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.
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.