Why the Web Needs the Little Miracle of 3QuarksDaily

The cross-disciplinary curatorial website represents a pocket of humanity in an increasingly amoral, algorithmic internet.

On July 31st 2004, Abbas Raza began to curate the internet. On his first day, he posted links to the Cavafy poem, ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’, a New Scientist article on the possibilities of extra-terrestrial contact, ‘Is it Art, Or is it Arab Art?’, two obituaries of Francis Crick, a primer on how to avoid copyright litigation and a curious piece in the Independent on Mike Tyson’s short-lived comeback. An undoubtedly dizzying range of subjects.

Almost twelve years later, on June 23, 2016, 3QuarksDaily, or 3QD for short, is still going strong. The latest contents include an analysis of the immigration concerns around Brexit, a book review of American Amnesia: How the War on Government Led Us to Forget What Made America Prosper, the ever entertaining Slavoj Žižek, an article titled ‘Should ethics professors observe higher standards of behaviour?’, and a Caravan feature on the Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz. While a majority of people might see this as a vertigo-inducing list of esoterica, to thousands of intellectual omnivores (including Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, David Byrne and Mohsin Hamid) who subscribe to the site, it’s a vantage point. They, like me, have become overawed by the vastness of the internet’s moving feast. One that is increasingly so filled with food that there’s no place to manoeuvre around the table. So we find ourselves malnourished while choking on delicacies. As Raza put it, the “overload is something of a cliché by now but that doesn’t make it any less real”.

The need for filters, aggregators and curators to navigate the web isn’t new. Arts and Letters Daily, the inspiration for 3QD, was founded by the late Denis Dutton way back in 1998. It in turn was inspired by the news aggregator, Drudge Report, which started in 1995. But each of these had their own niche (literary humanities and conservative politics respectively) while Raza envisioned something more all-embracing – which ironically turned out to be a niche of its own. His plan was to “collect only serious articles of intellectual interest from all over the web but never include merely amusing pieces, clickbait, or even the news of the day… to find and post deeper analysis… and explore the world of ideas… [to] cover all intellectual fields that might be of interest to a well-educated academic all-rounder without being afraid of difficult material… [and to] have an inclusive attitude about what is interesting and important and an international outlook, avoiding America-centrism in particular.”

In practice, this elaborate vision looks deceptively simple. According to Morgan Meis, one of the editors of 3QD, all you had to do was “get a few reasonably smart people together, have them create links to the sorts of things they would want to read across the web, on any given day. Voila! You’ve got an interesting website. Then, don’t fuck that simple formula up. Don’t get cute. Stay the course.”

As Raza figured, an editorial team of ‘reasonably smart people’, by dint of their own diverse interests, would automatically bestow the site with a broader perspective. Currently this team, apart from Raza and Meis, consists of Raza’s old friend, Robin Varghese, his two sisters, Azra and Sughra Raza, poetry editor, Jim Culleny and assistant editor, Zujaja Tauqeer.

The power of the curator

Varghese and Raza met at Columbia University in 1995 while they were both graduate students. Varghese, who posts much of the political content on 3QD, was pursuing a doctorate in political science while Raza had taken up philosophy after studying engineering as an undergraduate. Varghese still lives in New York and works in the development space while Raza currently lives with his wife in Brixen, a small town in the Italian Alps, where his major occupation, apart from running the website, is cooking elaborate North Indian and Pakistani style meals.

Azra, a practising oncologist and cancer researcher in New York, doesn’t seem like the kind of person who has the time to post one (or two) articles on science (or literature) every day for twelve years. She assures me that she’s missed around seven days during that time but I can’t be sure it wasn’t a ruse to seem less superhuman. Sughra, a radiologist and professor at Harvard Medical College, apart from posting articles, also links to images of visual art in a weekly column titled ‘Perceptions’.

As the only two people without South Asian heritage, Culleny and Meis bring valuable diversity to the team. Culleny has been, at various times, an art teacher, social worker, columnist, radio host, carpenter, designer, builder and grandfather. As well as a rockabilly and jazz musician and singer who arrived at poetry through songwriting. Meis, in contrast, tells me he’s never had a ‘real job’. He studied philosophy at graduate school like Raza but never sought a career in the field. After numerous adventures that included starting a successful arts collective in New York and living “in the middle of nowhere in Sri Lanka for a year doing very close to nothing”, he currently finds himself in the position of an award-winning critic of art and culture.

The site grew rapidly from its humble origins. Within the first seven months, it reached a thousand posts. Within three and a half years, it hit ten thousand. By their tenth anniversary, it was almost at thirty-five thousand. In that decade, they had only ever missed one day for reasons that, like most things on the internet, involved a cat. Over these years, the internet and the process of wrestling with it changed in small ways. The editors gradually withdrew more and more from commenting on what they were sharing. “We moved”, says Varghese, “in a direction opposite to blogging, meaning we moved towards some virtual self-abnegation in favour of just letting the piece speak for itself. So much of blogging was and is about the blogger’s take on things.” Today, a post contains nothing more than a headline, a block quote from the article, an image and a link to the original publication.

Yet this seemingly spartan layout belies the fact that curation is authorship, just not of the texts themselves. Maria Popova, whose blog ‘Brainpickings’ was made a part of the Library of Congress permanent archive as a resource for researchers of the future, has become an unofficial spokesperson for the community on this issue. “If information discovery plays such a central role in how we make sense of the world in this new media landscape,” she wrote in an essay for Neiman Lab, “then it is a form of creative labour in and of itself. And yet our current normative models for crediting this kind of labour are completely inadequate, if they exist at all.”

Today, information discovery comes in all shapes and sizes – from the New Yorker Minute that does a number on the New Yorker, to Amazon’s book recommendation behemoth. There isn’t a doubt that the latter is a remarkable feat of software engineering, as are the algorithms employed by Netflix, Spotify, Facebook and Google. Netizens depend on these wonders – relying on them to suck in chaos and spit out order.

Yet these same sites are also examples of total moral capitulation. Underlying the logic of many algorithms is the idea that to find what people want, we need only look for what similar people have wanted. Apart from engendering near total surveillance, a mechanism built around the urgency of giving people what they want ignores the importance (or even the existence) of a responsibility to give people what they might need. This isn’t a surprising stance for profit-driven corporations to take. However, as citizens who value democratic access to resources and knowledge, it’s dangerous to allow ourselves to become complacent with gatekeepers who don’t acknowledge their own roles as stewards or see their power as weighted by responsibility to the community. It’s the logic of giving people what they want that’s made virality the metric for deciding what makes the news and triggered the current race for the bottom that has marked the new culture wars.

The gatekeeper’s duty

In stark contrast stands the purpose of 3QD as outlined by Raza in a radio interview with the National Endowment for the Arts. Laying out the three classical realms of knowledge – the realm of beauty, the realm of morality, the realm of truth, he stressed that all three were “immensely important to all human beings”. It’s a safe assumption that he didn’t learn this through a market survey.

His firm belief that all fields make important intellectual contributions resulted in a site where the sciences hobnob with the arts, the humanities rub shoulders with the social sciences and philosophy trips on the trailing leg of politics. The site’s very name is a reference to both particle physics and James Joyce. When I quizzed him on these choices, Raza gave me an impromptu lecture on epistemology. “The hard sciences,” he explained, “succeed in spectacular ways by relying on quantitative methods and reductionism (in the good sense that phenomena at the level of chemistry can be reduced to physics explanations but chemistry is needed because it provides a shortcut way of speaking about higher-level phenomena) … [but] wherever human activity is involved, only quantitative methods are not enough, as reductionism is not possible of these phenomena to lower-level ones. Instead, fields like anthropology, sociology, political science and economics use some combination of scientific and other methods, while others, like art, rely on things like a historically developed way of telling stories (just for example) to move us and evoke certain emotions and aesthetic responses.”

Paul S. Braterman, an honorary senior research fellow at Glasgow University and former Regents Professor at the University of North Texas, says: “There is the intellectual courage with which 3QD ignores the conventional subdivisions of knowledge and of cultural activity… We live in interesting times, where good decision-making must depend on the ability to learn from all perspectives, as well as on an underlying respect for reason and reality. Here 3QD and I share the same implicit agenda.” Braterman came across the website while looking for places to publicise a book, started regularly following it and soon was invited to become a guest writer.

Creating community, making miracles

It is a slightly curious feature of a site dedicated to curation that one day of the week, Monday to be precise, only original writing appears on the site. Initially, it consisted of essays by the editors, but in time it became a space for columnists and guest writers. These writers were usually members of the active community that had built itself around the site. Many were drawn, like Braterman, to the interdisciplinary niche it had carved. Now more than 4,000 such original essays have been published. And as they are all contributed gratis, it is safe to assume that it is the eclectic audience that is the main draw. Yohan J. John, a young computational neuroscientist who writes for the site, described his motivation, saying, “The abstract topics I like to write about – often in the overlapping zones linking science, philosophy, history, politics and religion – seem well suited to 3QD. I imagine regular 3QD readers are the sorts of people who might appreciate my writing.”

Tasneem Zehra Hussain, a string theorist and writer whose essays on 3QD are being collected into a book, had a similar reason. She told me that her first article on the site “was about the Higgs Boson, and how it related to Abdus Salam, because that’s an issue I thought was being confused somewhat in the Pakistani press. I had originally written this article for a Pakistani newspaper, but even though they had liked the idea in theory, when they actually saw the draft, they felt their readership ‘would get lost in so much science’. I don’t generally have a problem writing for a variety of audiences, but I thought that particular piece would lose a lot if I ‘dumbed it down’, so I turned to a venue where I knew the editors trust the intelligence of their readers.”

The internet should have become a haven for this sort of writing, but today there are few venues for serious, non-academic interdisciplinary essays. One reason might be the negative perception that blogging once had among the academic community.

“Ten years ago blogs were often looked down upon as a sort of time-wasting self-indulgence. Academics were particularly discouraged from blogging, which was thought of as unserious,” says Raza.

So, in 2010, in a bid to help redeem blogging’s reputation, 3QD began to give out prizes to the best blogs in art, science, philosophy and politics. After a nomination process, public voting and filtering by the editors, six finalists were sent to a renowned figure in the field for final judgement. Past judges have included luminaries like Daniel Dennett, Akeel Bilgrami, Lewis Lapham and Robert Pinsky. In fact, when Raza approached Pinsky to determine the winner of 2010’s Art and Literature Prize, he found out that the great American poet was a reader himself.

S. Abbas Raza, founding editor of 3QD, with American poet Robert Pinsky. Credit: 3QD

S. Abbas Raza, founding editor of 3QD, with American poet Robert Pinsky. Credit: 3QD

Meis refers to incidents like these as the ‘little miracles’ of 3QD. And he should know. Apart from catching the attention of other publications, his gratis writing on the website directly influenced his winning the $30,000 Warhol grant and the $50,000 Whiting Award. A similar thing could be said of the effect that the site has had on Azra’s patients, who find it while googling their new oncologist. “It opens dialogues and makes the patients (with lethal cancers) feel part of my life and part of my world … They are able to talk to me with a familiarity even on their first visit.”

While these tiny miracles might go a long way in making the site a worthy venture for its editors, my own mind keeps returning to (the apparent lack of) cold hard cash. The internet is a notoriously miserly place, especially for little media entities. It doesn’t help that information wants to be free – not slightly cheap, not very cheap, literally free. So it struck me as strange that the only concession to monetary concerns was a small message and a PayPal button on the sidebar. (At the time of writing this, the homepage of 3QD now sports a banner soliciting donations to keep the site going.) Raza refused to discuss finances with me but Meis did tell me that he has never made more than small change for all his work there.

So then how does something like this ‘stay the course’ and last more than a decade? I asked Meis what the secret was, completely unsure what to expect as a reply. “It is the people and the relationships,” he said “That’s the core of it. It is, to be terribly corny, love that has always held the thing together.”

Well, there you go.

Note: This article earlier stated that 3QD has published over 500 original essays. The actual number is over 4,000, and the mistake has been fixed.

Thomas Manuel is a freelance writer and playwright based out of Chennai.