Colin Percival is the founder of Tarsnap which is a somewhat-niche cryptographically-secure backup solution. In this post, he replies to a comment he saw that he’s potentially wasting his life on something less important than the world’s biggest problems.
His point, I think, is that starting your own business is the only way these days of being able to do the kind of deep work which people like him find fulfilling. So I guess the question is whether there’s an even better way of structuring society to enable even greater contribution?
First, to dispense with the philosophical argument: Yes, this is my life, and yes, I’m free to use — or waste — it however I please; but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with asking if this is how my time could be best spent. That applies doubly if the question is not merely about the choices I made but is rather a broader question: Is our society structured in a way which encourages people to make less than the greatest contribution they could?
In many ways, starting my own company has given me the sort of freedom which academics aspire to. Sure, I have customers to assist, servers to manage (not that they need much management), and business accounting to do; but professors equally have classes to teach, students to supervise, and committees to attend. When it comes to research, I can follow my interests without regard to the whims of granting agencies and tenure and promotion committees: I can do work like scrypt, which is now widely known but languished in obscurity for several years after I published it; and equally I can do work like kivaloo, which has been essentially ignored for close to a decade, with no sign of that ever changing.
Is there a hypothetical world where I would be an academic working on the Birch and Swinnerton-Dyer conjecture right now? Sure. It’s probably a world where high-flying students are given, upon graduation, some sort of “mini-Genius Grant”. If I had been awarded a five-year $62,500/year grant with the sole condition of “do research”, I would almost certainly have persevered in academia and — despite working on the more interesting but longer-term questions — have had enough publications after those five years to obtain a continuing academic position. But that’s not how granting agencies work; they give out one or two year awards, with the understanding that those who are successful will apply for more funding later.