If:book, Then What?

Progress in digital publishing -- some of it impressive, some of it not -- does not mean traditional books are disappearing, writes Scott W. Palmer.

August 15, 2006

Digital publishing has been a hot topic for some time, but it’s received a good deal of attention as of late thanks to a series of recent developments. This year’s meeting of the Association of American University Presses, for example, devoted a panel to the subject. Meanwhile, Rice University has just announced plans to launch the first all digital university press. In a slightly different (though related) context,  rumors abound that the next generation of Apple’s immensely popular iPod will possess the ability to download, store, and read book content.

Clearly, the movement toward digital content delivery is gaining steam. And, as such, it is not surprising to read that the technology’s more vocal enthusiasts are forecasting nothing short of a revolution in academic research, teaching, reading, writing, and publishing once it becomes ubiquitous.

Over at if:book, the collective blog of the "Institute for the Future of the Book," commentators have had a great deal to say about the immense transformations that digital delivery and online publishing will effect on the academy and academics.

Particularly instructive is the institute’s "MediaCommons," a "project-in-progress" aimed at "exploring the future of electronic scholarly publishing and its many implications, including the development of alternate modes of peer review and the possibilities for networked interaction amongst authors and texts." In support of this goal, the if:book collective spent a good deal of time this past spring meeting, brainstorming, and discussing the possibilities of a "new model of academic publishing.” They even "wrote a bunch of manifestos" (apparently, the irony of resorting to such a 19th-century device as the "manifesto" was lost on them). Still, when one filters out the soul-deadening jargon about "authentic learning opportunities," "self-reflexivity," "mediated environments," etc. that permeates their posts, it’s clear that the blog’s authors and readers are thinking creatively and earnestly (although  rather pretentiously) about the prospects of the digital age in transforming academic writing.

To this end, if:book is making considerable noise about Mackenzie Wark's GAM3R 7H30RY, a "monograph" (their scare quotes, not mine) hosted by the institute that goes beyond even the relatively newfangled notion of the e-book toward a new über-standard in digital publishing: the "networked book." Wark’s in-progress project (an “exploration” of whether computer games may “serve as allegories for the world we live in”) is being undertaken entirely online, enabling interested readers (and more than a few gamers) to post continuous live commentary as Wark uploads drafts to the Web. Such an approach, if:book contributor Kathleen Fitzpatrick has announced, creates an “openness and interconnection” that will "allow us to make the process of scholarly work just as visible and valuable as its product; readers will be able to follow the development of an idea from its germination in a blog, though its drafting as an article, to its revisions, and authors will be able to work in dialogue with those readers, generating discussion and obtaining feedback on work-in-progress at many different stages. Because such discussions will take place in the open, and because the enormous time lags of the current modes of academic publishing will be greatly lessened, this ongoing discourse among authors and readers will no doubt result in the generation of many new ideas, leading to more exciting new work."

In the end, transparency, interconnectedness, and immediacy will emerge strengthened by the new digital regime.

Then again, there are obvious downsides to such an approach.  GAM3R 7H30R1S7 Wark has already received nearly 400 comments. That’s fine as far as it goes. But the time devoted to responding to those commentators (learned, not-so-learned, and dumb-as-a-post) is time not spent on other, profitable, scholarly pursuits. In any event, one suspects that this is not a model that would transfer well to, say, scholars writing about neoplatonic epistemology or the symbolic meanings of Malawi's Chongoni rock art.

Still, projects like MediaCommons and GAM3R 7H30RY raise an important question: Will digital content delivery and the emergence of e-books and “networked books” bring about a revolution in the way that scholars research, write, and communicate their ideas?


But, then again, perhaps not.

I’m not entirely sold on the claims being made by the most fervent advocates of digital delivery. As is often the case when a technology is still in its infancy, enthusiasts tend to exaggerate a technology’s ultimate impact in transforming culture and society. Frequently, proponents fail to contemplate (because it is often impossible to foresee) the obstacles and unintended consequences that inevitably surface as efforts are made to popularize a favored device among the masses (trans-oceanic dirigible tours or flying cars, anyone?). It strikes me that, at present, the transformative potential of digital publishing in academe is being  oversold and, in many cases, misunderstood.

Just as digital publishing and new technological delivery systems will make possible the broader dissemination of academic writing, so too, will they make possible the broader dissemination of non-academic texts and visual content. Purveyors of the types of academic projects esteemed by if:book will continue to face stiff competition for attention and audiences should “iReaders” become as popular as iPods. If historians of science and technology have learned anything, it’s that new technologies have the capacity to change the world for good or for ill. Or, not at all. [I am prepared to bet a great deal of money that the development of an iReader, for example, will prove much less of a boon to academics than to purveyors of porn and self-help guides.]

Similarly, the emphasis that contributors to if:book seem to place on the “transparency” of scholarship and “immediacy” of publication made possible by digital delivery misses a very important point. There is much value to be found in not releasing one’s ideas to peers and public while those ideas are still half-baked. In many respects, the instantaneous delivery of “new media” writing is at odds with the solitude, meditation, and patience that are the hallmarks of traditional scholarship. Perhaps this is less true in if:book’s favored field (media studies), but it is manifestly not so for such disciplines as history, philosophy, and the like. Nor should it be. One can build a convincing case that, in the current age of instant analysis, self-absorbed “experts,” and ubiquitous 24/7 live blog feeds, the last thing that the academy needs is to embrace transparency and immediacy.

This is not to say that the effects of the digital revolution will not be profound, only that they are likely to be different from what enthusiasts currently believe. As yet, very few scholarly monographs have been "born digital." While it's clear that given the on-going economic pressures faced by academic publishers the movement toward digital delivery will continue (if for no other reason than it may cut costs for cash-strapped university presses), how this will all play out (for good, for ill, or for naught) is not currently clear. It will be clear eventually, but only after it has already taken place.

I am not a Luddite. I am not opposed to the efforts of if:book enthusiasts to consider and to explore the potential benefits that digital content delivery may bring to academic research and writing. If:anything, I am in favor of the growth of electronic publishing. After all, my own monograph is being published as part of the History E-Book Project.

Still, digital disciples would do well to temper their exuberance. They should at least begin to consider the many ways in which a move to all digital content delivery will adversely affect the academy and academic researchers.

Besides, the “book book,” that old-fashioned delivery system consisting of wood pulp, ink, and glue has proven to be a remarkably resilient and rather useful technology itself. It is not going to disappear anytime soon (or, perhaps, ever). Moreover, its perceived “limitations” may, in fact, turn out to be real strengths when it comes to preserving the contemplative attitude, dispassionate study, and patient reflection that are essential to lasting scholarship.


Scott W. Palmer,  a historian of Russian culture and technology, is an associate professor at Western Illinois University. He blogs in the Avia-Corner, at Dictatorship of the Air.


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