Confusion in the kingdom of technocracy

8 Jun 2021 - 12 min

The policy gap: between paper and reality, there sometimes exists a vast gulf.

From the keyboard of CEO JORIS VAN EIJNATTEN, Bits & Bytes is a thought leadership series which explores relevant or intriguing topics in the world of digital research. From software and digital humanities to current trends in academia and more, join us as Joris explores — and explains. Feedback or something you’d like to see addressed? Start a conversation by emailing us.

Are policy makers rational actors, dutifully serving the needs of researchers, or do they operate in a bubble? It’s a sensitive question, especially where it concerns far-reaching policy decisions. So sensitive, in fact, that it’s perhaps best explored in the realm of make believe…

Some fairy tales end well, others don’t. As far as I can tell, this one ends in confusion. Also, there are no heroes in my fairy tale. I could have included them, but I didn’t. They might have figured as the fairy tale characters who, in spite of the confusion, brought about a happy ending of sorts. But this tale is not about them. It is about the missteps and miscalculations that needn’t have occurred in a distant kingdom that doesn’t exist. Even if the tale began in March 2019.

Of course, this wouldn’t be a proper fairy tale if it didn’t have a moral. But this is how it works: you need to listen to the tale first to know what its moral is. Please don’t be disappointed. Whether, in the end, the princes and the princesses actually come into their inheritance is something I cannot tell.

What follows, then, is a bewildering narrative. Luckily, the kingdom of technocracy is imaginary. This tale has no bearing on reality. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events, is purely coincidental.

The prophecy and the pledge

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, a group of sages promised the many princes and princesses that they were to come into an inheritance. Quite unusually, at least for a fairy tale, the sages announced their prophecy in prosaic terms. They didn’t appeal to any gods or utter formulas in archaic languages. Having duly done what sages do, they solemnly proclaimed in plain language that there was to be a Digital Competence Centre, or DCC.

More precisely, the sages pledged three things. First, that the DCC would be a ‘landing stage for the maintenance and provision of project software;’ that it would arise as a ‘centre for knowledge of, and advice on, FAIR data, software and local ICT infrastructure;’ and that it would descend upon the princes and princesses as ‘a federated network for data, computing and expertise.’

The sages probably used such down-to-earth language so that no misunderstandings would arise. Quite unusually, at least for a fairy tale, the sages even wrote their words on parchment, so that all could read and understand. Again, they probably did so to prevent misapprehension. For the sages were aware that in kingdoms of technocracy, where leprechauns and imps play tricks and necromancers roam at large, heirlooms are easily lost, carelessly mislaid or deviously appropriated.

Into the woods

And so the idea of the ‘Digital Competence Centre’ was put firmly on the academic agenda. The princes and princesses were all very excited to come into their own. However, unbeknownst to them, deep in the dark, thorny forests where the wolves and wild beasts rove, necromancers and enchantresses had begun to dance around their cauldrons. Eager to transform the DCC into something it was never meant to be, they attempted to change, in a complicated alchemical process involving lots of mushrooms, the C for Competence into the C for Curation, and the D for Digital into the D for Data.

These conjurations in dataspeak were writing on the wall. In fairy tales, necromancers and enchantresses tend to be powerful and influential. They knew that the appropriate formulas could give them control over the kingdom of technocracy. ‘Data Competence Center’ and even ‘Digital Curation Center’ were uttered in sombre incantations. These spells cast from murky forests were intended to confound, and they did.

Now, these mighty conjurors often travelled to the heavily forested fiefdoms in and around the kingdom of technocracy. Few princes and princesses had heard of these fiefdoms; and those who had were usually hard put to explain what these places were. Conversely, many in the fiefdom had never actually met a prince or princess, let alone that they understood the prophecy and the pledge.

It is in these wooded fiefdoms that the CC – a Competence Centre without the D – had already been considered important for many, many years. The idea of what a CC ought to be was nonetheless very specific to the fiefdoms. The long reports emerging from them were widely read in the kingdom of technocracy, mostly because the conjurors who wrote them said they were the fairest in the land.

The CC, for example, cropped up at a fiefdom called EOSC, a demesne very popular among the necromancers deep down in the forest. In this fairy tale, which, as you know, isn’t true, EOSC stood for ‘European Open Science Cloud’. It consisted of representatives from a wide assortment of earldoms and baronies who participated in lengthy meetings, mostly on data. One of their fair reports described the CC as a centre ‘providing training, guidance resources and advisory services, empowering trainers and serving as hubs for collaboration between stakeholders.’

One can only hope that in reports such as these ‘stakeholders’ were understood to be princes and princesses. Probably not, because the point of my fairy tale is that the elves and dwarves soon began to ignore their sages, inclining their ears to those who spent their time in these obscure fiefdoms.

The veiling of the heirloom

So, to make a very long fairy tale very short, it came to pass that technocratic elves and dwarves very quickly lost sight of the princes’ and princesses’ legacy. They forgot all about the prophecy, the pledge and the heirloom. Who forgot what, exactly, well, that was all part of the confusion. Meanwhile, the princes and princesses were at a loss. What is our inheritance, they wondered? What is a DCC to be and why should it be at all, if it wasn’t to be what the sages had pledged? 

To be sure, the heirloom was not disremembered all of a sudden. That only happens outside fairy tales. Surprisingly, the original heritage of the princes and princesses had been recommitted to open access print on 1 October 2019. Translated into the language of contemporary commoners, the title of this report ran as follows: An integrated approach to digitalisation in science. Plan of action for investments in the digital research infrastructure.

There still seemed to be little cause for worry. The report reiterated the pledge of the sages. These had distinctly advised, with august authority and insight, that the dreams and ambitions of princes and princesses should be central to the DCC. They had stated, among many other things, that a DCC ought to be positioned close to those of royal blood; that it should be the first port of call for all princes and princesses; that it should be part of a federated network; and so on.

This advice was succinct, clever and useful. However, momentous decisions were already being taken, possibly unwittingly and probably unintentionally, which positioned the DCC far away from the princes and princesses.[1]Such things tends to happen in a kingdom of technocracy because, more often than not, the bestowal of legacies is discussed in the absence of royalty. Also, in fairy tales, inconvenient reports are often written not to be read. The result, as you can well imagine, was a great deal of head-scratching, and a general condition of muddledness.

The situation worsened when the elves and dwarves suddenly realized that the original sages had prophesied two kinds of DCCs. Some, the sages had foretold, were to be ‘local’, and others ‘thematic’. There had to be a connection between the two, but what was it? All the princes and princesses wanted was their heirloom, and to get it required someone to solve this riddle. But nobody was able to do so, because discombobulation and perplexity had begun to reign all over.

And so it came about that the elves and dwarves in the kingdom of technocracy, beset by warlocks and tricked by imps and generally lost in a fog of mystification, floundered unknowingly in a morass of half-remembered prophesies and ambiguous definitions.

Outside the fairy tale

Here ends the fairy tale: in wholesale confusion. Let’s step outside the tale, just for a moment, just for fun. How to value the three constituent elements of the acronym ‘DCC’, research-wise? ‘Digital’ is crucial, since it combines the three things necessary for research: infrastructure, data and software. ‘Competence’ is acceptable, although the suggestion that digital competence is something researchers can simply obtain over the counter is naïve. ‘Centre’ is simply detrimental, unless employed in a metaphorical sense.

From a technocratic perspective, it is clearly preferable that procedures and processes fit neatly into organized entities that can be suitably benchmarked, appropriately controlled and duly evaluated. The DCC as a centralized entity is a comfortable place, where people can be apportioned circumscribed tasks, procedures bureaucratically administered, and processes planned from above. But that is not the way research works, unfortunately. Research works bottom up.

In practice, research institutes heroically organized their ‘local’ DCCs in ways they themselves managed best. They adapted existing structures to resemble what they thought policy makers imagined DCCs should be. And so DCCs unsurprisingly emerged as largely imaginary configurations connected to libraries or ICT-support departments, as virtual service desks where researchers could get answers to questions about compute facilities and data services. And sure, it’s ok to have research supporters manage networks and data in some sort of centralized structure. It’s just not the researcher’s natural habitat.

In the end the DCC as a central coordinating body, whether local or thematic, was predicated on the misconception that ICT people, data stewards and research software engineers should be organized on the institutional level in a single unit. They can be, but only temporarily, and their impact will necessarily be limited. The DCC as a centralized entity suggests that it is capable of usefully handling the integration of all things digital. But research doesn’t work that way. This applies also to research software. The in-depth methodological expertise required to create it and keep it alive thrives in open niches; ultimately, incorporating it into a centralized entity will be the bane of innovation.

Long live the DCC

Am I wrong in thinking that, in the end, ‘digital competence centres’ should be about directly facilitating research, rather than adorning academia with top-heavy coordinating bodies and rigging self-perpetuating units thrice removed from research? Happily, I live in the real world, where such oversights never occur. There, things happen as they ought to happen: the R in Research is taken as seriously as the D in Digital. The real world is where the heroes live. That is why I could not include them in my fairy tale.

In the real world, research works bottom up. For the DCC this means, first, a clear focus on federated networks with nodes and junctions close to researchers; and a conception of the DCC as a dynamic, living complex of both research and research support, as a changing, flexible and organically structured whole – precisely the way in which any research environment functions. The DCC may be a misnomer, but hey, it’s just a name. If the thing itself is to be of any use, it must be positioned ‘close to researchers’, as the sages said, to enable collaboration at a level directly relevant to research.

But why worry? After all, the kingdom of technocracy doesn’t exist in the real world. It’s stuck in a fairy tale.

[1] For example, it was decreed from within the kingdom of technocracy that the DCC ought to be a centralized entity, and that gold coins from the technocratic treasure chest were not to be spent on princes and princesses.