Pragmatism in an Age of Ideology

We no longer live in a time in which ideologies are inherently distrusted. From identity politics to economic ideologies, it seems almost ignorant today to not have a badge of ideology of some sort. We also live in a media landscape in which labels travel well and are a strange source of unity amidst fragmentation. This same media landscape -- virtual, removed, asynchronous -- insulates purveyors of labels from the downsides of stereotyping and pigeonholing. This is a change worth contemplating.

A recent article in the New Yorker does an excellent job portraying some messiness around this trend at Oberlin College in Ohio. By encouraging diversity via labels so heavily, Oberlin has many "n of 1" situations, where a particular student feels she or he must represent all the gender, racial, cultural, or socioeconomic labels they possess, even to the point of undermining the university's role of resolving differences and moving them toward a level of common educational achievement. Instead of diversity being resolved, differences have become something to embellish and emphasize. From custom degrees to protests and outrage, it's a can of worms that's not easily closed.

Peace and prosperity may have something to do with this. Nathan Heller, the author of the piece, quotes Alexis de Tocqueville in an especially compelling section of the article:

Tocqueville thought [the French Revolution occurring in a time of prosperity] wasn’t a coincidence. “Evils which are patiently endured when they seem inevitable, become intolerable when once the idea of escape from them is suggested,” he wrote. His claim helped give rise to the idea of the revolution of rising expectations: an observation that radical movements appear not when expectations are low but when they’re high, and vulnerable to disappointment.

This is an interesting tangent to our own world of ideologically-driven discontents, especially as these relate to public access, open access, free article sharing, and piracy. 

Expectations around the Internet were very high initially when it came to information businesses, with this best represented in the rallying cry, "Information wants to be free." The expectation which formed was one of unfettered access, and this soon came to mean unpaid access. Over the past 15 years, there has been a protracted campaign to find a way to make this come to pass. When the most viable solution (Gold OA) combined with embargoed Green OA for papers from particular government or philanthropic funders proved unsatisfactory to some, a more dramatic and illegal approach was created in Sci-Hub and implicit or explicit support of illegal piracy.

Ideologies can lead to an inability to cede ground in order to reach pragmatic solutions. In the case of Oberlin's identity politics, adding diversity has driven a lack of tolerance among the diverse -- they feel that unless their worldview is completely honored and respected, they have been done a disservice by the college and society in general. Some loud voices are unwilling or unable to accept that diversity and compromise can co-exist. They also find themselves trapped by their own identity politics. As one student activist says:

As a person who plans on returning to my community, I don't want to assimilate into middle-class values. I'm going home, back to the 'hood of Chicago, to be exactly who I was before I came to Oberlin.

The fragmentation of experience and identification is clear -- there is nothing larger defining this person's world than her own differences, which she clings to in a cycle of self-absorption. And within self-absorption, pragmatism -- which requires balancing a number of competing and addressable factors -- is out of reach.

Building a better scientific and academic publishing world includes many possible pragmatic improvements and changes -- semantic engines, better editorial practices, more peer-review discipline, greater use of statisticians, tighter controls on study design, more insights into conflicts of interest, more refined interactions with the media, and more use of mixed media to explain findings. 

Yet, ideologies about access, now taken by some to an extreme with Sci-Hub, are drawing us away from pragmatic advances. Just as ideologies in American politics have distracted us from building better infrastructure, dealing with childhood poverty, and dealing with wage stagnation, ideologies in publishing are now causing some of the largest and best-funded to move from being content businesses to being technology businesses. while others depart certain markets too inflamed by ideology to be commercially viable.

About six years ago, there was a period of months during which many noticed a shift -- the excitement about the possibilities for online content dissipated, replaced with the notion that content was no longer viable except as a commodity. That trend has cemented itself, driven mainly by an ideology, not by pragmatism. 

In this ideology, content becomes a commodity -- undifferentiated, with volume-based pricing. This leaves little to no room for content pragmatists to flourish and grow. So they start looking for greener pastures with less ideological pollution.

What Sci-Hub represents is an ideology gone too far. It is so anti-pragmatic that it serves as an existential threat, and requires legal intervention. Even then, some ideologues argue that our laws themselves are invalid or wrong.

Pragmatism acknowledges constraints and boundaries. The problem with ideologies is that they know no bounds.