The Big Brain Begins to Think

By Research Scholars Emily Monosson, Arika Virapongse  and Judy Daniels 

At the Ronin Institute, we’ve been working on a Big Brain project that intends to collect and share experiences and insights by scholars operating outside of traditional academic institutions. Our Big Brain project got off to a great start in early March 2021 with two MeetUp sessions.

For the first session, we used a Google Jamboard to brain-storm on different questions–it was a white-board post-it note combination where anyone could add a note to the board. We began with four questions based loosely around: Turning Points; Roadblocks; and Lessons/Solutions as an independent scholar. The last board was centered around Helpful thoughts and tips. For the second session, we spent time organizing the boards by grouping post-it notes together and making sense of them.

The boards are fascinating. Take a look. 

Turning points_Big Brain
Road Blocks_Big Brain Ronin
Lessons and Solutions_Big Brain_Ronin
Helpful thoughts_Big Brain Ronin

From this first MeetUp for the Big Brain, we realized that the questions we posed inadvertently suggested that independent scholars have problems that need solving, and that is why we are all here at the Ronin Institute. However, we learned that some of us are here as a sort of second or third phase of our career, for example, after leaving a full career in academia and elsewhere but still wanting to carry on with scholarship within a community.

One thing that became clear is that Ronin Research Scholars are a diverse group who value community. So, another task going forward from this session will be how to better facilitate community building, networking, and cohesion. In other words, how scholars might find others with the community with similar interests. Importantly, the MeetUp stimulated some great conversation that continued well after the event.

To continue with the Big Brain initiative, we’re planning to have monthly Big Brain sessions that will each focus on a theme that emerged from the boards and conversations. These themes will range from how to find logistical support to time-life management and grant writing.

This is all exciting! Stay tuned for more updates from the Big Brain.

A Simple Plan to Change the Way We Do Higher Education

By Ronin Research Scholar John Paulas

It is time to convert campuses to flourishing spaces for the communities where they are.

Higher education leaders are becoming increasingly aware of a truth that the last year’s catastrophes and social awakenings have accentuated. Colleges and universities have been running an operating deficit that has grown into a huge debt, a deficit of care. The culture of higher education is simply not driven by care for the people of its campus community, let alone the people of the community who live their lives outside its gates. 

As with all problematic systems, the culture, policies, and institutional structures are to blame for this situation, not individuals. However, the ailing culture manifests itself through the conscious and unconscious thoughts, words, and actions or inaction of any individual within the culture.

The ecological study of the “edge effect” has seen that increased biodiversity and interaction happens at the margins of habitats. Think of the border of the field and forest or a riverbank. Let’s make our campuses the real community junction that they can be rather than the pricey gated communities they have become.

A work culture that doesn’t work

Academic labor occurs as if in a monastery. Novices are trained in the culture of the traditional university. They are told from the beginning that only the few “good ones” will “make it” as tenured professors. The others must look elsewhere. Upon taking final vows, they experience firsthand the harsh reality that no place exists for them in any monastery. This discouraging “professional” culture affects all members of the academic community, placing value only on the monolithic outcome of the tenured faculty job, ignoring the individual hopes, intentions, and work of its people, and never seriously looking to the community beyond the monastery walls.

The fact that we can talk about “town–gown” relations, the language presupposing a natural tension, shows the non-organic relationship between communities and the campuses within them. For the knowledge production community to flourish in the future, all boundaries between campus and community must be erased. 

Incredible service done by employees who care is not only a nonstarter in hiring and promotion, but also a de facto impediment to both. This culture of the university must be repaired, and all relationships must be healed through the creation and maintenance of a healthy community. To produce a flourishing culture, care for humans and the practice of humaneness must be prioritized, while care for protecting abstraction, ideals, disciplines, attitudes, outlooks, etc., must be put aside. Attempts at “public outreach” are doomed from the start because of the deprioritizing of humane practice within the culture of higher education, and because the community beyond the campus could benefit from inroads but does not need a helping hand.

Continue reading A Simple Plan to Change the Way We Do Higher Education

Life happens while you are working on your lifework! Notes from a Field Scientist

By Ronin Research Scholar Candace Gossen, on her Ronin Public Seminar on Feb 12, 2021:

I am very grateful to the Ronin Institute for offering the opportunity to talk about my life work on Rapa Nui (Easter Island). My PhD field work and research began on the island in 2002 as I was looking for answers as to whether rainfall diminishes when a forest is cut.  The story of Easter Island has always been told that the islanders cut down all of their forests and caused their own collapse. I challenged that story, and asked a simple question “What Really Happened to the Trees?” Hence the title of my seminar with the Ronin Institute. In brief, 15 years of work on the island, uncovering 15,000 years of collected data, I was able to look at long term climate change with repeating cycles of extreme events, and identify 40 extinct plants and 17 trees along with 4 new palms including the giant palm Jubaea. Collectively coring the crater lakes of Rano Kao has created a new story to be told, and moving forward with hope of planting thousands of new trees. 

My presentation talked about the science and people of the island, but one topic that continues to resurface is how life happens while you are working on your lifework! Pre-pandemic the most common question I would get when I presented my research was always about aliens, it never failed there was always an alien question that popped up, but perhaps it is the time (pandemic) and a new generation that is asking us as scholars and leaders how to shine a way forward. Life stories are not easy, but they are full and rich, and I am glad to share how my life has been formed, and formed by me like an entangled mess of roots and branches of the tree of life, my life, my lifework on Rapa Nui.

As a young girl, Rapa Nui was not a place I knew growing up in the bayous of Louisiana. My world was rich spending all of my time with nature. Climbing trees, listening, watching the lightning bugs, my world was full and it was a saving grace from the poverty, racism and bigotry that I grew up in. As a voracious reader, Bulfinch’s Mythology, Atlantis and the Guinness Book of World Records were always on my mind. This set the precedent which would unfold along my life path with my foot in the ancient cultures of the past, my climbing in the present, and eyes toward the future of saving trees.  

Life stories are not easy, but they are full and rich, and I am glad to share how my life has been formed, and formed by me like an entangled mess of roots and branches of the tree of life, my life, my lifework on Rapa Nui.

At 16, I started college as an artist who had been told I could not make art my job, therefore I had to pick a profession. Looking through the college catalog, I picked Architecture because it had the most art classes, but I loved design, and found my way as an activist fighting to save trees, so my architecture molded into ecological design, finding other materials and solutions to building practices and looking at all the embodied energy we use to make these things. Things just had to be more simple and then I was introduced to Bucky Fuller and it rocked my world. When we started the 5 year Professional degree in Architecture, the Dean told us to look around the theatre that had 250 people in it and said “look around; only 25 of you will make it, who is it going to be?” Of course I counted myself in. I was told constantly that girls should be Interior Designers, not Architects. After all, we were in the deep south. That however, raised my grit and I am happy to say that I was the only girl of 22 that graduated in my class and I received the Alpha Rho Chi Medal of Service and Leadership. I guess they knew something big was coming!

As an architect, the world of practice is nothing like school where you get to design freely with high hope. In the real world it is practical, cheap and no thought about nature. I found myself wanting so much more, and then one day I was fired for being pregnant, that was when there were no laws to protect women from these things. As a single mother with a 2 year old I picked up and moved West and that opened my world. I went to Arizona State, to the Architecture Dept., seeking to learn about solar architecture and buildings of earth. It seemed there were crazy pioneers hanging out in the desert, and there was much to learn from the ancestors at Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon. Me and the kid made it, even though many of my projects included crayon drawings in the mix. I wanted to teach and the masters degree was my first step in that direction.

As an architect, the world of practice is nothing like school where you get to design freely with high hope. In the real world it is practical, cheap and no thought about nature. I found myself wanting so much more, and then one day I was fired for being pregnant, that was when there were no laws to protect women from these things. As a single mother with a 2 year old I picked up and moved West and that opened my world.

Continue reading Life happens while you are working on your lifework! Notes from a Field Scientist

Ronin Public Seminar: Human Swarming: Towards Better Decision-making Systems

This seminar is part of the Ronin Institute Public Seminar Series, featuring our Research Scholars. We welcome members of the public, but please register ahead of time to get the meeting link.

PresenterGregg Willcox, Ronin Institute Research Scholar

Date: Mar 10, 2021
Time: 11:00 AM-12:00 PM US Eastern Time / 16:00-17:00 UTC (in your local timeAdd to your calendar
Hosted byVarsha Dani, Ronin Institute Research Scholar

Summary: Many social species amplify their decision-making accuracy by deliberating in real-time closed-loop systems made of many independent individuals. Known as Swarm Intelligence (SI), this natural process has been studied extensively in schools of fish, flocks of birds, swarms of bees, and even groups of slime molds. Artificial Swarm Intelligence (ASI) is a hybrid AI technology based on natural swarms that enables distributed human groups to think together in real-time systems. Along with Louis Rosenberg, Hans Schumann, and Colin Domnauer, I help to show that by forming “human swarms,” networked groups can substantially amplify their combined intelligence and produce significantly more accurate forecasts than traditional methods.

This seminar will introduce human swarms in the context of forecasting and group decision-making. I seek to answer: (i) What structures enable groups to make better decisions? (ii) To what extent are these structures already present in different societal contexts, and what can we learn from these other contexts? (iii) How can we develop tools that enable teams–both human and human-AI teams–to work together more effectively?

Fun Fact from Gregg: I just started a freshwater aquarium and my one snail (Gary) has cloned themself rather unexpectedly (and asexually?) into 50 or so little snails!  

Here is the recording of the seminar:

Questions about the seminar? Contact See the list of past seminars, as well as some recordings on the Ronin Institute YouTube.

Reflections on 2020: COVID, research, career and prospects

By Ronin Research Scholar Keith Tse

2020 has been a year like no other, and for obvious reasons. It came as no surprise that the word chosen as Word of the Year for 2020 by the American Dialect Society was COVID, since this has been and still is plaguing (literally) our global community since the beginning of 2020. The effects of the worst pandemic in almost a century have been disastrous for all of us, since with travel bans in place and people being discouraged from even leaving their homes many businesses, especially retail and tourist-related ones, have gone into recession, which will no doubt get worse in the coming years and drag our global economy down with it. In academia and higher education, the significant drop in revenue caused by students now studying from home, attending lectures online and abstaining from even coming into university campus has forced many universities to reconsider their budget and departmental infrastructure, which seems to have a ripple-effect on admissions and employment and many prospective academic hopefuls (myself included) are rethinking their career plans and even established academics are now considering leaving academia for financially more stable pastures (which may perhaps make them want to join our institute for independent scholars, though such causal connections are yet to be established).

In academia and higher education, the significant drop in revenue caused by students now studying from home, attending lectures online and abstaining from even coming into university campus has forced many universities to reconsider their budget and departmental infrastructure, which seems to have a ripple-effect on admissions and employment

The human cost of the pandemic has also been vast and grave, not only in terms of the number of daily/weekly reported deaths and the soaring number of infections overwhelming our public health systems, but also in terms of our collective mental health which has shown record number of cases of depression and suicide or simply mass anger as seen in recent protests and demonstrations against nationwide lockdown in numerous countries. There is light to be glimpsed from the end of this dark tunnel with mass vaccination now being put into effect by governments and well-credited pharmaceutical companies, though it would be naïve to think that our world will suddenly go back to its pre-COVID state just because we now have something that comes close to being a cure, especially since we have now discovered that it is possible for the virus to mutate and spread asymptomatically. The end of 2020 is truly a pivotal moment in our modern history, and as we transition into 2021, we seem to find ourselves in a crisis that only occurs once in a lifetime (let’s certainly hope so!). Nonetheless, being appointed Community Journalist at our institute since last July has given me a very different perspective on our Ronin community and beyond as I am now jointly (with the amazing Alex Lancaster) responsible for internal and external communications and have learnt a great deal about our members and our scholarly activities. I do believe that there have been some positives which have sprung from our global crisis, and these may prove critical in shaping the new normal in our research-related fields and beyond.

First of all, working from home. This has been encouraged by nearly all governments in countries which have contracted COVID, and our home has become both abode and place for work. This has drawn mixed reaction, since while some welcome it as they like the idea of working from the comforts of their own home, many others have found work-life balance much harder to strike, especially those who have young children to take care of at home. This is certainly reflected in some of the conversations I have had with our members, and although I have full sympathy for their dilemma, I honestly do not have a solution to it. That said, of all the industries that have been affected by our global lockdown (which pretty much includes all of them), non-experimental research fields are probably the least affected, since unless one’s research requires one to conduct experiments under very specific conditions (like in a laboratory) or to go on field trips abroad, our lives as researchers have never been confined to a rigid routine, like the 9-5 office hours which govern large sectors of the working population. In the words of our President Jon Wilkins at one of our meetings, ‘research is a continuous process that does not just happen during one’s working hours’, and we researchers often have to work through the weekend and holidays, especially when we are hooked onto a particular research idea which may end up keeping us awake through day and night. The advantage of this research lifestyle is that everyday is a holiday, since there is no need to go to work, but the disadvantage is that everyday is a working day, since one is in effect working all the time by thinking about the same things over and over again.

Speaking as a scholar who does research in theoretical Linguistics (some of which I managed to present at a Ronin seminar last November for which I am eternally grateful to the organisers, namely Jon Wilkins, Arika Virapongse, Alex Lancaster and Varsha Dani), my work has pretty much gone on as usual, since, despite the strict lockdown in the UK where I am based, I have managed to supply myself with all the stationary and inventory I need for drawing formal representations, and my electronic devices have worked well enough for me to continue as usual in annotating linguistic structures and carrying out statistical analysis. Soliciting linguistic data from native speakers of foreign languages has been more of an ordeal, but our social media is so powerful that it is possible to get in touch with anyone who has access to the internet and has the relevant social media apps at his/her disposal (Whatsapp, WeChat, Microsoft Teams, Google Meetup, and, of course, Zoom, which has become the default application among all our professional circles). In my case, I have managed to consult speakers of foreign languages on Facebook, WeChat and via email on many linguistic details which I need for my research (and I thank them for their patience, generosity and willingness to address my queries). Collecting and measuring natural data is well-nigh impossible without access to special equipment or going on fieldtrips, but for those who, like me, conduct social scientific research, social distancing should not be an insurmountable problem, even if we may still prefer in-person communication. I hope that COVID has not caused too many obstacles to those who conduct practical research.

Continue reading Reflections on 2020: COVID, research, career and prospects

Ronin Public Seminar: The Value of Social Cohesion in Our Communities

This seminar is part of the Ronin Institute Public Seminar Series, featuring our Research Scholars. We welcome members of the public, but please register ahead of time to get the meeting link.

…with the world more attuned to risk, lessons can be drawn to strengthen response and resilience. In 2020, the risk of a pandemic became reality. As governments, businesses, and societies grapple with COVID-19, societal cohesion is more important than ever.

From The Global Risks Report 2021 by World Economic Forum

PresenterAngelo Luidens, Ronin Institute Research Scholar

Date: Feb 26, 2021
Time: 9:00-10:00 US Eastern Time / 14:00-15:00 UTC (in your local time)
Add to your calendar
Hosted by: Keith Tse, Ronin Institute Research Scholar

In order to achieve a broadly inclusive state of wellbeing and prosperity within a community, it is essential that individuals of that community are resilient and thus contributing to their collective resiliency. A key factor of a resilient community is the level of social cohesion experienced in that community. It is one thing to know it empirically, and quite a different thing to measure and analyze it to inform policy and enable effective interventions towards a resilient community. The quality of surveys on social cohesion must also meet international standards, enabling timely and equitable comparisons to properly assess the state of social cohesion in a community. Social cohesion is complex and dynamic–it cannot be effectively grasped solely through a conventional reductionist paradigm. 

Social cohesion is a fundamental aspect for greater insights at larger scales. The assessment and approach of Social Cohesion fits within a larger context of the application of complex systems science, or socio-ecological systems science for that matter, by gaining and integrating different perspectives and thereby broader and deeper understanding of the dynamics and challenges small island states like Curaçao face. This seminar will provide a review of a framework and road-map of best practices and different approaches for devising a national social cohesion survey that correlates with international standards, yet is properly localized to suit the needs of the community where it will be implemented.

Fun fact from Angelo:
I am by nature curious, ever so inquisitive. Always wanting to dig deeper and seek greater understanding. Over time I found out I am a seeker, a knowledge seeker. I set out to find out why and how things work or fail to work based on an innate knowing of how it should be. My life experiences and the dissonance these experiences cause with my self, got me onto a journey of self discovery and to a greater extend the mastery of self where I now enjoy waking up in the morning and get right at moving the ball one more step further day by day towards that innately known epiphany. More so, as I see the pieces settling in their place step by step, day by day. I do at times contemplate, now more than before that it was the best thing I have done to dig deep into things very early on asking myself why I am the way I am and do things the way I do, even though it is a longer path, takes a lot more work and intentionality. I enjoy the new discoveries along the way. However, the one thing that can completely recharge me is, ever so often there comes along someone or some people on the journey, who because of my own choices, I can light the light in them, and it is an amazing feeling to see their light, light up and shine brighter!

Here is the recording of the seminar:

Questions about the seminar? Contact See the list of past seminars, as well as some recordings on the Ronin Institute YouTube.

Ronin Public Seminar: What Really Happened to the Trees on Easter Island?

This seminar is part of the Ronin Institute Public Seminar Series, featuring our Research Scholars. We welcome members of the public, but please register ahead of time to get the meeting link.

Presenter: Candace Gossen, Ronin Institute Research Scholar

Date: Feb 12, 2021
Time: 2:00-3:00 PM US Eastern Time / 19:00-20:00 UTC (in your local time)
Add to your calendar
Hosted by: Stéphanie Cassilde, Ronin Institute Research Scholar

According to historical views by colonizing wayward voyagers, Easter Island was a barren island, devoid of trees and full of giant statues left behind from a cultural collapse. These myths have now been rejected and the truth accepted that slavery diminished Easter Island’s 4,000 people to 111 in 1862. But an important question remains: Did the islanders really cut down all of their trees? The only way to literally dig into the past to uncover what plants, ecosystems, and climate changes were occurring was to core the ancient crater lake of Rano Kao.  In this presentation, Candace will present the results of 15,000 years of discovery with an answer to: What really happened to the trees?

Fun Fact from Candace:
While doing this field research, I learned what it was like to work in a quagmire and walk on water.

Here is the recording of the seminar:

Questions about the seminar? Contact See the list of past seminars, as well as some recordings on the Ronin Institute YouTube.

Artwork by Koola Adams

Ronin Institute Principle: Art of Hosting

This series of blog posts introduces some of the guiding principles that we use at the Ronin Institute to help the community be its best. Our last post was on Pay it Forward.

In our Code of Conduct, we emphasize an individual’s right to their “peaceful enjoyment” of participating in the Ronin Institute. Here’s one key thing that we all can do to enhance this for everyone: Practice the art of hosting

In a world of getting things done, facilitation is emphasized as the best way to achieve successful and productive meetings. It’s where specific and skilled individuals are tasked with helping a group work through an agenda and toward specific goals. But is that the only way to get the most out of our meetings?

At the Ronin Institute, we consider the importance of hosting, which “draws less on technical proficiency and more on simple warmth and hospitality; less on lecturing and more on listening; less on facilitation and more on curiosity and open inquiry.” Importantly, it doesn’t depend on specific people to make an event a success.

For instance, when you (pre-2020) hosted a dinner party, what did you do to make your guests feel comfortable? Likewise, when you attended such a dinner party, what did you do to be a gracious attendee? I bet you practiced some of those “hosting” skills by listening openly and encouragingly to other guests, as well as helping them feel engaged and connected.

Being a great host doesn’t require many learned skills. It takes empathy and a willingness to make people feel welcome. It may not specifically keep us on the agenda, but it can deepen the quality of our interactions and experiences. Hosting is something that we can all embody and take charge of. When attending another event at the Ronin Institute, try asking yourself: What can I do to help others feel more comfortable, included, and valued? 

[Artwork by: Koola Adams]

Not quite quit lit

By Ronin Research Scholar Jonathan Walter

I’ve decided to leave traditional academia and pursue different ways to be a scientist. If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to share about why, and what I’m doing next.

Let’s be real, this wasn’t my first choice. Being a professor had long been my dream, and I spent more than a decade working with purpose to make that a reality. However, family considerations made my job search geographically narrow, and that limited my opportunities. For a while, I maintained optimism that I’d find a suitable position, either at my current institution or one within reasonable driving distance. Meanwhile, my career grew in other ways, and as it did, remaining by rank a postdoc became untenable. I felt this way despite working with fantastic collaborators and mentors who are supportive of me, and working with whom I have had intellectual freedom and responsibility beyond what many postdocs experience. Nonetheless, institutional policies put too low a ceiling on what I could do while off the tenure track, and I reached a point where continuing to wait for a faculty job to materialize would diminish my happiness with my work and limit opportunities in my career and personal life.

After considering jobs in government, NGOs, and industry, I decided on something a bit different. Earlier this year, I joined the Ronin Institute, a multidisciplinary community of scholars working largely outside traditional academic institutions. I also started a statistical consulting and quantitative research business called Athenys Research (pronounced “uh-THEEN-iss”). In addition, a colleague and I are in the early stages of co-founding a nonprofit organization for environmental sciences research. I’ll share more about these initiatives in the future, but briefly I will continue pursuing grant-funded research through the Ronin Institute and eventually the nascent non-profit, and pursue consulting and contract work through Athenys Research.

I want to note that I don’t harbor much bitterness over leaving. That doesn’t mean I think all is well in the academy. For one, its hiring practices exclude a considerable number of talented scholars who are dedicated to their fields of study, students, and communities. I just don’t take it personally not to get what had been my dream job, nor do I feel entitled to it, and I am happy with my life choices that had the side effect of limiting my opportunities for tenure-track faculty jobs.

I place enormous value on the freedom to pursue my own research interests, to collaborate with whomever I choose, and to strive that research innovations support public good.

If you think being a soft-money scientist and entrepreneur—beginning coincidentally amidst a pandemic—seems risky, I agree with you, so I want to write a bit about my reasons for pursuing this path.

I love few things more than being a scientist, and I place enormous value on the freedom to pursue my own research interests, to collaborate with whomever I choose, and to strive that research innovations support public good. I want to continue centering my career on doing quantitative research that advances knowledge of the world around us and serves the public interest, and I think these initiatives will keep me engaged in this work and facilitate new opportunities. Academia can offer amazing intellectual freedoms, but as an early-career scientist off the tenure track I experienced them only in somewhat limited ways. Science jobs in other organizations rarely offer such self-determination, even if the work is stimulating and meaningful.

My new path also enables me to earn full credit and a market rate for my work. As is not uncommon for early-career academics, institutional policies and practices prevented me from accruing the full benefits of my efforts. Since finishing my PhD six years ago, I’ve been the primary or a major contributing author of several funded grant and fellowship proposals. This has, naturally, been a boon to my career: I have picked my research projects, collaborators, and where I live; these projects have produced a lot of exciting science; and they have supported excellent students and postdocs. Yet, it underscores a degree of unfairness in the system. Despite these successes, I remained a postdoc with a middle-of-the-road salary, I’ve worked countless unpaid hours to manage multiple projects, and a meaningful degree of my leadership of these projects flies under the radar because institutional policies hindering postdocs from being a PI meant I “ghost wrote” some of them.

So, while leaving behind established institutions has costs, so too would remaining, and for me the risks of this path are outweighed by the opportunity to continue work I love and believe is important, to be better compensated for it, and to build organizations that—if successful—will help others do the same.

In an odd sort of way, I feel like my career thus far has prepared me well for this.

My approach to science is largely that of a broadly analytical thinker with skills in statistics and mathematical modelling, which I bring to many problems and study systems, collaborating with a variety of groups. My new career model consciously takes advantage of this. I have a wide network of fantastic collaborators, and I’m excited to establish relationships with new people and organizations. My breadth of research, which has sometimes come across as atypical and unfocused, can be made a strength when I can benefit from multiple concurrent projects, with different groups, with diverse sources of support.

I started Athenys Research to have another means of finding interesting work, because it would be unrealistic to believe I can continuously support myself through research grants, given funding rates and award sizes in my field. I see substantial parallels between developing a funded research program and entrepreneurship, which makes me confident that—with effort and learning—I can make this model work for me. Experience tells me that working with non-profits, government agencies, and industry will be intellectually stimulating, and that there’s a lot of good, impactful work to do in these settings.

I want to be real that one of my greatest misgivings about this career path is whether I can handle supporting my salary entirely through grants and contacts over the long run. I’m extremely privileged that I can withstand some short-term failures, and if those become too great I’ll re-evaluate my path. In the near term, I’ve been fortunate to smooth the transition through part-time gigs at two universities. I’ll complete ongoing research projects with some terrific people and continue putting things in place for this new phase in my career.

So, there’s the story, in broad strokes. I titled this “not quite quit lit” because in many ways I haven’t “quit.” I continue to pursue many ideals espoused by academia (such as intellectual freedom and the production of knowledge for public good), through some conventional means (such as grants and journal publications), often in collaboration with scientists at established institutions. I’ll just be doing it on different terms.

Jonathan Walter is an ecologist and statistical consultant. Jonathan is a Research Scholar at the Ronin Institute and the founder and lead scientist of Athenys Research.

“Free” isn’t free: A Ronin Research Scholar examines the web and its problems

By Ronin Research Scholar Ralph Haygood 

Remember when the World Wide Web was new and shiny (albeit somewhat rickety)? It wasn’t very long ago. Like me, many Ronin Research Scholars no doubt can recall the widespread excitement about the new medium. I was in graduate school when the web took off and became part of everyday life.

Two decades later, it isn’t just names like AltaVista, GeoCities, and Netscape that have faded into history. Instead of excitement, there’s widespread concern that the web has become problematic, possibly doing more harm than good. These days, discussions of the web tend to emphasize fake news, hate speech, compulsive “doomscrolling”, and the unaccountable power of a few big companies like Google and Facebook. How did we get here, and what should we do about it?

That’s the subject of my new book “Free” isn’t free: The Original Sin of the web and what to do about it. The book explains that a major cause of many problems with the web is what it dubs the Original Sin of the web: collecting personal information about users and selling it to marketers. Web companies offer us “free” services, on the condition that we let them “data-mine” us and sell the data to people who, in turn, use it to try to sell us everything under the sun. However, “free” isn’t free; this business model has significant costs that we all pay.

So what’s the solution? Obviously, better laws could help, particularly by limiting what information web companies are allowed to collect about us and what they’re allowed to do with it. However, I argue that the key to a better web is for us users, rather than marketers, to become the customers. This isn’t a panacea, but it addresses multiple problems with the web at once, by reducing conflicts of interests between websites and users.

Although other books cover some of the same ground, I felt it was worth writing “Free” isn’t free in order to present the main issues concisely, highlight the central significance of the Original Sin, and address objections to making users the customers. As obvious as making users the customers may seem, most discussions of the web and its problems ignore or downplay this possibility. “Free” isn’t free examines several common objections to it, arguing that although some of them are warranted, none of them is decisive. For example, although there are reasonable concerns about deepening the “digital divide” between people who can afford to pay for the web and people who can’t, there are also practical strategies for avoiding this outcome, despite being supported by users.

Who am I to write such a book? The answer may interest even Ronin scholars who aren’t especially interested in the web and its problems. Like the founder of the Ronin Institute, Jon Wilkins, I’m an evolutionary geneticist, with a Ph.D., postdoctoral fellowships, and published research. However, before all that, I was a computer programmer and researcher. In fact, I found my way into evolutionary genetics through genetic algorithms, computation schemes inspired by evolutionary genetics. During my years as a grad student and postdoc, I remained attentive to developments in computation, and since leaving academia, I’ve made a living mostly by creating web applications. So I’ve been building, using, and pondering the web for quite awhile.

One reason why I decided not to become a professor was that I didn’t relish the prospect of devoting myself almost exclusively to a single topic for many years, in order to establish myself as the world’s leading authority on that topic. As competition for jobs and funding has become ever more intense, many academics have found that professional survival demands focus to the point of monomania. So an academic career seemed too cramped for my interests, which have always been broad (e.g., before I worked with computers, I studied physics and mathematics). Of course, a project such as writing “Free” isn’t free may require sharply focused attention and effort for weeks or months at a time. However, when it’s finished, I’m free to contemplate quite different things if I wish. Fortunately, as a software developer, I’m able to make a comfortable living from part-time work, leaving many hours for other pursuits. If more people were able to do likewise, I expect that many of their “other pursuits”—art, science, environmental conservation, social justice, and much more— would enrich us all.

I’m grateful for and enthusiastic about the Ronin Institute, which encourages and facilitates scholarly work by people like me who choose to spread our attention and effort more broadly than most academics are free to do.

I thank Keith Tse for inviting me to post here.

“Free” isn’t free is available as an e-book or paperback. For links to sellers, visit the website for the book.

Ralph Haygood is a population biologist, emphasizing evolutionary genetics and mathematical, computational, and statistical methods. He is also a software developer, emphasizing web applications. He has been a Ronin Research Scholar since 2012—before it was trendy! He currently lives in Vancouver, British Columbia. You can read more about him and his work on his website.