If you seek approval above all else, you are unlikely to innovate outside the rigid bounds of the current system:

  • You do not convince existing journals to give more respect to this new field you created. You go out and create your own journals and conferences. John von Neumann did not wait for his colleagues to approve of his work on Computers. In fact, he had to use threats to get what he wanted.
  • You do not convince libraries to embrace e-commerce. You create Amazon.com.
  • You do not convince university librarians to stop worrying about what the publishers need. You go out and create Google Scholar.
  • You do not wait for Amazon.com’s management to approve the use of a recommender system. You do what Greg Linden did and squeeze the feature in during a test.
  • If you can prove Poincaré conjecture, you don’t wait for a journal to approve your work, you just post it on arxiv.

Changing a system from the inside is inefficient and failure-prone. Stop wasting your time and make the old system irrelevant. Do not seek approval. Go out and test your ideas yourself. Listen respectfully to others, but make up your own mind. Work within a large company, scientific community or University if you must, but never fall under the illusion that you can change it by playing fair. Cheating is the fundamental mechanism by which change happens. Cheaters are innovators.

How are you planning to cheat today?

Further reading: Is scientific publishing about to be disrupted by Michael Nielsen

2 Comments

  1. The problem with this argument is that cheating isn’t just a good way to do innovative work. When you can get away with it, cheating is always the most efficient way to accomplish your goals, regardless of what your goals are.

    For every noble innovator, struggling to make the world a better place, there are a thousand jerks trying to abuse the system to further their own interests. The reason people discourage cheating isn’t because they fear change and want to suppress it. Rather, it’s because they’ve seen what almost all of the cheaters want and they recognize that it’s good for nobody except the cheaters.

    Of course, if you’re von Neumann, you can use your power to force things to happen your way without needing to justify them or convince anybody. I’m glad he was able to contribute to the early years of computer science, but I’ve seen other eminent scientists abuse their power.

    The moral of this story is that if you want to accomplish your goals, by all means step outside the old system and make it irrelevant. However, if you see someone else trying to do the same thing, you’ll likely be doing the world a favor if you stop them.

    Comment by Anonymous — 14/9/2009 @ 10:54

  2. Thanks for the link to the von Neumann article. It’s a nice complement to what I’ve been reading out of MIT Press’ “A History of Modern Computing”.

    Comment by Evan Meagher — 14/9/2009 @ 13:25

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