Putting Wi-Fi in the Ivory Tower

We have a bad habit of romanticizing the past. I can’t even count how many times I’ve heard someone sigh dreamily and say how much they LOVE some period of time in American history, like the 1950s and how WONDERFUL it was, eyes glazed over enough to look past the glaring racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia, and so on and so forth (this is not to say that these things are nonexistent these days, but at least a lynching would be more likely to make the news). A romanticization of the past is even more likely when we’ve learned to frame it as “the way things are”; we’re used to it, comfortable, unsure of what a change in pace would mean for the future. Unfortunately, in Johanna Drucker’s article, “Pixel Dust: Illusions of Innovation in Scholarly Publishing”, I feel falling victim to looking behind with rose-colored glasses has had the biggest effect on the tone of the article.

I will not be as bold as to posit that online journals are inherently superior to printed journals and books; I will simply say that the former functions in ways that the latter cannot. Throughout Drucker’s article, we are reminded of the limitations of digitized journals and archives, the pitfalls of “bit-rot” and rapidly changing technologies that render once-innovative formats obsolete and outdated. We are brought face to face with the realities of peer review as well as the still-present need for human labor in not only digitizing the work, but also coding it to be searchable and so forth. However, this still overshadows the very real benefits of work available online.

There are economic costs, of course (even seen as when Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s book, Planned Obsolescence, was loved by the editors, but still declined by the publisher because of a lack in faith in its financial returns), but I think we have to really weigh in the scholastic and cultural benefits as well. For example, having online journals opens up bodies of work to people who otherwise might not have been able to access the physical printed book or would’ve had to wait. It opens authors to new readers and gives readers perspectives that they might not have otherwise been able to immediately access.  For example, Small Axe picks up a work left untouched for about 40 years, creating “a significant independent journal devoted to social, cultural, and political criticism” in “the Anglo-Creole Caribbean”. Being an online space also gives Small Axe the ability to link to sites and works that are along the same vein, , to host blog posts, and to even offer the option of receiving a printed version of the journal (it’ll run any given institution a cool $112 for both electronic and print, $10 less for print only). There is elasticity in this new platform that couldn’t be achieved if it were solely in print, but it does not do away with the printed word entirely. And therein lies the rub of the movement of scholarly works into the technology of the 21st century — it’s not here to take over and replace, to innovate int he sense of creating something so new that the old is unusable. The point is to enhance, to build off of and improve what is already in existence. All in all, we cannot find ourselves so in love with the past that we find it impossible to move forward, terrified that what’s to come will destroy everything we used to know.

One comment

  1. Naia, Thanks for such a thorough examination of Planned Obsolescence and academic publishing in general. Personally, I found this book to be not only fascinating, but it was totally elevated by the online site for it with comments. I had read parts of the Fitzpatrick book before, but hadn’t seen the other site. I find that she is attempting to tackle all angles of the changes in publishing digital humanities with not only this site, but her digital book, and also her book in print. Being true to traditional academy but also taking a valiant step forward in allowing her book to be available for comment online before it was printed or turned into an ebook. There’s a happy medium here that although confusing does in fact fulfill the current requirements for most scholarly work (digital versions) while also maintaining the physical ideal for books alive.

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