[Andy Matuschak] Reflections on 2020 as an independent researcher

I enjoyed reading these reflections from Andy Matuschak on his last year of independent research and found I could relate to quite a few points. He seems to have been quite successful at crowd-sourcing funding for his work and is in an interesting position to compare his situation to the alternatives of being an entrepreneur or academic.

https://andymatuschak.org/2020/

I’m not interested in independence for its own sake. I’m interested in inventing environments which significantly expand what people can think and do. That aspiration is what drives my work, rather than a particular title, role, or practice. When I use phrases like “independent researcher” to describe my work, the title is a loosely-held shorthand for what I really value: freedom of inquiry.

For that matter, I’m skeptical that “independent researcher” is a stable or desirable long-term identity. Independence offers freedom, but it’s also quite limiting, as I’ll discuss in more detail later in this essay. If the work goes well, an independent researcher will likely find compelling opportunities to evolve into some higher-leverage institution—a studio, a foundation, an academic center, a business. If the work doesn’t go well, most independent researchers would have trouble staying afloat.

So I work independently. Not because that’s an ideal arrangement, but because I don’t see a good alternative. I don’t yet know how to create or join an institution which would enable better work. Part of the trouble comes from working in a proto-field, without methodology or principles solid enough to effectively support a pipeline of new investigators. In fact, I don’t understand yet my own projects well enough to effectively coordinate a large team around them, though I could certainly put a few more hands to good use.

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This is another article by Andy that I liked, particularly the discussion about action vs. achievement oriented goals.

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^^^This 100%. I’m reminded of Brian Eno’s concept of scenius, which I absolutely love.

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I hadn’t heard of a scenius before but Andy also references it directly in his article.

I want to be part of a rich scenius of serious, capable people doing full-time original research on enabling environments. I want to attend colloquia in which I’m regularly stunned by the ideas presented. I want peers who will candidly observe the limitations of my ideas, then work with me to improve them.

I don’t yet know how to make this happen. My proto-field has (hopefully) a proto-scenius: many part-time tinkerers, many startups doing research-ish work when they can spare the time. Funding is one limiting factor for a bloom of full-time work. But culture is another. This scene, as far as it exists, mostly draws its norms and values from tech culture—just as I originally did. I like the influence of arts culture on this scene, supporting a more expansive, playful design orientation. But I worry that we need a significant injection of research culture to support the patient, probing, self-critical work which can yield transformative insights.

I feel scenius ties into many parts of @brucecaron’s Open Scientist Handbook as well, particularly the idea that ‘The smartest person in the room is the room’.

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Loving scenius! We really need to look at the built-in asymmetries of science gatherings… the assumption of privilege for speaking out, and the amount of silence required during the day. I’ve done workshops where, at the end of the day, participants complain that “their brain hurts” from so much conversation/cerebration in small groups… then, after beers, they confess they’ve had more fun than any other workshop they’ve been to. Done more work too.

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Thanks Gavin for posting this article. This was on my to-read list for a while and I finally knocked it out today.

I’m particularly interested in the practical discussion of patronage. The comments about why his patrons pay him could be quite useful. His explanation of the patron-only content as progress reports that give credibility to his work seems plausible to me and was not something I had considered before.

Personally, I don’t think patronage would work for me, as my research is not of interest to many people. But I could be wrong about that. Andy Matuschak writes that he doesn’t think he could have had as many patrons without Twitter. I tend to avoid Twitter as I basically view it as set up to encourage drama. But lately I’ve been looking more at Twitter in areas adjacent to my own interests, in the hope of meeting people on there. I don’t see any drama in these parts of Twitter, fortunately. I tend to not network effectively and need to change that.

His discussion about how owning a house reduced his expenditures is worth considering. I’ve thought about buying a house in a cheap location in order to do independent research. There are parts of the US where a good house can be obtained for $150,000. But I wish he discussed more about how much his wife contributes financially. That possibly reduces his expenditures appreciably.

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