithm’

  • determines the social effects of the work of researchers worldwide
  • decides whether the insights of our great ancestors (including Bush and Heisenberg) will be seen and taken into consideration

Imagine now that this algorithm theorist sees how the mentioned two problems point to two fundamental structural flaws in this ‘algorithm’; and that they also point, most importantly, to gigantic ‘orders of magnitude’ possibilities for improvement.

In my role of structuring or streamlining (or “evangelising”, as I like to say half-jokingly) the work on the frontier, I have been collecting vignettes that point to the need and the possibility for dramatic improvements of the mentioned ‘algorithm’.  An outline of several of those vignettes is provided in a recorded presentation shared in Eight Vignettes to Evangelise a Paradigm. If you, however, don’t have a half-hour to listen to this recording, already a quick look at a single vignette – the developments in sociology following the World War Two, as reported in  Knowledge Federation as a Principle of Social Organization of Knowledge Creation and Sharing (our prospectus article for Knowledge Federation in the first Knowledge Federation proceedings) – will be sufficient to get an idea.

The sociology example is further elaborated by explaining why a largest contribution to human knowledge might be possible through systemic innovation (as developed and practiced by Knowledge Federation), in the first ten minutes of my “evangelising” talk What is Knowledge Federation” at the Trinity College Dublin in 2009 (this half-hour video might take a minute to download).

It self-evident that both mentioned problems require an uncommon,  transdisciplinary way of working. What we are talking about is the need to work with the knowledge creation and sharing as a whole, which obviously not only transcends the limits of conventional disciplines,  but also depends on organising the co-creation and sharing across disciplinary and other boundaries.

It would indeed be rather odd to try to remedy the “information overload problem”, or more precisely the open problem Vannevar Bush was urging us to resolve, by only publishing articles about it. But what else can we do?

It is exactly this question that has been answered by developing the polyscopy prototype. 

To simplify our conversation, I will now do something that is common in my earlier field of interest, in algorithm theory: I will reduce the mentioned two problems to a single one. I want to show that if we can resolve that single general problem, we can also resolve those two specific ones most easily.

The general problem I am talking about is to enable our institutions in general, and our university institution in particular, to evolve and change when new demands present themselves in their environment.

The purpose of the Polyscopy blog article has been to showcase our progress in developing and institutionalising  systemic innovation – the goal of which is to give our academic and other institutions this key capability they are lacking, to adapt and evolve.

3. My work on those two problems was in line with the publicly stated mission of my university. The specific approach I followed was in line with the recommended strategy in my field.

(I address “the stated mission of my university” first, then turn to “the recommend strategy in my field.”)

“Vi skal utfordre kunnskapens grenser og gi den enkelte og samfunnet innsikt til å forme sin fremtid” (We shall challenge the limits of knowledge and give the individual and the society insights to create their future) – reads the brief mission statement of my university, on the cover of a small booklet I received in 2002, when this strategy was made public.

But how can we use knowledge to create our future, without an institutionalised process that would allow us to even put together the knowledge that might be relevant to an issue?  (This is what the first of the mentioned open problems is about.)

And isn’t it most natural to  “challenge the limits of knowledge” by alleviating some of the reported limits that are imposed by our very approach to knowledge? (This is the meaning of our second open problem.)

(Coming now to the issue of “the recommended strategy in my field”, I talk about a public recommendation that motivated me to begin polyscopy.)

In 1992, the year when I moved from the USA to Norway, a high-profile scientific committee that had been formed by the US National Science Foundation to create a strategy recommendation for the further development of my field published their report. In this report, titled Computing the Future: A Broader Agenda for Computer Science and Engineering, the committee had this to say in the Executive Summary (the boldface emphasis is mine):

The first and foremost judgment was that CS&E is coming of age. Although as an organized and independent intellectual discipline the field is less than 30 years old, it has established a unique paradigm of scientific inquiry that is applicable to a wide variety of problems. Indeed, the committee believes that this history and resulting strength should enable academic CS&E to recognize that intellectually substantive and challenging CS&E problems can and do arise in the context of problem domains outside CS&E per se. CS&E research can be framed within the discipline’s own intellectual traditions but also in a manner that is directly applicable to other problem domains, as illustrated in Table ES.1. CS&E can thus be an engine of progress and conceptual change in other problem domains, even as these domains contribute to the identification of new areas of inquiry within CS&E.

My point of departure from algorithm theory and the beginning of polyscopy was the recognition that the “unique paradigm of scientific inquiry” that had been developed within my discipline could be applied to information creation and sharing at large.

And that this approach could lead to the resolution of the mentioned two open problems.

How the computer science paradigm can  be extended to help the resolution of the first problem, of information organisation and sharing, can be seen in several ways. I have already sketched one of them, by talking about that whole system as ‘algorithm’. Another way is to see that knowledge creation and sharing is now largely been done with the help of Internet-connected computers, and that we computer scientists are academically in charge of the physical medium that can be used to improve it. Yet another way is to see that what has been learned through the work on managing the complexity of programs and programming could be applied to the creation and sharing of knowledge at large. Here (as I pointed out in Polyscopy) the Simula and object orientation-related developments, which marked and elevated Norwegian computer science internationally, are a most a valuable source of ideas. Indeed, polyscopy might be understood as an application of the core object orientation-related ideas (to formulate a methodology, to combat the overload by structuring information within a hierarchy of views etc.) to knowledge work at large.

But the more fertile idea here is that the CS&E paradigm can be extended also to the fundamental part of our challenge, i.e. to the second of the “two open problems”! This can easily be seen if we take into account that the paradigm of computer science belongs to what Herbert Simon called “the sciences of the artificial”. Computer science is one of the sciences that study man-made things, with the view towards improving them. Fundamental in the polyscopy proposal is a shift of perception – from viewing information as an objective reality picture, and our disciplinary methods as an eternal and objective way to create them, to viewing all this as man-made things that are subject to conscious improvement or design.

Hence also the techniques from my field can be applied to this fundamental challenge in interesting ways. I usually talk about “truth by convention” and give credit to the great 20th century philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine. But my colleagues will in the related proceeds of polyscopy easily recognise the usual practice in theoretical computer science and in mathematics to define concepts by convention: “Let x be…” when we prove theorems; and declaring variables at the beginning of a program when we write code.

It is this convention making (especially when developed with the help of suitable technical tools into scope design, which is the essence of polyscopy) that makes it possible to replace “the rigid frame”; and to develop knowledge work as a purpose-oriented and hence evolving activity, in an academically rigorous and consistent way.

4. And yet I found that my transdisciplinary work during these two decades had been misjudged and discouraged, while being looked at and evaluated by the common “productivity” criteria, which have become common at universities worldwide.

Allow me to use the word transdisciplinary here to refer to the kind of transdisciplinary work that the development of polyscopy and the frontier required. Most of what I’m about say will, however, hold for transdisciplinary work at large.

Before I begin, it is necessary to sketch, and I will do that very briefly, the specific nature of the transdisciplinary research those two open problems required, as represented by polyscopy.

The key step, and the first step, was to create a solid foundation for knowledge work that builds on, but is free from, the conventional disciplinary research and the corresponding “frame”. This is done by postulating the design epistemology (i.e. by defining it as a convention).

As I explained there, this very act – of postulating an epistemology – leads to a development that is analogous to a “style” in modern art; the general idea is to allow for more free and creative and purpose-oriented approaches to knowledge – and similar outbursts of creativity in our work with knowledge as the ones that the development of modern art instigated in the arts.

When we no longer perceive ourselves as “objective observers of reality”, but as “a system within a system” – i.e. when we define ourselves as serving certain functions or purposes within our society as a whole – we are then empowered to develop what we do and how in completely new ways. As I explained in Polyscopy, my polyscopy proposal is outlining what this might mean in a specific instant – when the chosen purpose is ‘to show the way’ – by developing a rather complete system of prototypes. As I pointed out with the metaphor of gold prospecting and infrastructure building at the beginning of Polyscopy, the substance of my work has been to develop a high-level representation of a whole paradigm. It’s a bit like crafting a whole light bulb: I was showing that it can be created and how; and also already embedding this creation in real-world action. 

For a few steps, polyscopy followed in the footsteps of the great philosophical systems of the past. But then it took an unexpected turn – and instead of telling how information or knowledge should be created to be real or true, it developed a prototype system for truth and worldview creation, and a social process around it that can evolve it and update it continuously, according to the best available insights in relevant disciplines or domains of interest.

Polyscopy is offered as (a prototype of) an approach to knowledge that can resolve the “two open problems”.

To be concrete, by “the common productivity criteria” for evaluating research contributions  I refer to the criteria that are routinely used in the situation at hand, our salary negotiations. We are asked to submit a list of recent publications, the grants received and the number of PhD students graduated, and then possibly also other indicators that might be useful for evaluating our “productivity” such as committee work etc. Those criteria are, however, common in evaluating researchers worldwide.

I will submit that transdisciplinary  work is “grossly misjudged” when evaluated by such criteria in two points:

  • In transdisciplinary work the publications “that count” and other similar productivity scores are so much more difficult to achieve than in disciplinary work, that applying them there leads to a vast, unjust and unjustifiable bias
  • transdisciplinary work requires that we prioritise other courses of action that are not reflected by conventional “productivity” parameters

(My first point – the difficulty to achieve the results “that count” in transdisciplinary work should be obvious to anyone who is even remotely familiar with the contemporary academic order of things. I am however offering here a concise rendition of my lived experiences, hoping to make this central point palpable and clear.)

In Polyscopy I explained that the nature of my project required a different kind of engagement:

Naturally, paradigm proposals require not only a different level, but also a different kind of engagement than the so-called normal science, where we follow established and routinised patterns of thought and work. When working in an uncharted terrain, we must suspend the routine activity and concerns and allow, with patience and focus, the creative intuition to organise a variety of disparate insights and questions into a coherent system of ideas. And when the paradigm proposal is not in an established field but in knowledge creation and use as a whole, then a coherent system of ideas is where the the most challenging task only begins – implementing those ideas in an institutional reality where they don’t yet have a place.

Let me now briefly illustrate what this practically meant.

After I published the first two articles sketching the general intention and approach of polyscopy, in the “Worldviews and the Problem of Synthesis” section and later book of the Einstein Meets Magritte transdisciplinary conference in 1995, it took four years of sustained and focused work before I could deliver concrete results in publications.

While working in algorithm theory, I had all I needed available to me – terminology, method, colleagues to work with, publications to share the results… Now I had to find or create all of this from scratch.

All along I was aware that the level of ambition of my work, and its unusualness, required that I deliver results that are close to flawless – or risk seeming pathetic, or even being laughed at. But once the design decisions are made and published, there’s hardly a way to correct them! So I had to make sure that I had a coherent and sufficiently stable system of ideas before I could commit any of them to publication.

I described the experience of this initial period of my polyscopy work as “swimming across the ocean”: I had left the shore (of learned and familiar concepts and ways of working), and there was no going back; but the other shore was nowhere in sight!

Once the results were there, I had to publish the key parts of the polyscopy proposal immediately, to test them for authenticity and to ‘put them on the map’. I was then facing another interesting challenge – of finding suitable publications. I described my publishing strategy as “laying cuckoo’s eggs”: My articles had to sufficiently resemble the research in an existing field to be recognised as contribution and accepted for publication; at the same time, they had to ‘hatch’ specimen of an entirely different academic species (parts of the polyscopy paradigm proposal).

I was fortunate to succeed in having the core elements of the polyscopy proposal published and well received within suitable disciplines.

The main fundamental idea – to define “design” by convention, and then use this convention to create a foundation for knowledge-work praxis, was well received in the academic design community: My lecture with this proposal, at the European Academy of Design’s conference in 2005 in Bremen, led to an invitation to repeat my proposal as an opening keynote to the Danish Designer’s conference on occasion of their 10th anniversary. The Design Epistemology article detailing this proposal and its consequences was later published in a special issue of Information Journal, edited by Robert Logan.

Similarly, the idea to design “information design”, by creating a methodology, and then use it for the purpose of informing lifestyle, political and other basic choices was presented on Infodesign2000 in Coventry, and then invited for publication in Information Design Journal. This resulted in two articles: Designing Information Design and Information for Conscious Choice.

Details of my Polyscopic Modeling methodology and some of its consequences were published piece-meal, in the proceedings of the IEEE’s InfoVision / Information Visualisation conference, and in the proceedings of the International Visual Literacy Association, where I found an academic home for a period of time, and was even elected as board member.

The polyscopy paradigm proposal was presented at the transdisciplinary IPSI conference in Monte Negro in 2003, and explained in an article in the proceedings. This lead to an invitation to give an opening keynote at a subsequent IPSI conference in Stockholm.

An early explanation of the substance of the polyscopy paradigm proposal (without Knowledge Federation and other various prototypes that were developed later) is provided in the Informing Must Be Designed book manuscript, of which the Introduction is available online (designed by Fredrik Eive Refsli).

Let us now supplement the above-described core difficulty – of publishing articles – by outlining briefly that in transdisciplinary work achieving other “productivity” measures is similarly so much more difficult to achieve, that applying them there is meaningless:

  • While disciplinary articles are commonly co-authored, in the ‘academic no-man’s land I had to work and publish alone
  • Had I published a solution to a recognised problem in my original field, in algorithm theory, my result would instantly be quoted by numerous researchers in numerous publications, simply because they are numerous; the same logic applies to reference counts and other similar measures of “impact”
  • If I am developing new ideas in a non-existing field – Why would I involve graduate students as PhD candidates in such a risky project?  Why would I apply for, and would I receive, grants? Why would I be on committees?

(Turning now to my second point, that polyscopy development required other kinds of work, which are not even detected by the conventional “productivity” measures.)

It soon became obvious, however, that while in conventional academic practice publishing an article is an end of a journey, in polyscopy – related work the end was still far from being reached. I recognised, namely, that the academia was lacking a way to re-create its own practices – which would put any proposal that I could advance, or any of the mentioned and other historical proposals,  into effect. Indeed, the academia seemed to be too busy with its disciplinary publishing to even look!

Hence I developed a syndrome which I called “invisibility” – which I’ll be glad to tell you abut over a cup of tea.

And so I could easily recognise the futility of submitting proposals for systemic change in writing – to a system that has no provisions for re-creating itself (we recently proposed to call this interesting phenomenon the Wiener’s paradox).

This realisation led me to focus more and more on achieving systemic impact or transformations by creating prototypes – which are both systemic interventions and academic models and experiments, as I explained in Polyscopy. 

An important point here is that the creation of prototypes is a natural way to practice research under design epistemology, just as writing articles might be a natural way to bring to the world the results of traditional sciences.

The Knowledge Federation prototype emerged as a core institutional prototype, modeling the kind of institution, which we called transdiscipline, that (unlike the traditional disciplines) can enable this line of work (see Knowledge Federation – an Enabler of Systemic Innovation).  

Naturally, the development of real-world prototypes stood in the way of article publishing. Indeed, it was often the case that when my creative engagements were at a peak, my publishing was at a minimum!

Consider, for example, the last year, 2015.

By April we had to design and organise the Tesla and the Nature of Creativity 2015 event in Belgrade, where, as I described in A Collective Mind – Part One blog article, we showcased an entire procedure for federating a research result by

  • creating a procedure for turning a research result into a multimedia object, and in that way making its findings widely accessible
  • creating a high-profile media event around the result, thus making it publicly known
  • extracting key ideas from the result, and making them available online by using the Debategraph platform, to be commented on and related with another similar results

It is straight-forward to see that this was a direct response to the challenge that Vannevar Bush and Doug Engelbart left us – as I reported in the mentioned blog article.

It requires however a moment of thought to see that also a way to handle the second, Heisenberg’s open problem is being developed through this prototype. Indeed, Professor Dejan Raković, around whose work this prototype has been developed, is a quantum physicist. The resulting Tesla and the Nature of Creativity 2015 prototype presents a method for ‘social creation of truth and worldview’ by combining quantum physics and suitably designed technology-enabled social processes (this function of our prototype will be explained in Part Two of this blog article, and subsequently developed further at our 2017 event in Belgrade, which is now being planned).  

Once all this work was done, it would of course have been beneficial and academically correct to report it in several research publications. I still intend to do that. The reason why I opted to describe it and explain it in a rather long blog article was a practical need of the moment: In July I was going to attend the International Society for the Systems Sciences conference in Berlin, and propose to this society Knowledge Federation as a research partner. As I explained in Polyscopy, the opportunity there was to  (1) develop systemic innovation under the wing of an academic community and institution where it most naturally belongs, namely the systems sciences; and (2) intervene systemically into the system of the systems community and develop the first prototype of a large and established academic community that is self-organising according to the collective mind paradigm.

This resulted in some key developments on the (systemic innovation) frontier:

  • As I explained at the end of Polyscopy, “we are building a Lighthouse” – the development of the proposed systemic prototype is on the way
  • I became a Co-Chair of a SIG in the systems community, in which we now have the mandate to develop collective mind–style solutions for the systems community and beyond
  • I participate as faculty and as Advisory Board member in the Leadership and Systemic Innovation PhD program – hence I have the opportunity to participate in the creation of academic systemic innovation with a small group of international experts   

Following the ISSS59 event in Berlin I really wanted to complete our in principle already accepted article draft The Wiener’s Paradox – We Can Dissolve it Together (see the abstract), which is a milestone in the process of motivating and explaining The Lighthouse development – and also a rather spectacular illustration of the need for systemic innovation in knowledge work in general. In this article the systems sciences are shown to

  • have had an invaluable message to the mankind from their inception, i.e. from the publication of Wiener’s Cybernetics in 1948
  • not have communicated this message to the larger public, in spite of many decades of disciplinary work and thousands of articles and books published

I however had to postpone completing this article, in order to complete yet another long blog article, The Garden of Liberation.

If you’ve read the article, you will now immediately recognise in it a response to the challenge that Heisenberg was leaving us – namely to bring the revitalising insights of religious and other world traditions into our culture.

This project is also revitalising or ‘re-evolving’ the institution of religion, by applying systemic innovation to it, and developing ways in which spiritual or religious traditions and movements may learn from each other, and all of us from them.

Of course the idea of recreating the institution of religion is a bit unorthodox. Some people will frown. But when the dust settles, it will become obvious that this might be a natural way to bring the positive heritage of the world traditions to bear upon our impending societal and cultural revival. By the way Arne Næss (Norwegian public philosopher, and my respected late friend) pointed out that this might be necessary for handling the ecological crisis already in 1972, when he formulated “deep ecology”.

Re-evolving religion may also be a natural strategy against religion-inspired terrorism.

So I applied myself to The Garden of Liberation project most deligently: I made sure to sum up the key ideas on my blog early enough. Then I sent four copies of the text to the Suan Mokkh monastery to be distributed to key people (monks cannot be expected to read blogs), along with a collaboration proposal neatly formulated on the university letterhead. Then I made another trip to Thailand. Long story short, a result is that I am now now accepted as part of the Suan Mokkh family. The Garden of Liberation prototype is alive and growing. I will report the concrete developments in another blog post this Fall, before returning to Suan Mokkh to continue the hands-on work.   

Those developments, I hope (and I am pursuing this possibility actively, even as I am writing this essay), might open up some interesting and revitalising developments at the University of Oslo. Here at our university, the work on the frontier is already blossoming: Presently both the Knowledge Federation Mediawiki and the CollaboFramework platform are both hosted by the University of Oslo Institute of Informatics.

Furthermore, as I already mentioned, at our department we already have a living tradition and an ‘edge’ in object orientation; as well as in participatory design, design and implementation of information infrastructures, distributed systems etc. – which could naturally synergise with the work on the frontier.

5. A result is that my career and salary advancement came to a standstill – and remained there for two decades. This and the other details of “my career experiment” show that the conventional academic “productivity” measures tend to inhibit the transdisciplinary way of working.

A result of “my career experiment” is that I am not only still the associate professor I was when I arrived to Oslo; I am also the lowest paid associate professor in my department!

(More precisely I was the lowest-paid associate professor two years ago, at the point when my department’s recommendation for my salary raise was rejected at the university level –  according to Narve Trædal, who was then our Head of Administration).

In 2003 (at the point when the foundational work I described above and the corresponding articles were completed) I applied for a full professor position. I presented a bit more systematically the arguments and results I outlined above, and submitted that I had achieved a significant and original progress toward “broadening the field” that was recommended.

The response of the committee was humiliating.

When I showed the committee’s reply to my late father, lamenting that the committee didn’t understand my arguments, he immediately corrected me: “This is not misunderstanding; the committee was ignoring your arguments.” As a good lawyer, my father had a better sense for framing situations than I did. A superficial look at my application and the committee’s reply will suffice to see that he was right.

This illustrates another key point: That arguments based on purpose and non-applicability of the conventional criteria are routinely deemed irrelevant. As it has turned out, the committee had precisely defined quantitative measures (so many research articles, so many graduated PhD students etc.), based on which it was evaluating the professorship applications!

(The reader is at this point encouraged to read Heisenberg’s page-and-a-half excerpt I shared above, and then see this practice as a rather stunning instance and illustration of the kind of cultural biases that Heisenberg was lamenting.)

Two historical examples will illustrate that my experience is not at all unique.

As I mentioned above, already in 1969, in his MIT report about the future of the university, Erich Jantsch – the great systems scientist and systemic innovation pioneer from whom we adopted the term systemic innovation – wrote that “the university should make structural changes within itself toward a new purpose of enhancing society’s capability for continuous self-renewal”. Ironically, Jantsch himself never enjoyed the benefits of a tenured position, although he

  • published prolifically
  • developed foundational transdisciplinary work
  • spent a whole decade giving occasional seminars as the UC Berkely as adjunct faculty

A closely similar historical anecdote is the one that Doug Engelbart liked to retell: How he decided to leave the UC Berkeley after being told, in response to sharing his visionary idea: “If you don’t stop dreaming, and don’t begin publishing peer-reviewed articles, you will remain an adjunct assistant professor forever!”

(The fact that both anecdotes took place at UC Berkeley is of course accidental; throughout his later career Doug searched for a university that would embrace his ideas.)

As I outlined in Polyscopy, much of our activity in recent years (developing Knowledge Federation, and the CET SIG at the ISSS and the ITBA systemic innovation program and the corresponding research center) had as a goal to provide an institutional home where Erich Jantsch and Doug Engelbart of the future will be able to apply their talents to urgent contemporary causes.

6. The conventional academic “productivity” criteria are incompatible with the codified principles for rewarding researchers. They inhibit the academic and social progress that is now urgently needed. In subtle ways, they violate core academic values.

As in every domain of human activity, the rules that are used in the routine practice for deciding on academic salaries and promotions are derived from more general principles that are stated in legislature.  Let me quote some of those principles for illustration (I am translating the bullet points from a Powerpoint slide titled  “General principles of salary politics”, which was used in a lecture by my university’s expert):

  • The starting point of negotiation is that all the University of Oslo employees will have equal opportunities for professional and salary development
  • Salary policy, the strengthening of the general salary level and the use of salary-related instruments are important for the University of Oslo to strengthen its position as a research university of high international standard
  • The salary should reflect the individual employee’s work tasks, responsibility and competence, and make visible and reward the performance and initiatives that contribute to the achievement of goals in all areas and at all levels within the University of Oslo
  • In local salary negotiations salaries are determined based on evaluation of the individual’s performances and contributions to collective results

According to my Point 4 above, the conventional “productivity” measures violate the first of the above principles – they put us transdisciplinary researchers at a substantial and unjust disadvantage compared to the researchers who pursue the conventional disciplinary career path.

And according to my Point 5, those measures will satisfy the remaining three criteria only if we discount transdisciplinary research as irrelevant to the social and academic goals those criteria refer to.

But as we have seen in Point 2, transdisciplinary research is required for the resolution of “two open problems” that are “so central to the social role of the university that we simply have to resolve them”.

This conclusion offers itself: When the “productivity” criteria have been developed as a ‘rule of thumb’ for applying the codified principles for evaluating research, the assumption was made that the research is conducted within the conventional disciplines. They violate those principles when applied to transdisciplinary work.

(Turning now to my second point, that the conventional “productivity” measures tend to inhibit the academic and social progress that is now urgently needed.)

Enough has been said elsewhere about our society’s urgent need for new ideas and new ways of thinking and working.

Let me here only offer an angle of looking by which the central point we are reaching here can be not only summarised but also handled. I will be borrowing from the repertoire of the systems sciences: What characterises a system that is vital and resilient (in the sense of being creative, adaptable to changes in the environment, and capable of evolving) is the so-called “requisite variety” of behaviours. You will easily understand this principle if you recall the well-known fact that breeding within a limited gene pool, such as an island or a family, leads to degeneration.

I offer my Points 4 and 5 above as evidence that the habitual criteria for academic renumeration and promotion support only one mode of academic behaviour – article production within established disciplines.

My third point (that the common “productivity” measures in subtle ways violate core academic values) might seem counterintuitive. So let me explain it by quoting from another classic,  Benjamin Lee Wharf’s “Language, Thought and Reality” (the boldface emphasis is mine):

It needs but half an eye to see in these latter days that science, the Grand Revelator of modern Western culture, has reached, without having intended to, a frontier. Either it must bury its dead, close its ranks, and go forward into a landscape of increasing strangeness, replete with things shocking to a culture-trammeled understanding, or it must become, in Claude Houghton’s expressive phrase, the plagiarist of its own past.

Plagiarism is of course just about the largest violation of etiquette and ethics that is specifically scientific. How could science become “the plagiarist of its own past”?

The answer is that reproducing articles based on a fixed template from the past can be seen as a subtle form of plagiarism. It makes our work seems technically rigorous, proficient, excellent… It makes it seem as the same kind of work as the work of our great predecessors.

In relation to the great scientists from the past, to whom we contemporary scientists, and science itself, owe the high social esteem we now enjoy, we can conduct our research in two distinctly different ways:

  • We can do what they did  – and use the procedures they developed to mass-produce research
  • Or we can do as they did – and take pains to develop fundamental ideas on completely new terrain, wherever and whenever that may be needed.

7. Use my case to change the evaluation practice

It is common in the legal profession to change the legal practice that does not conform with the constitution or with good sense by using a specific legal case to challenge that practice. I am now submitting  “my career experiment” for that purpose.

As I pointed out above, the laws and bylaws that regulate how researchers should be rewarded are written in general terms. They specify that the employees should have “equal opportunities for professional and salary development”, and that “the salary should reflect the individual employee’s work tasks, responsibility and competence, and make visible and reward the performance and initiatives that contribute to the achievement of goals in all areas and at all levels within the university”.

When the quantitative measures such as the ones reflecting publication and citation are applied in routine evaluation, the assumption is made that they correctly approximate those general criteria. As “my career experiment” might show beyond reasonable doubt, they fail to do that when a researcher is not working within an established discipline, but undertakes to begin a new direction in research.

As I hoped to make it clear in this text, throughout the polyscopy development, I have been acting as a theoretical scientist, developing a coherent system of ideas and practices. The design phase of my work has recently been completed, and I am now ready to submit the results publicly as a solution to the above-mentioned two open problems.

But since the polyscopy proposal has not yet been academically scrutinised or publicly accepted, the committee evaluating my work might rightly ask: Is the polyscopy proposal academically sound? Is it practically relevant – in the sense that it will one day be accepted and make a difference? Or is it only an academic ‘wild goose chase’?

While these questions are of course most interesting from the point of view of my polyscopy proposal, they are irrelevant from the point of view of this application and the larger appeal to change the academic ecology I am making. For two reasons.

One reason is that the academic ecology should stimulate and reward not only ‘academic success’ (reflected by the number of ‘safe’  disciplinary publications), but also good, earnest work on an uncharted terrain. To see why, imagine that you are an investor of public funds (of course, the academic promotion committee members and policy makers this essay is addressed to indeed are investors of public funds): What strategy would you use to develop your investment portfolio? Imagine if the US investors invested only in what were then the most solid “fortune five” companies such as the General Motors and the General Electric; and ignored the small ‘garage’ productions such as the Apple, the Microsoft and the Google? And just think about how less meaningful this strategy is when applied in academic ‘investing’, where it is not the money but the creative and interesting ideas that are the intended result!

The second reason is that before the polyscopy proposal can even be looked at, somebody needs to find time and reason to do that. But this seems impossible in the busy academic wold driven by disciplinary career purposes! My point is that the academic ecology needs to change before the polyscopy or any other similar proposal can have a chance to succeed.

Isn’t the seemingly incredible fact that our “two open problems” remained largely ignored at our universities also confirming that?

The general issue here is purpose vs. habit – or we might even call the latter “academic career game playing” (see Return to Reason).

To see how much our university culture is biased toward strictly disciplinary pursuits and away from the free pursuit of no-less-relevant societal and academic goals, just imagine how different my career would have been if I had, for instance, resolved the problem whether P=NP – which is a core technical open problem in my field, but incomparably less relevant in the context of larger societal and academic needs.

 As I am now submitting to you (my promotion committee members and my university superiors) my salary promotion case by providing two blog posts, instead of a short list of publications and other “productivity” parameters that were requested – I am, one might say, engaging in an act of civil disobedience. 

This leaves you two choices

  • to ignore my arguments and reject my application as irregular
  • to judge me based on the arguments presented here

With that, you too have become protagonists in my “my career experiment”.

What will you do?

Submitting now my appeal, let me briefly summarise its main points. A careful reader may have recognised two distinct arguments in this text.

The first is this:

The transdisciplinary work that I’ve been doing for two decades, structured as polyscopy paradigm proposal,  is in line with the social role of the university, with the stated mission of my university, and with the recommended strategy in my field. This work is, however, “grossly misjudged” when evaluated according to the usual “productivity” measures (Point 3). Those “productivity” measures, when applied to transdisciplinary work, are “incompatible with the stated principles for rewarding researchers”. They are “inhibiting the academic and social progress that is now urgently needed”.  “In subtle ways, they violate core academic values” (Point 6).

I therefore appeal to you to judge my work by the underlying principles – both the written ones (highlighted in Point 6), and the ones dictated by your sense of purpose and justice – and not by the “productivity” measures.

The second is this:

I began a promising career in an established field of research, then switched to transdisciplinary work and worked in a most focused and diligent way (see the beginning of Polyscopy) for two decades. The result was that my career never advanced an inch from where it was at the beginning.

I appeal to you to use my case as evidence that the conventional “productivity” measures are grossly biased against transdisciplinary work (Point  5) – and indeed against any work where serving a social purpose makes us depart from disciplinary patterns and interests. Use my case to create a more just and justifiable manner of evaluating and supporting research.

We are living in a time when ‘outside the box’ creativity is urgently needed.

And when urgent societal purposes must be given precedence over routinised responses and career games.

Please consider using my case to give us an institutional ecology that supports us in thinking and working responsibly and freelyand in that way serving our society’s needs, and reinvigorating our intellectual tradition’s evolution.

8. Concluding remarks

I want to make it clear that my appeal is not a complaint against my superiors, or department or university. On the contrary! I like to say, and let me underline that, that I don’t know any other university where the line of work I described could have been better supported.

I remember vividly a situation when our travel budget was empty (following our move to our wonderful new premises), and when Arne (my goup leader) went down to Knut (my department chair), and some money was somehow found for me to travel to a Knowledge Federation workshop I was organising.

(I gratefully take the travel money, and use it with my own savings to sponsor the Knowledge Federation events. The reason is that while almost all Knowledge Federation collaborators have high university degrees, few of them are sponsored. They come to KF events because they believe in our cause – and they use their own money to buy airline tickets! I sometimes joke that Knowledge Federation is sponsored by my retired mother in Croatia – because she sometimes offers me small sums of money, “to buy myself something nice or to have a nice dinner on her account”; and I at times shamelessly took her donation and invested it into a KF event.)

Neither can I complain about the life I’m having in “the best country to live in”!

But even in Norway we have to comply to international standards. Based on them, we have to compete for status and recognition internationally. We have to show our politicians that we are worthy of their support. And we indeed are doing that, successfully!

My point here is that those international standards for measuring academic achievement will need to be challenged and changed. 

And when I say this, I only echo the message that is more and more often heard. In “Avoiding collapse: Grand challenges for science and society to solve by 2050“,  Antony Barnosky, Paul Ehrlich and Elizabeth Hardy write (see also “To build a sustainable world, academics need to tear down the ivory tower“):

[A] huge challenge within academia is working across traditional disciplinary boundaries to connect different pieces of the solutions puzzle that are emerging from practitioners spread across many different specialties […]. And, an even bigger challenge is to take the knowledge developed within academia and collaborate closely with stakeholders in ways that elicit significant action […].

But isn’t this exactly the line of work that is being developed on our frontier?

Can Norway summon the kind of courage and vision that might be needed to take leadership in this now necessary development?

I truly hope that we can – and here I am only repeating what I wrote about a decade ago, on the occasion of the conference “Science in a New Situation – The Role of Basic Research”, which was organised by the Norwegian Reserch Council, in this open letter to the NRC leaders (which they invited, during our conversation at the conference boat trip). At that point I also shared the same open letter with my university superiors, just as I am about to do now.  

My point now, as it was then, is that by making this step, we can (1) create an approach to science which builds on the intrinsic advantages of Norwegian culture, which – as my “career experiment” might show in some detail – made it possible for me to pursue this work and (2) be leaders in a necessary development globally.

I can easily imagine a day when we will wake up to the realisation that we are transforming our planet’s nonrenewable resources into consumer goods on a far larger scale than we need – and for no better reason than that our competitive economy, where success and sheer survival depend on selling things to people, is forcing us to do that.

Then it might become clear that we too, here at the university, have adopted a similarly dysfunctional growth model – without needing to do that in any real sense whatsoever.

To comply to the salary negotiations procedure, I have submitted “my career experiment” as my case. But I don’t see it in that way at all – and frankly, I would not have bothered to write all this had I seen this case as mine.

I now invite my evaluation committee members, and anyone else who cares about the future of knowledge and about our future: See this as your case! We need to change our career games and battles by infusing a true spirit of collaboration, and sensitivity to larger purposes than our career, if we should have a chance to create a better world (see our Collaborology poster, designed by Fredrik Eive Refsli).

To that end, I believe that what might be urgently needed is a genuine dialogue around these issues – where I am using the word dialogue in the precise sense that David Bohm has attributed to it. The dialogue is a radical alternative to opinion and career battles. We need to sit together, calm down, look at each other’s faces and understand what has happened.

I believe that we can collaborate to create a university culture that is incomparably more just and more creative, and simply more fun (if you’ll allow me to use this non-academic word) – while at the same time being far more responsive to our society’s needs.

I submit the insights resulting from “my career experiment” as an instrument in this re-evolution.

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