The wit and wisdom of Wall Street is one of the great, perhaps the characteristic, American treasures. It ranges from statements of tradecraft (Don’t fight the Fed; Doctors make lousy investors) to acid, histrionic insights that seem to have come out of a novel by Raymond Chandler (Everybody in that room thinks he has a friend). My personal favorite–because it reverberates far beyond the Street itself–is Bears always sound smarter. I think about that phrase every time somebody tries to shoot down a new idea. I was chuckling over it when I visited a university campus earlier this year, and it rings like a mantra as I skim the comments on Kitchen posts. I will explain.
First, the vocabulary. A bear on Wall Street is contrasted with a bull. A bull is an optimist: the market is bound to go up. But a bear, well, a bear is steeped in Murphy’s Law. Everything that looks good is really bad, if you look at it right. The market is bound to go down. These two terms are captured beautifully in another Wall Street aphorism:
Bulls make money,
Bears make money,
Pigs get slaughtered.
The insight that bears always sound smarter is about more than Wall Street. It has a touch of Zen to it: it is a critique of human intelligence. Bears always sound smarter because there is much more clever stuff that can be said on the downside of anything. When you talk too much about the upside, you start to sound crazy. Take these crazy statements, for example: The Internet is going to change everything! Yeah, right. Open Access is the inevitable end point for scholarly publishing. Tell me another one. We don’t have a business model yet, but we have millions of users. Wake me up when you book your first sale.
Meanwhile, the Internet has changed everything, PLOS ONE is now the world’s largest journal, and a crazy scheme like a revenue-free social network called Facebook now has, literally, billions of dollars in sales. The bears sounded smarter, but they were wrong.
I took this idea to the liblicense mailgroup, where I posted a request for people to write me offline about all the ways people come up with to shoot down a new idea. As we say on the never-to-be-successful network of networks, ROTFL. I am not going to post a Top Ten list, but the comments fall into clusters and the commenters themselves seem almost like figures in a morality play.
Let’s begin with the one I personally find most exasperating, the Attorney for the Defense. Where is the evidence? Would you please tell me where is the evidence? When you respond that you are talking about a forecast for a future condition and there can be no evidence unless you reverse time’s arrow, the Attorney shakes his or her head and pronounces: I have to see the data. This is a great way to shut down just about every new idea because we can never know as much about tomorrow as we do about yesterday. But it’s hard to refute someone who stands on the bully pulpit of scientific evidence even when the topic is human imagination. (Human imagination? Now what, pray tell, is that?) Lots of very smart people fall into this trap and they seem to take perverse pleasure in locking others up with them.
But even smarter, or apparently so, is the Deconstructionist. Sometimes d/b/a the Exceptionalist, the Deconstructionist is a head-shaker. No, you have not taken that into account; no, your generalization is way too general; no, you should stop your presentation here because there is too much left out on the first slide. The Deconstructionist has the special talent of finding every possible ambiguity in any word or phrase and unfailingly interpreting the expression in the way that the presenter did not intend. We see the Deconstructionist at work in committees, where every paragraph of a written report is almost impossible to read because of the need to close off every possible objection. Gosh, it’s a beautiful day, you might say, but the Deconstructionist responds immediately: It is raining in Kuala Lumpur.
A cousin of the Attorney for the Defense is the Advocate for Premature Quantification. What’s the business model? Well, it might be interesting to see what would happen if we analyzed a text and mapped the outcome to the metadata of a book catalogue. What’s the business model? We could explore a means to tag books not only on the chapter level, but on the level of each paragraph. What’s the business model? I wonder if we could build an app that provided a real-time feed of abstracts for all articles in a particular subject area. What’s the business model? Putting an Advocate for Premature Quantification into a room with editorial people should be a violation of an international human rights treaty (The Deconstructionist says: They don’t have to be in the same room; you could use Skype), but I fear that Premature Quantification is trending. This appears to be especially true in the not-for-profit sector, where thoughtful business people are scarce and anyone who even utters a few numbers aspires to the status of Bill Gates (Attorney for the Defense: Where is the evidence for that?).
We should not leave out the Historian. My liblicense respondents had much to say about people whose typical remark is: We tried that 10 years ago; why do you think it would work now? The Historian displays his or her erudition by citing obscure examples from a bygone era. Historians are particularly attracted to the Scholarly Kitchen, whose comments section is littered with remarks by people who insist that the world can’t/won’t/must not change. And of course if you allow yourself to be baited by a Historian, the world will never change.
One final category (readers may wish to suggest others): the Worldly Sage. The Worldly Sage is wiser than the rest of us. Sages know how the world works; unlike the rest of us, presumably, they have actually visited the place. Don’t be naive, the Sage says, that will never happen because of the entrenched interests. Those interests can be anything from the predilections of a university provost, the maneuvering in Washington of an Elsevier or John Wiley, or simply the mechanisms of the marketplace, which is ruled by the fist of the big commercial firms. The point of view of the Wordly Sage was caricatured beautifully by a friend of mine, who said that some people meet any new idea with the same phrase: But Amazon . . . . Yes, try to sell books from your Web site, but Amazon will stop you. Attempt to develop a community of readers, but Amazon will stop you. Reach out to libraries with a new program, but Amazon will stop you. In the mind of the Worldly Sage, Amazon has reached mythic status. No doubt there will be a feature film in which BezosMan battles Captain America (But what is the evidence?).
The fact that bears always sound smarter is a problem on Wall Street, where the seductions of bearish intelligence can cause someone to miss a good investment, but in the world of scholarly communications, it is truly deadly. This is because people who work in academic publishing are almost all highly intelligent; it’s a group that graduated at or near the top of their class. And these folks have been told that they were intelligent from an early age; being smart got baked into their sense of self. So when a new idea is offered, oh, boy: Let’s sharpen the knives! New ideas don’t get evaluated on their merits (which may be hard to perceive in any event, as new ideas are often sketchy) but as a platform for a display of personal smarts. The comment Where is the evidence or What is the business model has a subtext: Look how smart I am! There is a dark corollary to this: It’s not only how smart I am but also that it is critical that you don’t appear smarter than me–or I, for the truly pedantic.
Let’s bring a bit of Zen into the discussions of innovation. Let’s begin with the assumption that intelligence is a commodity; it can be bought and sold; and besides, everyone you know already has it in surfeit. Let’s try to be as thoughtful about things that are not yet here as we are analytic about things that are (Schopenhauer: Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see). And when someone asks why you keep turning over in your mind a number of possibilities with no obvious outcome, respond by saying: That’s the business model.