Fitzpatrick on Planned Obsolescence

I attended a talk at the Hemispheric Institute yesterday by Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Pomona College (now visiting scholar in the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at NYU). The talk was co-sponsored by Media Commons/The New Everyday, The Humanities Initiative & The Digital Humanities Working Research Group, NYU Press, NYU Libraries, and the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics.

The public announcement about Fitzpatrick's talk already obsolete.

I know Fitzpatrick’s work from my own work on digital humanities and one of her text is on our list for suggested readings for the workshop om digital humanities we will host in October. She has published Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy online (MediaCommons Press), and a book version is forthcoming from NYU Press. She is also Co-coordinating Editor and Press Director of Mediacommons.

One of the things I appreciate with Kathleen’s work is that she actually performs her academic persona online in a thoughtful way as well as doing research on issues of publication and digital expression. This also goes for her online dossier (for her promotion review). Actually being able to show your own dossier when being asked by a senior faculty about how tenure reviewers practically are to deal with multiple digital sites, a list of URLs etc. really helps.

Fitzpatrick argues that academic publishing and university presses are part of an insupportable economic people. She questions the viability of the academic book and stresses institutional and social aspects rather than material ones. “The pages still turn”. She also mentioned conservatism and accounts of e.g. cyberinfrastructure do not take this seriously. She challenges traditional peer review and argues that it can both be improved and reformed (among other things trough peer-to-peer review, non-anonymous reviewers, from regulation to communication, post-publication review, new citational practices etc), and that networked technologies can help. Our problem should coping with abundance rather than creating artificial scarcity. Fitzpatrick advocates middle-stage publishing – somewhere in between blogs and and prestigious university press publications.

Fitzpatrick was thoughtful and not unnecessarily polarizing (although she did point to the importance of “brave leaps”). This is somewhat easier, I think, because the online modes of knowledge production she mainly talks about and produces are fairly textual, and hence in some ways similar to traditional publications. The layers of peer to peer review, commenting and interaction present in these online textual pieces may in some ways be less visible (and less threatening), although probably not less transformative, than full-on rich media installations.

One question that was raised in the discussion was whether the costs will actually decrease. Fitzpatrick had mentioned how printing and distribution are not a large part of the total cost. I guess this is an important point if one of the arguments is that the system is not financially viable. I am interested in the parallelisms with the discourse of cyberinfrastructure here. Maybe the presumed breakdown of academic publishing can be likened to the opportunity given by the introduction of a ‘new’ generation of research infrastructure. It makes for rethinking and reconfiguring, laying bare (it helps to be transparent about past practices to devise ‘new’ ones) and can create opportunities for change. I think Fitzpatrick’s focus on looking at the whole system – basically higher education, scholarship and publishing – is helpful (relates somewhat to my thinking on conceptual cyberinfrastructure).

One question I did not have time to ask is how/if she feels that the intended publication at NYU Press constrained her work using the MediaCommons framework. Or do the two modes (MediaCommons and print published book) map fairly well (apart from the peer-to-peer-review and commenting mechanisms)?

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