industrial technology development and academic research

by Sebastian Benthall

I now split my time between industrial technology (software) development and academic research.

There is a sense in which both activities are “scientific”. They both require the consistent use of reason and investigation to arrive at reliable forms of knowledge. My industrial and academic specializations are closely enough aligned that both aim to create some form of computational product. These activities are constantly informing one another.

What is the difference between these two activities?

One difference is that industrial work pays a lot better than academic work. This is probably the most salient difference in my experience.

Another difference is that academic work is more “basic” and less “applied”, allowing it to address more speculative questions.

You might think that the latter kind of work is more “fun”. But really, I find both kinds of work fun. Fun-factor is not an important difference for me.

What are other differences?

Here’s one: I find myself emotionally moved and engaged by my academic work in certain ways. I suppose that since my academic work straddles technology research and ethics research (I’m studying privacy-by-design), one thing I’m doing when I do this work is engaging and refining my moral intuitions. This is rewarding.

I do sometimes also feel that it is self-indulgent, because one thing that thinking about ethics isn’t is taking responsibility for real change in the world. And here I’ll express an opinion that is unpopular in academia, which is that being in industry is about taking responsibility for real change in the world. This change can benefit other people, and it’s good when people in industry get paid well because they are doing hard work that entails real risks. Part of the risk is the responsibility that comes with action in an uncertain world.

Another critically important difference between industrial technology development and academic research is that while the knowledge created by the former is designed foremost to be deployed and used, the knowledge created by the latter is designed to be taught. As I get older and more advanced as a researcher, I see that this difference is actually an essential one. Knowledge that is designed to be taught needs to be teachable to students, and students are generally coming from both a shallower and more narrow background than adult professionals. Knowledge that is designed to by deployed and used need only be truly shared by a small number of experienced practitioners. Most of the people affected by the knowledge will be affected by it indirectly, via artifacts. It can be opaque to them.

Industrial technology production changes the way the world works and makes the world more opaque. Academic research changes the way people work, and reveals things about the world that had been hidden or unknown.

When straddling both worlds, it becomes quite clear that while students are taught that academic scientists are at the frontier of knowledge, ahead of everybody else, they are actually far behind what’s being done in industry. The constraint that academic research must be taught actually drags its form of science far behind what’s being done regularly in industry.

This is humbling for academic science. But it doesn’t make it any less important. Rather, in makes it even more important, but not because of the heroic status of academic researchers being at the top of the pyramid of human knowledge. It’s because the health of the social system depends on its renewal through the education system. If most knowledge is held in secret and deployed but not passed on, we will find ourselves in a society that is increasingly mysterious and out of our control. Academic research is about advancing the knowledge that is available for education. It’s effects can take half a generation or longer to come to fruition. Against this long-term signal, the oscillations that happen within industrial knowledge, which are very real, do fade into the background. Though not before having real and often lasting effects.

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