Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy

authorship and technology

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Having said that, this has now become a point at which I need to perform the ritual of forswearing technological determinism; I’m not arguing, in McLuhanesque fashion, that the technologies with which we work determine social, intellectual, or institutional structures within which we use them. Computers do not make us think differently. At the same time, however, I would not argue that they have no effect on the world in which they operate, or that their development is ultimately determined by cultural constraints; clearly computers, like all of our other technologies, have had certain effects on our lives, some intended, and some unintended. Rather than asserting either an obviously flawed technological determinism or an equally flawed anti-determinism, what I’m suggesting is that technologies and cultures are mutually determining, and thus must evolve in concert. As — of course — Jay David Bolter has argued, “Technological constraints and social construction always interact in such a way that it is impossible to separate the two” (“Ekphrasis” 254). Social and institutional structures develop new technologies to serve their purposes, but the design of those technologies can have effects that are often unforeseen.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 1 The example of the word processor might be relevant here. In the not too very distant past, many professors had secretaries, or perhaps typists, or at the very least wives, who handled a key aspect of the production of their work. Over the last three decades, a series of technological and social changes have made such a phenomenon all but unheard of; with very few exceptions, everybody operates his (or her!) own word processor, manages his own email, writes his own memos, and so forth. Such changes have of course taken hold in any number of professions, but the impact for scholars on the writing process has been significant. Typing has ceased to be a technological process that follows the intellectual act of writing, which thus allowed it to be outsourced, and has instead become the core of the writing process itself. This change has in turn had often dramatic effects on the ways we write.[2.4] This chapter, for instance, was composed in the kind of fits and starts that would have been all but impossible if I’d been tied to a typewriter; first, I put together a very spotty outline, and then fleshed that outline out, moving and changing sections as the logic of the chapter began to unfold. I then gradually transformed that outline into ugly, hacky prose, and then into a more polished, more readable draft. And all of this took place within the same document, within the same window on my laptop screen. Things got moved around, deleted, inserted, revised; I jumped between sections as various thoughts occurred to me; I began sentences having no idea where they would end; I trashed entire concepts in mid-stream. None of this would have been possible – or, where possible, it certainly would have been much less pleasant – back in the days when I wrote my term papers in longhand on legal pads before laboriously typing up the final draft. The word processor has allowed my writing to become much more about process — more recursive, more nonlinear, more open-ended, more spontaneous — than my previous technologies permitted.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 2 Even more to the point, the technologies that support Internet-based writing and communication developed in a milieu — among scientific researchers — in which a higher value was placed on the sharing of information than on the individual authorship or ownership of particular texts. From Vint Cerf’s development of the “transmission control protocol” at the heart of TCP/IP, to Tim Berners-Lee’s creation of the World Wide Web, to Marc Andreesen’s invention of the graphical web browser, the Internet’s technologies have been designed to promote the open exchange of data in a content-agnostic fashion. As Larry Lessig explains in The Future of Ideas, the “end-to-end” design of the networks that make up the Internet produce its neutrality; the network treats any packet of data just like any other, leaving it to the applications located at the network’s ends to determine how such data should be interpreted.[2.5] Similarly, in the design of the HTTP and HTML protocols that make the web possible, Berners-Lee privileged an ideal of open communication based upon the interconnectability of all documents on the network, regardless of their location, and he gave those protocols away for free, enabling others to build upon them. And every major web browser since the beginning has allowed users to view any page’s source code, encouraging the sharing of new technologies and designs.[2.6] Since those early days of its development, of course, the web has changed enormously, including an increase in technologies for the regulation and restriction of certain kinds of communication, but the values of open, shared protocols and codes that encouraged the web’s development still linger in its culture. And just as many long-established industries — the music business most famously, but only because they were hit first — are being forced to reinvent the ways that they do business in the wake of the model established by a small group of theoretical physicists, so many of us in the academy would benefit from taking a long, hard look at the ways that we work, and from trying to imagine the ways that current and future technological developments might continue to affect the ways that we write.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 In fact, some of these effects may be even more significant than those enabled by the word processor, precisely because of the networked structures of the newer technologies, and the kinds of interconnections and interactions that they make possible. Writing and publishing in networked environments might require a fundamental change not just in the tools with which we work, or in the ways that we interact with our tools, but in our senses of our selves as we do that work, and in the institutional understandings of the relationships between scholars and their now apparently independent silos of production. As Carla Hesse wrote in 1995, in an examination of the historical development of the culture surrounding the book,

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 The striking parallels between the late eighteenth and late twentieth centuries’ cultural debates suggest to me that what we are witnessing in the remaking of the “modern literary system” at the end of the twentieth century is not so much a technological revolution (which has already occurred) but the public reinvention of intellectual community in its wake. (29)

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 1 The technologies of a new literary system, in other words, are here; they’ve taken root, and are quickly becoming dominant, both in the culture at large and in the academy in particular. What we need to consider, in this sense, is less whether we ought to change our tools but what shifts and reinventions in our intellectual lives the changes already underway will require of us.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 I want to suggest, however, that such shifts are not, in actuality, radical alterations of the nature of authorship, but rather an acknowledgment and intensification of things that have been going on beneath the surface all along. In that sense, what this chapter aims to do is less to disrupt all our conventional notions of authorship than to demonstrate why thinking about authorship from a different perspective — one that’s always been embedded, if dormant, in many of our authorship practices — could result in a more productive, and hopefully less anxious, relationship to our work. This relationship will be more productive both because we’ll have the opportunity to re-center our understanding of what we’re doing when we’re writing, and what others are doing when they’re reading what we’ve written, within the framework of an ongoing conversation, a process of communication amongst peers that can be promoted and supported by the technologies of the Internet. Such a return to communication, to interconnection, as the focus of our writing practices will furthermore enable academic authors to think about the multiple audiences they address, and the different forms in which they can be addressed, potentially drawing the academy back into broader communication with the surrounding social sphere.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 1 In all of this, the key issue is interaction. The author is not operating — and has never operated — in a vacuum, but has always been a participant in an ongoing conversation.[2.7] Some aspects of the interactions made possible by new network technologies may seem daunting or alarming to us today, but in the long run, used with care, they’ll provide significant possibilities for the kind of advancement of knowledge that we all seek, an advancement that requires a broad communal framework. Earlier thinking about the intersection between authorship and computer technologies often overlooked this communal framework, in part because such examinations were focused on standalone computers running discrete hypertexts. Howard Bloch and Carla Hesse argued, for instance, in the introduction to “Future Libraries,” the Spring 1993 special issue of Representations:

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 The potential loss of the object book, the disappearance of the author and reader as coherent imagined selves constituted through the stabilizing form of the bound book, the disordering of authorial agency in favor of an increasingly active reader (or alternatively, the empowerment of the “online” author in control of the uses and distribution of texts), the displacement of a hermeneutical model of reading by one premised on absorption, the transformation of copyright into contract: all point toward the subsuming fear of a loss of community… (8)

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 I want to suggest, however, that while these senses of loss are indeed linked, the dominant fear toward which they point in the age of “Web 2.0” may not, in fact, be the fear of loss of community, but the fear of loss of individuality, the assumption that “coherent imagined selves” require separation rather than interconnection to be thought coherent, and that the “disordering of authorial agency in favor of an increasingly active reader” is a disruption of authority inasmuch as a changing relationship. If academic writing is to move productively into a digital environment, and if, as Mark Poster has argued, “the shift in the scene of writing from paper and pen or typewriter to the globally networked computer is a move that elicits a rearticulation of the author from the center of the text to its margins, from the source of meaning to an offering, a point in a sequence of a continuously transformed matrix of signification” (What’s the Matter 91), then we must stop to consider where, in the age of the Internet, authority lies.

  • See Heim, Electric Language: “the practice of writing on a computer is becoming the standard operation for information workers; word processing is no longer restricted to the narrow domain of office automation. It would seem that not only the speed of intellectual work is being affected, but the quality of the work itself” (1); Bolter, Writing Space: “Change is the rule in the computer, stability the exception, and it is the rule of change that makes the word processor so useful” (5); Poster, The Mode of Information: “Compared to the pen, the typewriter, or the printing press, the computer dematerializes the written trace…. Writers who begin to work with computers report their astonishment at how much easier many aspects of the process of writing have become or that writing is now very much like speaking” (111).
  • See Lessig, The Future of Ideas 35-40.
  • See Lessig, Code 2.0, 146.
  • I’ll return to this sense of conversation in the following chapter, as I turn to think about textual structures.
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    Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/plannedobsolescence/two-authorship/authorship-and-technology/