Saturday, October 24, 2009

When you can meet online, will colloquia disappear?   posted by agnostic @ 10/24/2009 07:08:00 PM

The other day I saw a flier for a colloquium in my department that sounded kind of interesting, but I thought "It probably won't be worth it," and I ended up not going. After all, anyone with an internet connection can find a cyber-colloquium to participate in -- and drawn from a much wider range of topics (and so, one that's more likely to really grab your interest), whose participants are drawn from a much wider range of people (and so, where you're more likely to find experts on the topic -- although also more know-nothings who follow crowds for the attention), and whose lines of thought can extend for much longer than an hour or so without fatiguing the participants.

So, this is something like the Pavarotti Effect of greater global connectedness: local opera singers are going to go out of business because consumers would rather listen to a CD of Pavarotti. It's only after it becomes cheap to find the Pavarottis and distribute their work on a global scale that this type of "creative destruction" will happen. Similarly, if in order to get whatever colloquia gave them, academics migrated to email discussion groups or -- god help you -- even a blog, a far smaller number of speakers will be in demand. Why spend an hour of your time reading and commenting on the ideas of someone you see as a mediocre thinker when you could read and comment on someone you see as a superstar?

Sure, perceptions differ among the audience, so you could find two sustained online discussions that stood at opposite ends of an ideological spectrum -- say, biologists who want to see much more vs. much less fancy math enter the field. That will prevent one speaker from getting all the attention. But even here, there would be a small number of superstars within each camp, and most of the little guys who could've given a talk here or there before would not get their voices heard on the global stage. Just like the lousy local coffee shops that get displaced by Starbucks -- unlike the good locals that are robust to invasion -- they'd have to cater to a niche audience that preferred quirkiness over quality.

So the big losers would be the producers of lower-quality ideas, and the winners would be the producers of higher-quality ideas as well as just about all consumers. Academics wear both of these hats, but many online discussion participants might only sit in and comment rather than give talks themselves. It seems more or less like a no-brainer, but will things actually unfold as above? I still have some doubts.

The main assumption behind Schumpeter's notion of creative destruction is that the firms are competing and can either profit or get wiped out. If you find some fundamentally new and better way of doing something, you'll replace the old way, just as the car replaced the horse and buggy. If academic departments faced these pressures, the ones who made better decisions about whether to host colloquia or not would grow, while those who made poorer decisions would go under. But in general departments aren't going to go out of business -- no matter how low they may fall in prestige or intellectual output, relative to other departments, they'll still get funded by their university and other private and public sources. They have little incentive to ask whether it's a good use of money, time, and effort to host colloquia in general or even particular talks, and so these mostly pointless things can continue indefinitely.

Do the people involved with colloquia already realize how mostly pointless they are? I think so. If the department leaders perceived an expected net benefit, then attendance would be mandatory -- at least partial attendance, like attending a certain percent of all hosted during a semester. You'd be free to allocate your partial attendance however you wanted, just like you're free to choose your elective courses when you're getting your degrees -- but you'd still have to take something. The way things are now, it's as though the department head told its students, "We have several of these things called elective classes, and you're encouraged to take as few or as many as you want, but you don't actually have to." Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

You might counter that the department heads simply value making these choices entirely voluntary, rather than browbeat students and professors into attending. But again, mandatory courses and course loads contradict this in the case of students, and all manner of mandatory career enhancement activities contradict this in the case of professors (strangely, "faculty meetings" are rarely voluntary). Since they happily issue requirements elsewhere, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that even they don't see much point in sitting in on a colloquium. As they must know from first-hand experience, it's a better use of your time to join a discussion online or through email.

The fact that colloquia are voluntary gives hope that, even though many may persist in wasting their time, others will be freed up to more effectively communicate on some topic. Think of how dismal the intellectual output was before the printing press made setting down and ingesting ideas cheaper, and before strong modern states made postage routes safer and thus cheaper to transmit ideas. You could only feed at the idea-trough of whoever happened to be physically near you, and you could only get feedback on your own ideas from whoever was nearby. Even if you were at a "good school" for what you did, that couldn't have substituted for interacting with the cream of the crop from across the globe. Now, you're easily able to break free from local mediocrity -- hey, they probably see you the same way! -- and find much better relationships online.

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