Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

‘We Can’t Design Ourselves Out of the Responsibility for Supporting the Humanities’

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At the LARoB: “Pixel Dust: Illusions of Innovation in Scholarly Publishing” by Johanna Drucker.

To make sure humanities scholarship thrives, it is crucial that we cut through the fog of pixel dust–induced illusion to the practical realities of what digital technology offers to scholarship. Among the prevailing misconceptions about digital production of any kind is that it is cheap, permanent yet somehow immaterial, and that it is done by “machines” — that is, with little human labor. We could add to this another pervasive two-part misperception, that “everything” is digitized and that everything digital is available on Google. Each of these views is profoundly inaccurate. Costs of production and maintenance (or, to use the current grant-required buzzword, sustainability) are much greater with digital objects than print. Every aspect of the old-school publishing work cycle — acquisition (highly skilled and highly valued/paid labor), editing (ditto), reviewing, fact-checking, design, production, promotion, and distribution (all ditto) — remains in place in the digital environment. The only change is in the form of the final production, which becomes a matter of servers, licenses, files, delivery, and platform-specific or platform-agnostic design instead of presses, paper, binding, and so on. The fact that the print object is removed means the single obvious revenue-producing part of the work cycle is eliminated, replaced with a dubious business model of digital sales that as yet doesn’t seem to work well for most authors, and even less well for scholarly monographs.

Not cheap, either, are the costs of ongoing maintenance. A book once finished sits on the shelf, opens without electricity or upgrades to its operating system or to the environment in which it is stored. Five hundred years from now? The complexly layered and interdependent material conditions that support digital storage, access, and use have an unprecedented rate of obsolescence, and half a millennium is unlikely to extend the shelf life of files that aren’t backward compatible across two or three versions of software upgrades. As for permanent — the fact is that every use of a file degrades and changes it, that “bit rot” sets in as soon as a file is made, and that no two copies of any file are ever precisely the same as another. In the archival community, the common wisdom is that “Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe,” (LOCKSS) — a formulation premised on the recognition that permanence is as elusive in the digital world as in the mortal coil. As for human labor, the serious business of digital work (the task of analysis and interpretation that add value in a digital environment) is extremely intensive, demanding, and skilled. It can’t be outsourced, and it can’t be automated — that is, if by “it” we mean tasks such as adding metadata, “mark-up” or other tagging that cross-references the contents of texts, images, sound, and video files, and which add intellectual value and functionality. As for Google, the firewalls, licensing agreements, hidden collections, and un-indexed resources all constitute subjects for treatises about what does not get accessed through that or any other search engine.

These basic myths are merely the fundamentals, the first principles on which a host of other delusions are being built. In the mad rush to throw the humanities into the digital breach, the current trend is to invoke the general rubric of “design innovation” — a confusion of novelties. The much-touted “nonlinear” approach to composition is a choose-your-own-adventure model for grown-ups, and the desktop embedding of multimedia encourages all manner of fantasies about crowdsourced, participatory knowledge generation that would essentially de-professionalize knowledge production: “getting students to do it,” and other naiveties, such as marketing data sets or primary materials, or staging debates among prominent academics using a combination of antique road show and reality show techniques, or fantasies of free online textbooks served up to hordes of formerly disenfranchised youth — every bit of the imaginary bouillabaisse except for the crowning glory, a magnificent engagement with what can only be called magic-onomics: a business model in which publishing thrives without a revenue stream.

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