In order to focus my energy on open-source & community projects, I’ve recently decided to step away from Interactive Scientific, a company which I co-founded in 2013. In this short blog, I describe the origins of my old company and why I stepped away. My intent here is to empower others to learn from my experience. It’s been quite a learning curve for me, especially useful in the way that it has evolved my own thinking regarding the intellectual commons – and I think others might stand to benefit from the thoughts and observations outlined herein.
Interactive Scientific (or “iSci”) is a company I co-founded in 2013 (with artists Laura Kriefman & Phil Tew) as a vehicle for receiving a public grant from Arts Council England. That grant marked the start of an exciting journey, enabling us to develop ‘danceroom Spectroscopy’ & ‘Hidden Fields’ into acclaimed sci-art projects that have now been experienced by over 200,000 people on three continents, featured at many of the world’s most prestigious cultural venues. Our artistic meant we weren’t restricted early on by demands to ‘focus’. We had the freedom to explore a range of domains – everything from art galleries to science museums to primary schools to secondary schools to corporate research labs to music festivals to classical music venues to rave nights, engaging with all sorts, from primary schoolchildren to community-oriented-education people to open-source-software-people to sophisticated-urban-art-people to strung-out-party-people to crazy-art-market people to ruthless-corporate-billionaire-people. This kind of anti-disciplinary and community focused versatility is an important art response to the kind of alienated hyper-specialization that capitalism, in its current neoliberal incarnation, tries to force on us.
Good arts projects engage in constant critique, always redefining what exactly they are trying to accomplish, always trying to navigate the values of a culture which is going increasingly mad, constantly reevaluating how their actions align with their values, and perpetually iterating on themselves in a kind of self reflexive feedback loop. The iSci DNA was not designed for profit accumulation or to maximize shareholder return; it was designed to sustain an imaginative arts-education collective.
And it’s really hard for an organization to escape its roots. Karma is real, and it carries. Many of the people involved in getting iSci off the ground were artists who believed in the value of education, with practices that emphasized community. Because iSci was a successful arts collective, with content dreamed up by a team of artists and educators, it has a karmic legacy which is fundamentally that of an arts-education collective. As I’ve watched iSci perform “profit-making business”, it has inevitably struggled to figure out what it is and what it thinks it’s trying to accomplish. It can’t shake the karma of the critical artistic feedback loop, owing to the fact that it was designed to be a sustainable vehicle for bringing communities together by expressing creativity in the world, encouraging people to think together, and to think different.
It’s been fascinating to watch the current leadership at iSci perform their “profit-motivated business” shtick, because it has led iSci to actions and narratives so far at odds compared to her founding values. iSci’s allure and success arose from her spontaneity, unpredictability, creative flair, and anti-disciplinary manifesto. As the folks I left in charge perform what they imagine to be ‘serious business’, and attempt to discipline iSci to match the demands of neoliberal, for-profit capital, with their pages and pages and pages of business plans, profit charts, over-complicated legal-speak, intellectual property audits carried out by people who know little about the intellectual property, and hilarious brand-identity meetings involving ‘consultants’ who charge loads of money to carry out amateur profit-making-focused psychoanalysis. The leadership’s attempt to force iSci into such postures killed the very thing that people loved about her, and suffocated the very life-force that enabled her to flourish. For example, I remember one particular public event where the iSci CEO announced her intent to profit in the educational space by focusing on “the rich schools”. (What the #!@?) When I queried further on this, I was told that this was “only the outward facing narrative”. I assume that this kind of narrative had arisen a consequence of the pressure to generate profit for shareholders, but I wantedno part in such a narrative, outward or inward.
Having invested enormous amounts of time, energy, and emotion into iSci over the years, it became clear to me that it was time to stop. Over the last 4 years, I had observed iSci struggle to develop any kind of plan I actually thought might be viable. This was partially a result of the fact that they lacked an identity, posing as a primary/secondary education company one moment and a research company the next, depending on whatever buzzwords they reckoned they could ride to secure the next bit of short-term funding. Eventually the iSci leadership took the decision to saddle the company with a pile of ‘director’s debt’, whose hazy terms (as far as I could tell) seemed designed to enforce servitude rather than encourage creativity.
I also became disillusioned with the attitudes and culture which I saw being espoused by the iSci leadership – a prevailing operational paradigm where everything is a pitch, again likely driven by pressure to generate profit for shareholders. The problem with this approach is that expertise and experience does matter for making a real impact in areas like education and scientific research, and it’s actually really important to engage with practitioners whose nuanced level of expertise enables them to speak with insight. My perspective here was reinforced by interactions I had with senior colleagues at external educational and industrial organizations in winter 2018. On a number of occasions, they asked me, “does the leadership have any track record in the things they claim to do?” I had no answer. And it was clear that this was not good enough. Making a real impact needs a more solid foundation than hype and buzzwords.
By late spring 2018, I had a growing concern that my continued association with the iSci leadership might be impacting my own professional credibility. I was bored watching the CEO repeatedly misrepresent herself as an iSci founder. During a series of meetings during summer 2018 with the iSci leadership (co-founder Philip Tew, CEO Becky Sage, and chairman Rick Chapman), I outlined the problems I saw with iSci, and why it needed reconfiguring to make an impact. At the time, I held just under 47% of the company, and I proposed a few different ways forward. For example, we could reconfigure the company to refocus it, appointing new staff and leaders, who had a fresh vision, and a solid track record in the relevant areas. Another option was for iSci to keep its current staff and personnel, but change its status into something like a charitable incorporated organization (limited by guarantee rather than shares), removing the burden to generate return for shareholders and empowering us to consciously clarify a mission which was ethical and socially focused on the things we cared about. I was told by the leadership that either option was impossible, because “the creditors would never approve such a thing.” Apparently iSci’s debt came with constraints, and apparently those constraints required iSci to remain steadfastly bound to its identity crisis.
At that point I faced a dilemma: If what the leadership told me was actually true – i.e., that the creditors would not permit the company to creatively resolve their problems – then iSci was a sinking ship. If what the leadership told me was not actually true, then the ship was sinking for other reasons. My own passions lie in building a stronger intellectual commons and open-source community around the VR-enabled real-time nanoscience simulation framework which was driven by my University of Bristol research lab (the Intangible Realities Laboratory).
So I resigned my board position, and agreed to exchange 22% of my iSci shareholding for rights to those software projects which I cared about and planned to set free into the intellectual & cultural commons. But that’s when things got weird! For example, when iSci asked me to sign away my shares, I asked for a signed written agreement clarifying precisely what I would get (and when) in exchange. The iSci chairman phoned me up and explained for two hours how – despite the fact that iSci required my signature – they refused to sign anything in return, and that I just needed to “trust them”. He outlined at length how – if I did not “trust them” – the software being used by us in our university lab and our ongoing arts projects, would be confiscated, and our attempts to open source it shut down. Does that sound like a guy you want to trust? Or a company you want to do business with? Or a good place to invest time and money?
Anyhow, I resisted their stupid threats, and they begrudgingly agreed to sign an agreement as I requested, outlining what I would get (and when) in exchange for my shares. I’m still waiting on several things in that agreement, but I am proud to announce that there has been some progress – i.e., the same framework which we reported in our 2018 open-access Science Advances paper has now been set free into the commons, and given life as an open-source project. The iSci leadership’s fear of the intellectual commons derives from the fact they have little subject-specific expertise in the domains they claim to serve. Because of their lack of understanding, they default to keeping everything closed. As they chase investment, they regress more and more, suffocating the community vibe baked into their DNA.
Having stepped away, I am now focusing intention so as to build something from the start which might mature into the kind of imaginative and values-focused project that I would like to work at! To avoid identity crisis, the mission moving forward is simple and clear: to build open-source tools for nanoscale design, engineering, and simulation using state-of-the-art computational technologies like virtual & augmented reality, hardware-adapted parallelism, high-bandwidth networks, and cloud-based supercomputing. Open innovation & community-values will form the bedrock of our ethos moving forward, taking inspiration from open-source companies like Mozilla. It’s something I’m excited about, because a strong intellectual commons, along with community-driven free and open-source software, encapsulates the values, philosophy, and approach that has driven scientific enquiry for centuries. I am excited to initiate and maintain open-source projects under share-alike licenses, ensuring that our projects remain open to continuous peer review with strong scientific foundations that empower communities to cooperatively learn from one another.
I have an interest in seeing iSci’s educational tools make an impact in rethinking education and hopefully forming part of a wider societal awakening. It’s important to highlight the limitations of the dominant educational paradigm, which is unsustainably obsessed with disciplinarity, specialization, assessment, and rankings. These things are literally driving society mad, to the extent that we have arrived at a point in our societal evolution where we have simply decided to normalise unprecedented levels of mental illness, implicitly acknowledging it as the ‘the price we have to pay’ for how things are. To make any kind of meaningful progress, iSci must redefine for itself and for others the ways in which it characterises the value of what it is doing and what it has done to date. As iSci has unconsciously subjected itself to the dominant neoliberal narrative, its way of seeing the world has changed. Where it used to imagine how to empower participants to engage in community learning experiences, it now sees ‘consumers’ embedded in constellations of ‘products’. In this paradigm, ‘value’ is collapsed into some ludicrously oversimplified number called the ‘bottom line’, whose calculation tends to be completely untethered from any kind of holistic environmental thinking of the sort that we so desperately need right now.
This kind of thinking must stop. iSci will be unable to reconfigure educational thinking unless it simultaneously experiments with reconfiguring its own sense of value. We cannot innovate education in any kind of meaningful way while buying into conventional neoliberal profit narratives where learners are described as ‘consumers’, and education is a route to profit. Good education cannot be about profit; it needs to be about something else. Otherwise it is totally lame and boring, and not worth doing. The twisted neoliberal logic that has seeped into our thinking must be upended. To actually innovate models for education requires simultaneously innovating models for economic sustainability. Otherwise we end up with a scenario where neoliberal thinking, feeding on creative and artistic energy, sucks dry the very creative and artistic life-force which it wanted to colonize in the first place.