Blog Post

Platform for Public Scholars: Books in the Age of New Media

The 2009 Obermann Humanities Symposium ( began tonight with a panel discussion titled "The Digital Public Sphere: Books in the Age of New Media."   Respondants include Scott McLemee, Christopher Merrill, and Meena Kandasamy.  

The panel moderator, Joe Parsons, started off the conversation with a few questions:

  • Are virtual communities genuine communities?
  • How serious are the economic/cultural challenges to publishers as publishing is increasingly digitized?   What does it say about authority and quality of print?
  • Do readers prize the work of writers and publishers?
  • What are the implications for citizenship?
  • How will these changes affect the career paths of writers and publishers?



Scott McLemee began by discussing how University Presses used to be isolated from the marketplace--and university libraries used to always buy the books.   This system has changed in the digital age, and presses have had to make unhappy choices.    



Scott suggests that the 18th-century rise of the novel and the public sphere finds parallel in the present-day rise of digital publication and the virtual sphere.   Both are utopian spaces: easy to get in, free-for-all sites of discussion and debate. And both spaces can be accused of being "the context of no context."   But ultimately, the comparison really works--and it's a much more optimistic way of thinking about how digital publication will shape scholarship.   We can think about digital publication, Scott surmises, as a loss without necessarily being a decline.    



Meena Kandasamy began blogging in India in 2002, and she describes it as a form of both writing and activism.  She talks optimistically about how blogging can be empowering for the powerless (gender, caste)--blogs can tell a side of the story that the official press wont cover.   Human rights defenders, for example, can use blogs as a way to expose atrocities.   These stories!   I wish I could capture her passion and humor--Meena's excitement is contagious.   I can't do it justice; read her yourself:



"Talk is Cheap:" Chris Merrill begins with a story.   First, he describes talking about books in a TV interview.   He says "it was if I had wandered into a party too loud for meaningful conversation."   Radio, he says, is different.   It's what drew him to NYC, to poetry, to music, to good conversation.   In his first radio show with Lisa Mullens, he forgot about the microphone and talked about things that mattered.   (See   But as public radio has fewer and fewer local shows, "the future of radio lies on the Internet."   If we can avoid being too loud for meaningful conversation, the Internet might be the new space where inventive minds tell their stories.  




Please feel free to comment on the issues raised above, or respond to any of the questions here from the Q&A :

  • Are posting twitter comments on major news networks and cell phone videos on youtube forms of democratization?  
  • Is the Internet a tool of revolution, and is the Internet's revolutionary potential different in the US versus other nations?  
  • How might the Internet be a source of not only political radicalism but also intellectual radicalism?  
  • How is the user response facet of digital technology shaping the creation of academic knowledge?  
  • How do changes in distribution of knowledge change how we both produce and market this knowledge?  
  • Scott reminds us that the scarce thing is not information but attentionhow do we get readers when there is so much to compete with?
  • With all the changes of the digital revolution, is there a place for books anymore?
  • How can we validate good writing on the Internet, and make it worth the effort?
  • How can we maintain good reading after the Internet, and make it worth the effort?
  • How do we recalibrate our priorities, both personally and professionally, as writers and readers, in a post-digital age?
  • How will we capture all these digital conversations for posterity?
  • How can we validate the new ways of reading and writing?


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