Blog Post

Planned Obsolescence: An Interview with Kathleen Fitzpatrick

Planned Obsolescence: An Interview with Kathleen Fitzpatrick  

1) The Book 

In Planned Obsolescence, you compare the 'e-book' to the 'horseless carriage,' noting how the current technological object continues to operate on the logic of its predecessor (the e-book has non-interactive pages, a table of contents, and linear organization just like the book). You argue that what is threatening to render the book 'obsolete' is not its form or its content but the environment that continues to sustain it. And yet, as you readily acknowledge, we are already moving away from the finite space of the printed page to the larger scale textual structures afforded by digital publishing. To complement this expansion in (virtual) space, you suggest developing a platform for versioning that would allow all of the past incarnations of a scholarly work to be available alongside the present version, a digital palimpsest that would dramatically de-stabilize the book as either a closed or finished form. Likewise, the drive amongst digital scholars for interactive, multi-modal, historically thick texts, for having an open book that would allow everyone to comment on the work, to tag it, mash it, and remix it, would similarly destabilize what has previously been understood as its content. So when you write that "our attention in this project needs to remain on the book, as it is, to some extent, the endangered species we hope to save," what is it about the book in its more traditional iteration that you would like to preserve?

The thing about the book as we have known it that I'm most interested in preserving is less the specificity of its form--its linearity, its stability, its uniformity--than the kinds of content that have evolved in concert with book form, the kinds of intellectual or creative work that have best been done in the books large-scale format. Some have suggested that the solution to the crisis of the scholarly press monograph, in the traditional publishing landscape, is for scholars in the humanities to focus their attention on journal articles. And, in fact, there are many books that probably could function fine as sequences of articles. But there are many books--the best books--that build an argument synthetically, that really require the whole in order to fully flesh out an idea. The chapters of these books aren't just iterations of the core idea, but key developments of different aspects of that idea, and the introduction and conclusion of those books do the work of synthesis, transforming the pieces of the text into something more than the sum of its parts. So within the current publishing landscape, losing the book would mean losing that something more that the book has best been poised to provide.

What I'm most concerned with in imagining a digital future for the book is creating a means of continuing that kind of long-form, deliberative, synthetic work. But whatever that means is, we need to acknowledge the ways that changing the book's environment--transforming it from a static form to a dynamic one, from a format that has clear borders to one in which those borders become a whole lot fuzzier, from a medium that has come to be associated with solitary, silent consumption to one that is increasingly collective and discussion-oriented--will mean changing our assumptions  about how reading and writing function. I argue throughout Planned Obsolescence, though, that many of these changes  aren't as radical as they may at first seem; they're often returns to forgotten or unacknowledged aspects of our intellectual lives, aspects that might help us find more pleasure in scholarly work. I want to preserve the books something more, but I want to think about how we might develop an even better something more if we think openly about what long-form, deliberative, synthetic work online might look like.

2) The Author 

We exist in a moment where the digital is changing what it means to practice scholarship, to be an author, to claim 'authority.' In Planned Obsolescence, you announce that we are in a 'post-post structuralist' era where the death of the author heralds the death of our own critical-authorial prestige. Gesturing toward all of the ways in which the participatory nature of Web 2.0 already undermines traditional forms of authority like the Editor-in-Chief of the industrial news bureau or the corporate paternalism of the RIAA, you remind us that all its takes to publish in our time is a click of a button. In other words, we are witnessing what might be called the 'professionalization' of the 'amateur' and the 'amateurization' of the 'professional,' a hybridization that leaves many professionals feeling understandably uneasy--should they dedicate their weekends to tweeting hashtags or to writing articles? When fan forums, book clubs, and personal blogs enact what Maurizio Lazzarato calls 'mass intellectuality,' when public sites like Rate My Professor give students a chance to author their own account of a class, one that is public, durable, and instantly accessible, and when our mode of publication makes everything immediately available to the reading/viewing/listening masses, it signals that the author-function is no longer solely academic or journalistic or novelistic, it is, in effect, 'amateuristic.' What, then, is the role of the author in the age of digital knowledge production?

Actually, a slight correction: I don't really announce our arrival in this post-post structuralist era, or the death of our own authorial prestige. What I mean to do in that section of the text is to suggest that though we've subjected the figure of the author to fairly rigorous critique, we haven't turned that criticism back on our own authorship practices: on the degree to which we in the humanities privilege the single-author text, for instance, or originality, or what- have-you. And I always tend to find myself uncomfortable with distinctions between 'professional' and 'amateur' participation in intellectual processes like reading and writing, except where we mean that distinction literally to signify the difference between those folks whose livelihoods in some sense depend upon this kind of intellectual work and those who participate in it solely out of a love for the work. Otherwise, the distinction comes to sound like a particularly pernicious form of academic elitism, assuming that we in here with the credentials and the jobs have something to contribute to our culture that everybody out there doesn't.

In fact, one of the things that the Internet has been best at is breaking down the association of expertise with certain kinds of credentials, and instead opening up discussion across the boundaries that supported credentialism. But this isn't to say that all expertise is equal, or that there's no value to the kinds of knowledge that authorship as we've traditionally understood it can provide. My sense is that the role of the author in the age of digital knowledge production will increasingly be leading a conversation with the other people who are interested (or who should be interested) in her topic.  In the same way that (ideal, at least) classroom dynamics have shifted in recent decades to privilege discussion and interaction over the top-down lecture format without diminishing the importance of the professor, so I think writing and reading dynamics will shift to privilege interaction over the one-way feed of expertise. This is going to make writers who have been raised in the read-only age nervous, no doubt; the read-write age allows for kinds of immediate feedback and questioning that were not used to.  But it's been said of teaching that, if you can be replaced by technology, perhaps you should be; if you're doing nothing more in the classroom than can be conveyed in a video, why wouldn't the video be preferable? In the same way, if you can be replaced as an author by Wikipedia, perhaps you should be. We need to figure out how to privilege the conversational in our writing, such that the texts were producing become real sites of engagement rather than information download.

3) The Commons

One of the most provocative ideas in Planned Obsolescence is your call for an open-access model of publishing capable of radically equalizing the space of the university (in particular the Research I university) with other academic and non-academic spaces. You write that "[t]he call for open-access publishing models has its roots in the ethical desire to break down the barrier between the information haves and have-nots of the twentieth-century university structure," effectively suggesting that we make the vast holdings of the well-endowed research library available to satellite schools, community colleges, and developing countries (a list to which I would add community centers, high school, and jails). Ostensibly, open access would allow any space with a working portal to have access to an immense digitized repository of scholarship from both the sciences and the humanities. While the desire to create just such a digital commons has long been at the forefront of much software development, spurred on, in part, by the inherent net neutrality of the web, academics have been slow to embrace the revolutionary potential of the form. Your call for open-access thus occasions a particularly intense (if not painful) realization on our part when you remind us that the intellectual property housed in the databases of the library, property to which we possibly do not have access, is our own. As more and more draconian interpretations of copyright law emerge, where over-protection of the authored text will make even the copying of ones own work illegal, how will we encourage an era of open access to develop across the university system?

My outlook here, quite honestly, is not terrifically optimistic: I think we are moving toward an era in which more and more scholars, administrators, and librarians will be pressing for open access, yes, but I think this increased pressure is likely to come about because of the drastic consequences we'll be facing otherwise.  Part of the problem is precisely that, the intellectual property that scholars are creating--and that we're being paid by our institutions to create--isn't housed in the databases of the library, but is rather closed in proprietary databases to which our libraries may or may not be able to afford to subscribe. We're funded, in other words, by our institutions and by public granting agencies to produce certain kinds of knowledge, which we then give away (usually for free and sometimes even at further cost to ourselves, our institutions, or our granting agencies) to commercial publishers, who then license it back to the institution via the library at often extortive rates.  And the licenses that our libraries purchase come with enormous restrictions, such that even the libraries of state universities can only make their holdings available to those directly affiliated with the institution, closing the general public out of engaging with the knowledge that we have produced. So clearly somethings got to give--but my fear is that its going to take a full-on breakdown in the current system of knowledge production and dissemination for a new open system to take root.

There are things that can and should be done in the meantime, however, things that are often inconvenient and sometimes difficult. Those of us who already believe in open access knowledge production--and particularly those of us whose jobs are safe-- need to commit ourselves to publishing only in open access venues, or in venues that permit the open access deposit of the products of our work. We need to be sure to make our work openly available through our institutional repositories. And we need to work with our libraries to ensure that those repositories are as powerful as they can be--that they arent just the jumbled attic into which we stuff things once theyre done, but that they become powerful publishing and distribution mechanisms in their own right, helping users find the material they need when they need it. There are some fantastic examples of this kind of transformation of the repository into a publisher--the California Digital Library perhaps most notable among them--but every institution needs to think about how it can disseminate the intellectual property that it has produced as widely as possible.

4) Labor

You warn in Planned Obsolescence that the switch to open access publishing will require a significant amount of labor to sustain it, hinting at several points in the text that a cadre of volunteers might be necessary to launch and maintain these digital platforms. To reward these volunteers, you suggest creating a special section of the CV to account for all of the time we engage in invisible labor like programming and peer review, lamenting how "[s]cholars pour hours upon hours into peer review each year, time which is not only usually uncompensated but which also results in a product for which reviewers can receive no credit."  In many ways, you anticipate the emergence of a serious attempt to wage, at least in terms of reputation, all of the unwaged labor like reviewing, commenting, and blogging in which the academic regularly engages but for which she often receives little recognition. You also recommend establishing a meritocracy that would allow reviewers to accumulate credits exchangeable for the right to publish in the digital journal(s) for whom they regularly review, a system you believe is necessary for the journal to flourish. But as all of this labor will essentially remain unpaid, the logic of the hybrid economy dictates that at some point we, as volunteers, reviewers, and academics, will have to leave the world of the gift economy to procure food and material necessities. At these moments, all of our reviewing credits or CV entries or blog posts will be of no use since they have little value beyond the reputational. To what extent, then, will open access publishing have to rely on traditional economic structures (like tenure) for its full actualization?

I don't know that I'd associate the kinds of economic structures that a publishing and reviewing system such as I imagine with tenure per se, but it's certainly true to say that scholars who participate in the gift economy of scholarly publishing and reviewing will need to have financial support coming from elsewhere in order to fund that participation. But this is already the situation today: precious few scholarly authors earn more than a pittance on their publications, and what reward does come from publishing comes indirectly through academic positions, raises, promotions, lecture invitations, and the like. Like an increasing percentage of musicians in the age of digital downloads, in other words, our living comes not from the sale of the content we produce but instead from a sort of performance associated with that work. The real problem with the current situation, however, is that as with those musicians, our labor is being exploited for profit by a range of commercial publishing interests, but in our case, those commercial publishers are playing a significant role in the budget crises facing the institutions that employ us: we give them our work for free, and then they sell it back to our employers at extortionist rates. We really need to withdraw our labor from the commercial publishers that are profiting from it, not just to resist our exploitation but to ensure the viability of our institutions.

There's a strong argument to be made, in other words, that the kinds of knowledge production we participate in as scholars should be removed from the market economy not just on idealistic grounds but on self-protective grounds; universities simply cannot compete in the marketplace with for-profit organizations. Our best option is to recenter this work on a gift-economy model, highlighting the degree to which we write for the benefit of our fields as a whole. However, in order to keep that gift economy functioning, we must work to avoid whats been called the tragedy of the commons, in which everyone wants to benefit from communal resources but few are willing to contribute sufficiently to their upkeep--and peer review is one clear area in which we could easily face such a tragedy. Editors already have extraordinary trouble getting a sufficient number of scholars to participate in the processes of peer review, and so they wind up going back to the same reviewers again and again. Scholars really must become responsible for participating fully in whatever system of peer review we wish to instate, and must hold one another to that responsibility. My suggestion of creating a potential tie between the use of the publishing system and participation in that systems upkeep (what I refer to as a pay-to-play system) is only one option, but the problem of volunteer labor has got to be solved if we want a gift-based publishing system to survive.

5) The University

In many respects, your work raises the question of how the informationalization of the university alters all of our old institutional paradigms; in particular, how the decoupling of pedagogical content from spatial form reconfigures what we once understood to be the universitas magistrorum et scholarium. Now, the classroom is a portal on the university's main server or an interactive island in Second Life. Teaching consists of creating digitized course material like the virtual modules integrated into Virginia Tech's Mathematics Emporium or the robotic programs instructing Korean children in English, a not-unlikely scenario for future students of Freshman Composition. In terms of discussion, the Internet provides so many outlets for the exchange of ideas--forums, listservs, comment threads--that it isn't necessary to actually be at a university in order to partake in regular intellectual dialogue. For lecture, we need only turn to the TED Talks or iTunesU, both of which supplant the function of the Lyceum by offering "[r]iveting talks by remarkable people, free to the world," and by making roundtables, conference sessions, and podcasts available to all parts of the globe. As you write in Planned Obsolescence, even the library is no longer "simply a repository but [is] instead fully part of a communications circuit, one that facilitates discourse rather than enforc[es] silence." Similarly, the university is no longer a localizable enclave but a node in a much larger informational network. Is the university, then, as concept, as function, as place, obsolete?

Perhaps, but we need to be careful about what it is that we mean if we say that the university is obsolete. I mean, there are obsolescences and obsolescences, after all; some technologies or structures or systems are eclipsed by newer ones, for instance, while others might appear to fall out of mainstream use but remain nonetheless vibrant and alive. The university as a place-based community, I think, falls closer to the latter situation than to the former. By this I mean to steer us away from the notion that a once-living institution is now dead or dying, but instead get us to question both ends of that transition. Insofar as the university has been the site of a vibrant intellectual community, only a small percentage of the country has been permitted access there; if anything the changes to its structures--its displacement--have the potential to give more people more access to the kinds of conversations that take place there. On the other hand, there are still extraordinary benefits to be gained from actually being on site; the most important work that takes place on college campuses from seminar discussions to team-based projects to simple one-on-one conversations can't be replicated in even the best video format. And so while certain aspects of the university's intellectual work can be separated from its physical locale, key parts of the educational experience--everything that exceeds mere information transfer cannot. And while we should celebrate and promote the kinds of opening up of the campus that digital technologies can facilitate, we'll be doing both ourselves and future generations of students a profound disservice if we don't recognize the ways that the university-as-place still confers a great degree of privilege. We need both to think about how we can strengthen the digital campus and how we can open access to the physical campus, so that we don't deepen the educational divide between those who have access to the university and those who don't.

6) Obsolescence

You invoke the logic of obsolescence to draw attention to the many changes you wish to institute in the university system, chief among them moving away from closed peer review, traditional academic publishing, and read-only manuscripts toward more open, collaborative, read-write digital texts. You also want to accelerate the speed of academic discourse that you characterize, quite aptly, as 'glacial,' recognizing that "what we gain in ease and speed of copying and transmission, we [will possibly] lose in permanence." To offset these potential losses, you recommend instituting a program of digital preservation involving Open Source emulators, library databases, and standardized inscription formats, a coordinated effort meant to keep all of our  knowledge from obsolescing along with the technological platforms that support it. But there is perhaps a tension between the way you utilize obsolescence to perform transformative work and the otherwise compromised genealogy of the concept. Specifically, planned obsolescence refers to a strategy of death-dating that came into existence during the Depression as a means by which to stimulate the market; today this dating continues to spark the repetitive consumption of the for-profit software (Windows 95, Windows 97, Windows XP) that undergirds most of our cyber-infrastructure, making it at least partly responsible for the precariousness of the digital as an archival form. As many of the reforms you suggest implementing involve exiting the market entirely (for example, your conviction that all scholarship should essentially be free), how do you reconcile your use of the term with the business-managerial context out of which it emerges?

My use of the term, for better or for worse, arises from a bit of a personal joke: just as I finished the manuscript of my first book, The Anxiety of Obsolescence, back in the summer of 2002, I started a blog. Even though I had no idea that it was going to take four years for that first book to make it into print, I nonetheless knew that I had a bunch of material that hadnt made it into that text, some small thoughts and ideas that felt both too ephemeral and too pressing for print. So I called the blog Planned Obsolescence, as a way of referring to the imminent expiration of the posts that I was creating there.  And yet, as I've discovered over the nearly nine years since, that blog has had a durability and an impact that gives the lie to the evanescence of its structure. I might have been planning for the things I was publishing there to fade into obsolescence, and yet they didn't; those posts not only produced the first forms of public recognition for my work (citations, lecture and conference invitations, and the like) but they also helped me build an enduring community of colleagues. 

When I first started writing about the problems facing traditional scholarly publishing, I did that work on the blog, thinking out loud about the problems within our existing systems and the ways that we might put new technologies to use in helping us solve them. I decided to title the new book after the blog as a means of gesturing toward that lineage, as well as indicating that we might need to shift our thinking about durability and evanescence a bit. The work were doing online might give us the impression that its less permanent than the book, and yet as our libraries are required to cut their monograph purchases year after year, and our presses are required to print shorter runs of fewer books, the form thats in danger of disappearing might not be the one we expect.

But more than anything, the obsolescence that I'm interested in--in this book--is not material or technological, but rather institutional: what's becoming obsolete is less the form in which we work than the systems that bring that work into being. And unless we start planning now for the systems that will replace them, we run the risk of finding our means for vibrant scholarly communication severely attenuated. So if there's an obsolescence that needs to be planned--a death that needs to be dated--it's our reliance on a range of (often market-based) systems that are hampering rather than aiding our ability to communicate with one another. What I hope is that we might use the notion of obsolescence to our advantage that we might see past the ways that things have always been done to imagine the new possibilities that might be fostered in their place.


1 comment

Lots here to chew on.