What’s the rush?

Subtitle: Research under the advanced stages of capitalism, part 1: hypercompetitive labor markets.

There is a maxim about research (and work in general), often given in the context of writing a thesis: “it’s not a sprint, but a marathon.”

My main question is this: why is research a race, or a competition at all?

I can understand the metaphor of research as exploration. In fact, that’s not just a metaphor, it’s actually true that research is a form of exploration. Exploration yields knowledge of previously unexplored terrain and opens up new frontiers. What happens at the end of a race? A few winners get recognition, everyone else pats themselves on the back for proving their level of fitness by running in a race, and… that’s it.

In my neck of the woods, the “Stanford Data Science Challenge” has been announced and it’s hosted by “LearnFast.io.” It’s a hackathon, which I’m guessing will take place in the span of just hours or a few days. I bring this up only to draw attention to the name “Learn fast.” Why? To maximize the number of hasty mistakes? In contrast, I am currently working on a project in the Stanford DataLab with a team of other students where we are spending weeks getting our hands dirty just preparing the dataset before we can even start analyzing it. This is how any reasonable person would approach an important problem- and if the problem isn’t important, why waste so many peoples’ time with a competition to solve it?

  • Rapid-fire/scattershot research with low quality-control also increases false discoveries, contributing to one of the greatest problems in many scientific disciplines.
  • The library of human knowledge has a information retrieval problem. We need more cross-discipline work, more integration and organization, and all of this requires a lot of patience while people learn to speak the same language and do work that won’t be rewarded with trophies.
  • A rushed work environment stresses people out. This unnecessary stress lowers efficiency (and often productivity as a result), creativity, not to mention quality of life…

There is an obvious one word answer to why all of this occurs: capitalism. The artificially high levels of competition in capitalist labor markets set us all against each other. Instead of collaborating and advancing together, we’re all working almost alone, and might perceive each other mostly as threats or challenges to our own success.

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