Friday, February 17, 2012

Integral Scholars: Let's Bring Scholarship To The Web

A few days ago I discovered an article in the New York Times about "Open Science" that strongly resonated with me. It covers a topic that I have been chewing on for some time: the potential for scholars and specialists of all sorts to leverage the power of the Internet to revolutionize the way knowledge is created, accessed and legitimized. Then a question came with it: why isn't the integral community more active on the open web(1)?

Corey DeVos from Integral Life says to Integral Chicks that before Integral Naked (2006), the Integral community had trouble finding itself and interacting with each other, whereas today the problem has changed: dialogue happens mostly within the community and we need more dialogue with the exterior. We can find Integral content online—mostly "pop integral" I would say—but in many ways the Integral discourse is de facto closed due to obstacles like monthly fees and premium memberships. Technically it's on the web, but not openly so. As to the scholarly discourse(2) in particular, it seems almost absent(3). And this is the discourse I'm interested in for this post.

This situation is not specific to the integral discourse. It illustrates a deeper current in the academic world and there are reasons for it. Such a closed system makes sense given the (outdated) technological structure it was designed for, and the conventional business model deriving from it. But it carries serious drawbacks too. Think compartmentalization of disciplines, lack of innovation, or the ivory tower effect dissociating the scholar from the "real world". For the integral movement, which prides itself  for being leading edge, trans-disciplinary by nature, and open to meeting people "where they are", it is a disappointing state of affairs.

I would love to see that change, and I think it's becoming more and more possible. The technology supporting a more open scholarly discourse is developing and science is likely heading in that direction anyway. Jason Priem has an interesting blog about the growing scholarly use of social media and a manifesto for new scholarship metrics—both of which shed some light on this trend. I would really like to see the Integral community a bit more open to—if not invested in—this evolution. Would it not only be consistent with its overall purpose?

I get the feeling that integral scholars turn their nose up at the Web 2.0 (and 3.0). Do they just not understand it? The web is not a Gen Y fad. Let's not forget that 20 years ago, Tim Berners-Lee initially invented the World Wide Web as a global information sharing platform for... scientists.

The New Rules of The Game Push Toward Openness

The Internet asks for a shift in the way we conceive the creation, control and sharing of knowledge. Below are some mechanisms inherent to the way the Internet works—some current, some emergent—that I see pointing at this evolution.
The web is vast: there is room for everybody, especially niches
Unlike TV, the web provides room for everyone. Niche communities can thrive. Nothing really prevents us from using open web tools to share highly specialized content, if only between us, but on platforms that allow traffic across different communities and fields. Simple examples are:
Borrowed from Stack Exchange.
The middle star represents
what Stack Exchange is about.
  • YouTube: why not create videos to discuss epistemology and metaphysics? It doesn't have to be perfect (more on that below), you can embed it on your Integral-Something website if so inclined, and you also get the openness and exposure of being on the YouTube platform.
  • Wikipedia: There is an Integral Theory page that could use some work.
  • Quora: this Q&A site allows everyone to ask and answer questions with a system of credits and community votes to promote quality content. There is an "Integral Theory" topic with a few questions and 80 people (!) following it.
  • ResearchGate: a social networking and Q&A site for academics and scientists. So far I'm not impressed with the level of the content. It lacks a good peer-regulated process to control content, but I will keep an eye on it.
  • Stack Exchange: By far my favorite Q&A site about most topics. It has a complex hybrid system of peer-regulated and automatic control to promote helpful content and helpful users. You can get an idea of the level of discourse with this question in the Philosophy forum: Is Science about Truth or Adequate Models?
Open access is a competitive advantage
The Internet is all about linking and sharing. Syndicated content and Creative Commons make more sense in this space than locked content and Copyright because the system encourages and advantages sharing (think SEO, social sharing, etc.). Embedded content, RSS and APIs are technologies that are rapidly but imperceptibly remeshing the web. It doesn't mean you should not have a website centralizing all this information, but you should not have it only on your website, or it will be an isolated island on the vast ocean that is the web.
Peer-regulated reputation
The web is becoming less wild, less anonymous, and online reputation is increasingly relevant for 'real life' credibility. Jon Evans writes for TechCrunch that the online identity war is over, Facebook won—anywhere we browse we can be identified via our Facebook account. The next stake is our online reputation, based on how much our online peers trust our contributions. For example, the Stack Overflow reputation is quantified with an index. For programmers it is an index that tech companies look at for new hires. It is true too for mathematicians with the Math Overflow forum, according to a comment to the same TechCrunch article. The key here is that online reputation, if reliable, allows for a different kind of online discourse, which is peer-regulated and of higher quality.
Knowledge can be peer-controlled
Decentralization may most profoundly impact the way knowledge is controlled, i.e., which piece of content accesses to recognition and public reward. We currently have a system with a few gatekeepers whose expertise we trust to filter the content worthy of our attention (e.g., journals). There is no question that we need control, truth is not a democracy. But we can imagine other ways to assert control than the traditional top-down system of publication gatekeepers and appointed peer-reviewers. For one, they inevitably are a bottle-neck in the flow of information, and they are simply humans with biases, subject to politics.

Here again, in the last few years web platforms like Stack Exchange have been exploring peer-regulated ways to control the quality of content. Such decentralized systems can process massively more information and the knowledge thus produced is openly accessible to anyone on the web. Over 35 million monthly visitors are reported by Stack Exchange. How many are we to read JITP?

The key to mass peer-regulation is to have a reliable system that promotes helpful contributions and helpful contributors. So, is there a reliable one? As of now Stack Exchange seems to be doing the best job with a sophisticated system of votes and privileges based on a quantified reputation index. Is it perfect? Probably not, but I have little doubt that they are learning from their shortcomings. In any case, it's already significantly better than any other system I have seen.
It's okay if it's not perfect...
It is a lesson that the tech world is (re)teaching the world through movements like Agile and Lean Startup: there is tremendous value in opening the doors of our creative process. It allows us to iterate and learn from our actions in order to continuously refine both action and learning. Those more versed in developmental psychology than software development may recognize the principles of Torbert's double- and triple-loop feedback action-inquiry baked in the Lean Startup process. The web culture and the platforms I mentioned encourage this open processing of ideas. Let's not cook our ideas in a corner in the hope of presenting to the world the most perfect final product. Instead let's cook together, that's what the web is here for.

Developmental Action-Inquiry's feedback loops.
Borrowed from Opentopia
Lean Startup's Build-Measure-Learn cycle.
Borrowed from Jennifer Arguello

Still Not Ripe For Human Sciences?

Now if Integral scholars—and scholars at large—are not participating in the open web, there are probably good reasons. Here are some of the possible obstacles that may prevent this evolution.
  • Controlling the quality of content with a system of votes and reputation a la Stack Exchange may be easier with hard science than human sciences. Topics like mathematics or programming rely on more indisputable facts than human sciences, which are more interpretative. Biases in interpretative disciplines are harder to identify and will sneak in the voting more easily.
    I think it's a valid concern, but not specific to the online platform. This problem is already present in academia, and it might actually be lessened on an online forum, since control is less centralized in the hands of a few. There is already a philosophy forum on Stack Exchange with 211 visitors every day, which may illustrate how much this problem is (not) showing up.
  • Most online platforms I mentioned are still in the building and aren't solid institutions. There is a risk that they won't work, and all the content and the meta-content (reputation, votes) could be lost. So it's a somewhat risky investment of time. It's also why early adopters who are not in an advantageous position in the current system may find an advantage here. Barriers to entry are very low, and there might be a mid-term/long-term pay off.
  • One downside of Stack Exchange is the specialization and clear separation of topics in somewhat independent forums, which can be detrimental to discussing the relationships between topics (an endeavor dear to Integral theorists). That said, there is also a "meta" forum with ongoing discussions on these concerns. Not ideal, but it shows that the community is very aware of what is at stake in the definition of the categories. Still, it is a real question.
  • Last but not least, scholars themselves have their own blocks when it comes to using the web. Many of them are boomers or older, and the digital generation divide is fully at work when it comes to emerging web trends like the one I describe. In addition, I wonder if some scholars (all ages) may not have a snobbish attitude toward tools viewed as entertainment media or just a waste of timean understandable defense mechanism in the face of what may be felt as a competitive disadvantage. 

Cartoon displayed with special permission from

Journals AND Forums

Maybe it will take the Gen X/Y to come to power in the scholar culture to make this shift. But we're talking about Integral theory here, can't we expect some avant-gardism in the technology too?

I'm not suggesting that we replace scholarly journals by Stack Exchange forums. They serve different—yet overlapping—purpose and can both co-exist. I'm only suggesting that scholars, and in this case Integral scholars, invest in these new media platforms. How cool would it be to have a public forum where profound knowledge can be openly shared and useful to people in and outside the field? It is a space ripe for the cross-pollination of ideas.

On the long term, I see a tremendous potential for science in general—"Open Science" or "Science 2.0" as some would put it. But on the mid-term, I see so much alignment between Integral principles and those implicit to these emerging arenas of discourse that I can't help but want to push us toward them.

If you know other good trans-disciplinary web platforms than the ones I mentioned, feel free to share them in the comments!

UPDATE 02/21/12: While discussing this over the weekend with my friends Eric and Matt, they encouraged me to create a Stack Exchange site on Integral Theory. Thanks for the nudge, guys, it's a great idea. If you consider yourself an Integral geek (or are interested enough!), come follow the new "Integral Meta-Theories" site on Stack Exchange. We need a critical mass to make it live!
Integral Theories


(1) I admit that "Open Web" has a loose definition here. My short definition is: any service that only requires a web browser to be accessed, without prior registration or subscription, and which facilitates sharing content with other sites. For the purpose of this post, I would even include Facebook's content, because Facebook is so broadly used and sharing-friendly. A more detailed definition is a mix of Tantek Çelik's and Dave Winer's definitions.
(2) I use the term "scholar" on purpose to designate people who have profound knowledge of a particular subject, regardless of whether they are academics affiliated to higher education institutions, independent scholars, or other kinds of specialists.
(3) There is a notable exception with Integral World, but the platform is outdated, hard to navigate, and fails to exploit the interactivity of the Internet. It is mostly a digital repository of articles written with the "paper paradigm" in mind. Nothing wrong with that, to the contrary, but it is not what I am looking for.