Planned Obsolescence: The Proposal

As promised several days back, the proposal for the blob, below the fold. Any and all comments would be enormously appreciated. Further blobbing will follow in the days to come.

Planned Obsolescence:
Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy

Over the last few years, there has been a significant uptick in discussion of the crisis in academic publishing, particularly in the humanities. This discussion has played out on conference panels, across blogs, and in publications including Lindsay Waters’s Enemies of Promise: Publishing, Perishing, and the Eclipse of Scholarship, missives including the now-famous Stephen Greenblatt letter to the membership of the MLA, and reports such as that produced by the MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion. There have been, as well, many arguments made about the role that electronic publishing might play in rescuing the academy from this crisis, including those in John Willinsky’s The Access Principle, Christine Borgman’s Scholarship in the Digital Age, and venues such as the Journal of Electronic Publishing — and including my own writing about the issue, much of which circulates on and around MediaCommons. And much of what has come out through this discussion is direct, clear, and to the point: the old ways of circulating the results of scholarly research are no longer working as well for us as they should, whether because they’re too expensive, too slow, too text-based, too linear, too static, too univocal, or too proprietary. The answer, such texts often indicate, may be found in the Internet, or some subset thereof: digital network-based publishing can enable the free (or at least less expensive) distribution of more scholarly work, in a more timely fashion, to more people; it can enable scholars to write in more inventive, multi-modal forms; it can facilitate collaboration and discussion of scholarship, thereby resulting in the production of more compelling new work. All of this is, to varying extents, true, and this text like those that have gone before it will trumpet a number of the core values of Internet-based publishing, including open access, Creative Commons licensing, the gift economy, and the like.

What such arguments about the digital future of scholarly publishing often fail to account for, however, is the fundamentally conservative nature of academic institutions, and — despite the rhetoric of provocateurs like David Horowitz — the similar conservatism of the academics that comprise them. In the main, academics are resistant to change in their ways of working; it is not without reason that a senior colleague once joked to me that the motto of our institution (and, I’d argue, the academy more broadly) could easily be that often attributed to the Presbyterian church: “We have never done it that way before.” As Donald Hall has noted, scholars often resist applying the critical skills that we bring to our subject matter to an examination of “the textuality of our own profession, its scripts, values, biases, and behavioral norms” (Hall xiv); such self-criticism is a risky endeavor, and those of us who have been privileged enough to succeed within the extant system are often reluctant to bite the hand that feeds us. Changing our technologies, changing our ways of doing research, changing our modes of production and distribution of the results of that research, are all crucial to the continued vitality of the academy — and yet none of those changes can possibly come about unless there is first a profound change in the ways of thinking of scholars themselves. Until scholars really believe that publishing on the web is as valuable as publishing in print — and more importantly, until they believe that their institutions believe it, too — few will be willing to risk their careers on a new way of working, with the result that that new way of working will remain marginal, undervalued, and risky.

In Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy, I propose to focus, then, not just on the technological changes that many believe are necessary to allow academic publishing to flourish into the future, but on the social, intellectual, and institutional changes that are necessary to pave the way for such flourishing. In order for new modes of communication to become broadly accepted within the academy, scholars and their institutions must take a new look at the mission of the university, the goals of scholarly publishing, and the processes through which scholars conduct their work. We must collectively consider what new technologies have to offer not us, not just in terms of the cost of publishing or access to publications, but in the ways we research, the ways we write, and the ways we review.

Most importantly, however, we must also consider the risks of not making such changes in our working lives — risks that go beyond the intellectual stultification produced by a blind adherence to current ways of doing things, potentially resulting in the academy’s increasing irrelevance within a culture whose epistemologies and structures of authority have begun a radical shift in the age of the network. One might look, for instance, at the field of television studies: if ever there were an academic field that ought to have substantive crossover potential within contemporary culture, this would seem to be it — and yet, can academic authors possibly remain relevant to the main threads of public discussion of the medium when their books and articles take years to see print, while websites such as allow a broad range of immediate intellectual engagement? Unless television scholars can fully engage with the modes of discussion and exploration made possible by the Internet, they face a future in which their work will fail to spark interest in precisely the audience with which they most wish to engage.

Or perhaps, some might argue, the era of the academic as public intellectual is and ought to be over. One frequent response to the marginalization of an elite culture in the face of a changing mainstream — as I explored at length in The Anxiety of Obsolescence: The American Novel in the Age of Television (Vanderbilt UP, 2006) — is an increasing disdain for the mainstream, a fierce clinging to traditional values, and a vehement assertion of the importance of rigor. As Stephen Connor has argued, while a shift in values in the mainstream of contemporary culture “produces a sense of resentment at being pushed from the centers of power and influence, it can also offer the customary consolations of life at the margins” (12). Those consolations, however, may be few and far between in an era in which the ability of the academy to fulfill its mission is increasingly at the mercy of accrediting agencies and funding bodies that do not share our values; unless we find ways to communicate the importance of the work that we are doing to the broader public — unless we can regain, with conviction, a role in the main threads of public intellectual life — we run the risk of further marginalization.

Issues such as these — the crisis in scholarly publishing, the role of the Internet in its future, the relationship between the academy and the broader intellectual public, and the need for better communication both within the academy and between the academy and the public — are concerns with which I have been engaged for some time, both on my blog, Planned Obsolescence, and in my work with the Institute for the Future of the Book on MediaCommons, an in-development scholarly publishing network focused on the field of media studies. My engagement with these issues began, however, with The Anxiety of Obsolescence, which argued in part that, contrary to the apparent convictions of a number of postmodern novelists, the novel is not a dying form, that the book is not being replaced by television or other, newer, media forms, and that announcements of the death of print were greatly exaggerated.

In attempting to publish this book, however, I ran headlong into the scholarly publishing crisis, as press after press praised the manuscript but declined to publish it on financial grounds, worried about selling enough copies to recover its costs. The book was finally published, of course — and was named an Outstanding Academic Title for 2007 by Choice — but the intervening difficulties and delays caused me to stop and reconsider: What if the book is a dying form? Or if not the book in general, then the academic book in particular? Or, even more specifically, the first academic book? What if the modes of communication on which we rely simply aren’t supportable any longer? Are we ready to make the leap into new ways of communicating? And if not, why not?

Like the blog from which it draws its name, Planned Obsolescence will bring together a number of modes of writing, some of which are uncommon in traditional academic discourse; this project will combine research into and analysis of the history of scholarly publishing and the new technologies that present possibilities for its future with a first-person account of my own encounters with the contemporary state of academic publishing and the changes that technology is producing in contemporary scholarly life, and all this intertwined with a manifesto about the need for transformation — a transformation that must focus not solely on technologies but rather on the people who use those technologies and on the institutions that employ them. The tone of this text, while remaining rigorous and thorough, will thus be somewhat more chatty and polemical than the average academic book, with the intent that the readership for this project will thus be extended beyond the growing number of scholars who are interested in the future of digital publishing, reaching out to those faculty and graduate students who are interested in work such as Donald Hall’s books on the academic self and the academic community, those who are concerned at the broadest level about the future of the profession and their place in it. And while the text will be written with a decided focus on the humanities, it is my intent that Planned Obsolescence will take a broad view across the academy; the manuscript will thus draw on examples of innovative publishing projects in the sciences and social sciences as well as the humanities.

There is no doubt a significant irony embedded in this proposal, potentially seeking to publish a book in print that argues for the digital future of scholarly communication. Planned Obsolescence, however, represents an experiment in process: the text will be drafted, reviewed, and revised online, and will have a primary existence in that digital form, but it will finally be published in print as well, where the text will remain reverse-compatible with a fundamentally conservative academy. After all, if this argument is only published electronically, the book will likely be able to do no more than preach to the converted; it must simultaneously model the change that it argues for and direct that argument to a somewhat resistant audience in order to have any chance of success. The print version of the text will likely in some sense remain subsidiary to the digital version, but it will also incorporate the responses generated by the digital version, demonstrating the ways that its own production has benefitted from the network within which it was produced.

Chapter Outline:

Introduction: On Obsolescence

In the introduction, I set up the premises of the volume’s arguments, beginning with my encounter with the crisis in scholarly publishing, as well as the origins and implications of that crisis. In so doing, I explore the concept of obsolescence as applied to cultural forms, arguing that the term condenses a broad range of conditions, and that the apparent obsolescence of a cultural form should not be assumed to mean that form’s “death.” Some obsolescences are primarily political projects, as I explored in my first book, which argued in part that agonized claims of the deaths of technologies and genres are performances that often serve the purposes of re-creating an elite cadre of cultural producers and consumers, ostensibly operating on the margins of contemporary culture and profiting from those claims of marginality by creating a sense that these elite values, once mainstream and now apparently decaying, must be protected. Other obsolescences, however, are institutional in nature — and this, I want to argue, is the obsolescence facing scholarly publishing, a mode of communication which is no longer viable, but still required. Institutional obsolescence is thus less like being dead than like being undead, a zombie-like state in which one is trapped in systems that no longer serve the desired purposes. In this introduction I argue for the need not simply for technological transformation of scholarly communication but for institutional, social, and even personal changes in the ways that the academy organizes and understands its work. (A portion of this chapter will be published in the May 2008 issue of PMLA.)

Chapter One: How Peer Review Must Change, or What We Can Learn from Wikipedia and Facebook

Discussing the publication of scholarship in digital spaces often provokes a significant degree of anxiety about peer review, as academics have a need to ensure that standards of scholarly rigor are upheld in a publishing environment that often gives the impression of being a free-for-all. As scholars in media studies have begun to explore, however, structures of cultural authority have begun a dramatic shift in the age of the Internet, a shift visible in the relationship between blogs and other forms of “web 2.0” communication and the more traditional, top-down model of the mass media. The ramifications of this shift extend far beyond journalism and entertainment, revealing deep changes in the ways of knowing of contemporary U.S. culture, changes that promise profound effects on the mainstream’s understanding of intellectual authority. For this reason, scholars must revisit their assumptions about how and why peer review is conducted within the academy, including both the editorial review of individual texts and the institutional review of faculty members, in order to ensure that the intellectual work of scholars remains relevant to the main threads of networked intellectual life. Simply importing old models of authority to new networked structures will not work; instead, scholars must consider how peer review might usefully transform into something more like “peer-to-peer review,” using the affordances and metrics of the network to create modes of scholarly authorization appropriate to an age of abundance rather than scarcity.

Chapter Two: How Authorship Must Change, or What We Can Learn from Blogs

Among the proposed benefits of a shift to a “born digital” mode of scholarly publication are a range of technological innovations that would enrich academic writing through the seamless inclusion of audio, video, and other forms of media other than the textual; that would enable authors to make complex, branching, non-linear arguments through the use of networked textual structures; that would better interconnect individual texts via a range of linking practices that would allow scholarly conversations to be tracked both backward and forward in time; that would allow published texts to continue to grow and develop even after their publication, and for that growth to be a visible part of the textual record, through the use of versioning. But in order for these advances to take root, we must first rethink the purposes of scholarly communication, shifting the emphasis in publishing away from a narrow focus on the final product, instead learning to value and to reveal in public the process of a text’s development. Scholars in the humanities in particular must also shift their understandings of the nature of authorship away from the achievements of the individual to the benefit of the collective and the exploration of a range of possibilities for collaboration and dialogue.

Chapter Three: How Publishing Must Change, or What We Can Learn from CommentPress

Much of the research that has been done to this point in electronic publishing has focused, understandably, on the need to create a technological system that is as comfortable and conducive to reading as the print-based book. Unfortunately, most of this research has further focused on the page as the primary unit of publishing, resulting in a range of forms that, like the PDF (or portable document format), wind up delivering paper-under-glass, a form that both loses the best of paper’s affordances (most notably markability) while failing to realize the affordances of the network. The success of electronic publishing requires a broader view of textual structures, seeking not just the replacement for print-on-paper but an updating of the codex for a networked environment. Moreover, scholarly publishing units would be best served by shifting their thinking from the dissemination of discrete digital texts to focus instead upon the development and implementation of tools that can help recenter scholarly publishing as a social process, one meant to serve the interconnections and discussions of authors and readers. ¬†The success of the electronic publishing ventures of the future will likely hinge on our ability to understand the problem of electronic publishing as being less about developing the technological network than fostering the social networks within which texts circulate. (A version of this chapter has been published on MediaCommons and in the Journal of Electronic Publishing.)

Chapter Four: How Preservation Must Change, or What We Can Learn from Hypertext

In the introduction to this volume, I argue that discussions of the problem of obsolescence in electronic scholarly publishing too often focus on the supposed technological obsolescence of print rather than the real, institutional obsolescences surrounding the ways that scholars conduct and disseminate their research. There is, however, a substantive technological obsolescence that must be confronted if electronic publishing is to become a reality: that facing digital texts themselves, which are subject to decay and disappearance as platforms, operating systems, programs, and standards change with increasing speed. The case of early hypertext is instructive, as many of the most significant texts in the history of electronic literature are becoming inaccessible, trapped in old incompatible formats. Scholarly publishers, university libraries, and scholars themselves all need to become aware of problems of preservation in the digital realm, creating formats composed of what the Electronic Literature Organization has called “acid-free bits,” and ensuring that texts are easily portable as systems change. This chapter will use an understanding of the particular materiality of digital text, as explored in recent projects by Matthew Kirschenbaum and Lisa Gitelman, in suggesting the challenges that digital publishing will present for the curatorial and archival functions of the university library.

Chapter Five: How Institutions Must Change, or What We Can Learn from Libraries

An increasing number of universities are experimenting with partnerships among their presses, libraries, and information technology centers, recognizing that these three units serve overlapping and potentially synergistic functions within the institution. Such new partnerships, however, present challenges for institutions, as information technology centers have traditionally focused inward, serving the needs of the university’s own faculty, while presses have historically had an outward orientation, primarily serving both authors and readers from outside the institution. Libraries exist somewhere inbetween, providing a key point of contact between inside and outside as they collect material from around the world for use by the university’s faculty and students, and as they balance the needs of the university’s users with those of the broader community. This point of pivot between inside and outside, between the individual institution and the broader network of institutions within which it exists, may be the position in which scholarly publishing units should be situated into the future. Such a situation, however, requires a radical re-examination of the funding model under which scholarly publishing operates; just as the library serves an indispensable role in the university’s mission, so will the scholarly publishing unit of the future; these units must not fall prey to the administrative requirement, now hobbling university presses, that they operate on a cost-recovery model — or worse, that they serve as revenue centers for the university. Instead, these publishing units, which will be increasingly vital to the mission of the twenty-first century university, must be treated as part of the institution’s infrastructure.


In the final pages of this volume, I will revisit the arguments of the previous chapters and, reflecting on my attempts to implement some of these recommendations within MediaCommons, project some of the remaining issues that academic publishing will face in the age of the Internet.

11 thoughts on “Planned Obsolescence: The Proposal

  1. This is a fine summary of a perfect storm that threatens to maroon academic conversation to an isolated and increasingly irrelevant sector of society. I especially like your distinction between technical and institutional obsolescence.

    I also was glad to see you consider “peer-to-peer” review. In an academic context, “peer” means one of a handful of people familiar with your subdiscipline. To “influence” them means to publish a journal article that some sliver of that tiny demographic just might read. In a new media context, influence is counted in seven digit-figures rather than two or three. To be a peer on Gnutella is to be sharing files with a million fellow users. If you only get a hundred hits on your Web site, you might as well throw in the towel.

    The situation reminds me of the Monty Python “Royal Society for Putting Things on Top of Other Things”–not to mention the fact that one of the synonyms for the word “academic” is “irrelevant.”

    Fortunately, I think academics are starting to consider peer review in the more open sense of the term. Some evidence:

    (As an early commentator on ThoughtMesh, I thought you’d be interested in the latter–click on the “peer review” tab to hear a bunch of Cambridge dons flame each other online).

    Good luck with your book!

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