Blog Post

More Thoughts on E-Publishing

A friend, someone who is so smart on new media that I read her blog daily, just wrote with some follow-up comments on the various postings I've done lately on e-publishing. I started to write her an email back then realized that I'd write a blog post instead because, if she has these issues, many people do. Here's my bottom line: I am not against e-publishing. In fact, I do so much of my own publishing on line. I do so much of my research on line. In fact, I cannot even imagine the world anymore without the internet and all of the knowledge available one search away. I cannot imagine writing without the constant fact-checking on the internet, without checking out YouTube videos, wikipedia, the NY Times on line, various blogs, and articles and data bases all available almost instantaneously. What is available on line has changed my intellectual life in countless ways; conversely, I like to think of HASTAC, and this blog, as contributing to the ideas of others.


So please don't misunderstand me. I am not against e-publishing. Not remotely. What I'm against is thinking that, at this historical juncture, e-publishing "solves the crisis in scholarly publishing." That hype both overpromises and undersells. It overpromises because you do not solve problems without addressing underlying values. It undersells because by thinking that the purpose of e-publishing is to solve a problem with conventional publishing, you spend too much time trying to think about e-publishing in old-fashioned terms instead of thinking about what it does brilliantly in its own right and mining those opportunities and challenges. Why use a new technology to address (badly, incompletely, and even falsely) one problem? Why not use a new technology to explore new possibilities?


Some points: I think Gutenberg-e was a fantastic experiment and a success in its experimental reach. Like Vectors (the online non-linear multimedia journal that is a HASTAC affiliate), Gutenberg-e's biggest contribution was in making visible the production of knowledge, the conventions of knowledge production, the unseen labor of designers in the presentation of scholarship, and the benefits of thinking about which kinds of scholarship require a narrative presentation or the slow, careful unfolding of an argument---and which work incomparably better as reblendable, searchable, open-ended data bases. In other words, Gutenberg-e allows us to rethinking the archive, its form and its interactivity.


Now, a publication is both a public good and it is a professional asset. So Gutenberg-e also makes visible the difference between those two things. And it should make us think about those things in terms of credentialing and the values we give to how we credential young scholars in a profession. So, for example, at many research universities, the gold standard of the young professional in history (which is the field Gutenberg-e addresses) is a scholarly monograph. Gutenberg-e should make us think deeply (and I have heard Bob Darnton, one of my favorite historians and a guiding light behind Gutenberg-e, address this issue eloquently) about the role and function of the historian in society. Perhaps making a new kind of data base available in searchable form is even more valuable then yet another historical monograph that makes use of that data base? Maybe universities need to think about the kind of intellectual labor that goes into making such a data base available and usable. If we believe all Foucault has to tell us about what an archive is, then creating an archive is itself a form of argumentation and, indisputably, a major contribution to knowledge. That should constitute an argument for tenure at those institutions that collectively decide it should constitute tenure.


I put that in the subjunctive because tenure is not a right; it is a collective agreement and, to change tenure rules requires the dedicated and collective efforts of leadership of many people who already comprise an institution. I don't speak about this lightly because, when I was Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke, I worked with faculty to change our tenure rules to accommodate more interdisciplinary work. It's a few words changed in the university handbook but it allows for the adequate and fair representation of interdisciplinary scholarship--a huge change conceptually, and it took exactly six years to shepherd that through all the right committees of all the professional schools and get everyone to agree on the changed wording. It's been hugely successful, but part of the success is because the collective work of making the change was at least as significant as the new wording in the faculty handbook in ensuring its success. Same with e-publishing when judged according to one of its outcomes: the credentialing and rewarding of faculty on their path toward professional success.


That point may seem like a digression but, in fact, it is key to my thinking about e-publishing and about any technology. It cannot be thought divorced from its institutional histories and contexts.


Now, back to e-publishing. I am 100% in favor of publishing in multiple modes. Paper and electronically. At this historical juncture, I do not have enough faith in the financial commitment of institutions to sustain electronic publishing platforms ad infinitum to want to give up paper publishing. So, for example, in talking to many people about how HASTAC's archive should be archived, many of the most daring people in the field insist there is only one foolproof way at present: you print off everything on archival bond and save it on paper form! Really! This is because so much of the history of the Information Age has been lost because platforms have changed.


Tim Lenoir is our most eloquent historian of what he calls the "digital dark ages." If you have not heard him speak on this, invite him and listen---and please tape him and put it up on YouTube so everyone can benefit. Many many years ago (I'm talking about the early 1990s), Tim realized that, as a historian of technology, he needed to be recording the history of the Information Age evolving everywhere around him in Silicon Valley. At one point, late 1990s, he decided to do a museum exhibit of the first-generation of the internet, its devices and games. Remember Pong? Atari? Even the first-generation of the Mouse, that made so much else possible. The inventors were all alive. He went and talked to them and they all said it would take them a weekend or so, but, sure, they'd be able to reverse engineer contemporary devices in order to make operable some of those first-generation inventions and games so that they could be preserved in the archives for future generations. Well, guess what? These things have still not been reverse-engineered and rendered operable. Tim also found out such things as whole decades of the institutional and financial records of major universities and corporations were no longer available because platforms on which they had been recorded no longer existed. Again, all the smartest folks in Silicon Valley said it would take a weekend to reverse engineer and get back to those crucial records. Still hasn't happened.


I was once at a board meeting of the single most important consortium of learned organizations in the humanities when one of the most important people in digital humanities just said, "Well, face it, a whole lot of projects that we spent millions of dollars on digital humanities projects that exist on platforms that are now outmoded. We'll just have to lose those. That's the way it is." Okay, I"ll name it. It was at a meeting of the American Council of Learned Societies, one of the most forward-thinking of our organizations. After this member of this particular advisory board said this, a total chill went around the room because it was not just millions of dollars in archives that would be lost but hundreds, maybe thousands of hours of work, plus all of the knowledge produced by that work. Gone. Inaccessible. It happens every single day, so much new information available, so much valuable information lost.


Until we have interoperable standards for archiving. Until we have consortia dedicated to preserving one another's work regardless of cost. Until we have infinitely more flexible IP rules that allow not only for access but for use and reproduction. Until we have shared and agreed-upon procedures for sustaining e-publishing, data bases, and other products of enormous and dedicated labor. Until we have institutions that recognize the creation of data bases as an important contribution to knowledge that, in some fields and some institutions, is deserving of tenure and promotion. Until e-publishing is either cost-effective or is considered of such huge value that the cost-per-user ratio is not considered important (ha! as if!) and thus expensive projects for a very limited, specialist audience can be maintained indefinitely. Until all that and at least twenty other conditions that I could list here . . . Until then, e-publishing is perilous, transitory, and uncertain.


HASTAC was founded in 2002-03 because we were so alarmed that there was both techno-phobia by many educators who should have known better and, also, because there was techno-utopia by many technologically-savvy and powerful educators who also should have known better, who should have predicted that e-publishing would, at this historical moment, cost more, take more time, and raise serious issues of longevity and sustainability because of the underlying institutional and technological issues that had not been addressed. The same people who, at the ACLS meeting referenced above were saying that, well, hey, a lot of those expensive digital humanities projects will just have to be lost were also saying, in 1999 at a meeting soon after Gutenberg-e was announced, that Gutenberg-e was on the way to "solving the crisis in scholarly publishing." WHAT??? Gutenberg-e is fabulous, but it has almost nothing to do, in socio-historical terms, with the so-called crisis in scholarly publishing.

It's like thinking your new cell phone will solve the problem of junk mail clogging up your fax machine. The cell phone can do amazing things. And someone has to solve the problem of Fax Spam. But there are many, many steps in between the former solving the problem of the latter. It doesn't just happen by thinking it will happen.

Non-linear knowledge, interactivity, collaborative functions, many-to-many communication, collective knowledge (like Wikipedia), multimedia functions, global reach, spontaneity, access, openness, participation, speed: these are among the enormously exciting and beneficial aspects of e-publishing. Those are amazing qualities, as amazing and limitless as the World Wide Web. None of those amazing features solve or even address the deep issues structuring the "crisis in scholarly publishing."


At HASTAC, we were concerned that those who had studied the history of technology also look at the institutional, economic, aesthetic, psychological, sociological, legal, and ethical issues of access and sustainability to sort out the hype (Technological Utopianism) from the substance. We insisted--no, that deserves all caps: WE INSISTED(!)--that you could not be truly creative and innovative in your use of technology for learning unless you understood those deep-structure issues of technology as situated in historical moments and context and situations of power, privilege, use, tradition, and economics. That is why we created a network, not an organization, and one where supercomputing and grid computing scientists were as present at the creation as were philosophers or sociologists or historians. You can't develop the new unless you understand what conditions it supports and what conditions are supported by it.


Do I hate electronic publishing? Not at all. In fact, I heart electronic publishing. David Theo Goldberg and I have had our "The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age" up on the Institute for the Future of the Book's fantastic interactive website for over a year. Even when we publish the final book in paper form, we will have an electronic, interactive version too. HASTAC will be supporting an electronic part of Chris Kelty's amazing new book, Two Bits, on the free software movement, this summer. We're about to go to press (Lulu, the Creative Commons-driven downloadable self-publshing venture) with The Proceedings of the Electronic Techtonics: Thinking at the Interface Conference volume--and we'll be hosting an electronic version with a lot of bells and whistles too. And I blog, interminably and typos and all, almost every day on new media. All of that is e-publishing. You may quote me: Cathy Davidson hearts e-publishing.


And, for now, until the arrangements are worked out, until all those "Until . . ." statements above are settled, I'll probably also be downloading the HASTAC site and these blogs onto archival-quality bond paper, suitable for the archive, so that readers in 2108 can still read my jeremiads, my prognostications, my hopes for the future a hundred years from now (if, that is, we idiotic humans, with our tendency to despoil our own nest, still exist a hundred years from now). So much has to happen before we can ensure that e-publishing will exist in the future.


Until all those "until's" come to pass, we can count on much e-publishing surviving, and much falling by the wayside. Great archives created through huge amounts of individual and collective labor by poorer institutions, for example, will be lost. It's being lost every day. That is the reality that e-publishing faces. I'm going to repeat a sentiment I first uttered in 1999 and it remains true today: If our metric is centuries, not months or years, paper is still the cheapest, most sustainable form of publishing we have at present. It is not the only form. It is certainly not the best form of communication; it is one form of communication. It does what it does amazingly well. It can be adapted, easily, to an additional e-publishing model (whether machine-readable on Kindle or the Sony reader, or in an interactive contributory form). But its paper-ness--its material shelf life--is a feature that is not, at this historical moment, something that can be replicated by electronic publishing. Just as the interactive qualities of e-publishing cannot be replicated by paper. It's not either/or, my friends, but both/and. Promise/limitations. Like a lot of life.







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