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Metaphorically Speaking
August 8, 2012 - 6:56pm

When it comes to change driven by digital opportunities, it seems a lot of the proposed solutions simply trade one problem for a new one. Here are a few examples.

The US Department of Justice has accused the Big Six publishers (the multinational corporations that publish the majority of mainstream books in the US) of colluding with Apple to set the prices of ebooks. The publishers counter that they had to act in the face of Amazon’s discounting, which was more or less product dumping – selling below cost to gain market share. Those arguing on both sides of this issue say the other guy is just a heartless, greedy corporation. Amazon has the edge when it comes to their reputation for being customer-centric and innovative. But for Amazon customers are actually one of their products. Everything a customer does and every page they look at in an electronic text becomes marketable data. As for authors, Amazon provides new avenues for selling books and shares more of the profits than traditional publishers, but it’s not entirely accurate to say authors are gaining independence. They are becoming dependent on an incredibly powerful platform, which the DoJ may make more powerful. I'm not convinced this is a good thing.

In a very different part of the publishing ecosystem, this year seems to mark a turning of the tide for the open access movement. But when it comes to making scholarly publishing sustainable, some of the tradeoffs are not that attractive. Paying new corporations high publication fees does have the advantage of making the research available to anyone in the world who has an internet connection. That’s a worthy investment, but in many cases it’s awfully expensive. The big publishing corporations are adjusting to the new reality by launching OA journals or allowing authors to ransom their articles’ freedom – often for the incredible (to me) price of $3,000 per article. This is not any more sustainable or responsible than the traditional system.

There are new ways of measuring the impact of scholarly work. Hurrah for that! It’s bizarre that a measure everyone knows is deeply flawed – the ubiquitous Impact Factor – still drives so many decisions. But I’m not sure that metering every reading of every paper and staking our reputations on these metrics is a huge improvement. We’re still stuck on the individualistic notion that we have to meet productivity goals and achieve an optimum measure of fame. What about the bigger, more communal goal of advancing knowledge? What about intellectual curiosity and creativity about small things that add to what know but may not ever get a lot of attention? Are we substituting one flawed measure for another – in some places known by the unlovely marketing term, “eyeballs”? The idea that we should also measure our consumption of knowledge to justify our existence makes me feel like a very hungry caterpillar, munching my way through the library.

There’s a lot of chatter (always) about saving higher education one way or another. Recently a textbook publishing executive proclaimed  that if we hurry up and make all textbooks digital, our otherwise certain doom might be averted. It seemed a curious claim – that students won't learn and graduate unless we force the campus-wide adoption of electronic textbooks. (If you want to see a book, you’ll have to go to that museum of useless things, the library.) Apparently the real problem has been print textbooks! Who knew? Signing campus wide contracts with the publishers who provided that failed product won’t save anyone a dime (the price per student, he says, will be around the cost of the used textbook that will no longer exist), but it will make it easier for institutions to outsource academic work and for the corporations to lock in a new revenue stream.  He writes:

the publishing industry needs to do all it can to ensure that within 36 months, higher education in the U.S. will be completely digital. I’m not talking about a slight or even gradual increase in e-book adoptions or the use of adaptive learning. I’m talking about a total transition from a reliance on print textbooks to a full embrace of digital content and learning systems.

This means the textbook industry, er “content and learning systems” industry, will set the curriculum, give and grade tests, and ensure that students are savvy at using their digital “adaptive learning system” so that they can “improve their performance” and “recoup their college investment.”

And there, right there, is the problem. When we talk about what we can do to improve the world, we keep using the metaphor of money. Productivity, investment, performance -  why do we have to think about knowledge, culture, and learning in these terms? Shifting from business as usual to a new kind of venture-capital entrepreneurial Silicon Valley ethos isn’t going to fix anything.

I am no doubt connecting these particular dots because I am reading Girl Zines: Making Media, Doing Feminism by Alison Piepmeier, published by NYU Press a few years ago. She quotes a talented zinester, Cindy Crabb (author of Doris) who writes about complicated things in terms that don’t concede to cynicism or to oversimplification. Crabb doesn’t try to change the world; she tries to understand it and to make hers better. In her “Outroduction” to an anthology of her writing, she put it this way:

Do you believe in happy endings? Because sometimes they do happen. Something inside shifts, something outside comes together, and your fight becomes more purposeful, your rest becomes more restful, your hurt becomes something you can bear, and your happiness becomes something that shines out with ease, not in lightning manic bursts that fill and then drain you, but something else, something steady, something you can almost trust to stay there.

Piepmeier calls this mode of expression “micropolitical pedagogies” that flourish in “the cracks and fissures” of mainstream culture, places where people use DIY publishing to reflect on personal experience and collective efforts at social change. These small-scale expressive communities that have deliberately taken themselves out of the bustling marketplace are “places to try out mechanisms for doing things differently.”

If it is a political act to suggest that we stop thinking of all human interaction in terms of money, then that’s a bit of micropolitical pedagogy I aspire to. And despite everything I hear on the news, despite our corrupt political system and all the cynicism that stains the current state of higher education, I do believe there is a chance to create our own, perhaps small but nevertheless valuable, happy endings if we want to.

 

 

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