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Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy

from text to… something more

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 3 Across this chapter, I’ve focused on the ways that a shift to networked publishing environments will require scholars to think a bit differently about authorship, in ways that diverge somewhat from our current assumptions and yet are latent within them: we need to think less about completed products and more about texts-in-process; we need to think less about individual authorship and more about collaboration; we need to think less about originality and more about remix; we need to think less about ownership and more about sharing. None of this is to say that the former structures will disappear, but rather than they’ll be complicated by the modes of communication that network technologies privilege.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 1 Aside from these somewhat abstract assumptions about the nature of authorship, however, there’s also the most obvious change that digital publishing encourages, the change that many academics leap to first when talking about the ability to publish via the web: the expansion of our toolset. Digital technologies in scholarly publishing will allow us to begin to shift our thinking about the mode of our work away from a uniform focus on the text-only formats that scholarship has traditionally taken, encouraging us instead to think about the ways that our work might interact with, include, and in fact be something more than just text.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 1 This is of course not to suggest that everyone should be making YouTube videos instead of writing argumentative essays. In fact, as Clifford Lynch has argued, there’s a value in ensuring that most of our production in this new network age retains its recognizable, traditional form:

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Recently there has been a lot of thinking about how to devise intellectual successors to the scholarly monograph that specifically exploit the online environment. One key idea is that while the definitive and comprehensive version of the work will be digital, there will also be a sensible (though impoverished) “view” of the work that can be reduced to printed form as a traditional monograph. This is critical in providing scholarly legitimacy in an intensively conservative environment that still distrusts the validity of electronic works of scholarship, and will thus be important in encouraging authors to create these new types of works. It allows authors to exploit the greater expressiveness and flexibility of the digital medium without alienating colleagues who haven’t yet embraced this medium. (Lynch)

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 1 As Lynch here suggests, ensuring that our new texts have a sort of reverse-compatibility with the structures of a fundamentally conservative academy has been important in the early stages of the transition to digital publishing; print has served scholars well for the better part of 600 years, and however quickly the world around us seems to be changing, the academy may do well to be cautious in its embrace of the next new thing. However, if we continue to focus our attention exclusively on the production of digital texts that can be translated, in whatever “impoverished” way, into print, the range of our potential innovation will remain quite narrow. The relative slowness of such change might be put in perspective by noting that Lynch made the claim above in 2001, and yet we remain in exactly the same position, with precious little in the way of forward movement toward thinking about new possible structures for the successor to the scholarly book; we are still required to think of those successors in models that are analogous to print, when we might more productively start thinking of them as being far more multimodal.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 What is it that I mean when I say “multimodal”? Something more than simply multimedia; it’s not just a new relationship between text and image, or image and audio, or other forms of representation. Those other forms are already embedded in many of the texts that we produce, and scholars have always been required to move ideas from one form to another in the process of writing. Art historians, for instance, have long translated the visual into the textual in the process of analyzing it, and recently somewhat reduced costs of print production have enabled a more widespread inclusion of visual materials, without translation (or, rather, with a different form of translation), in the scholarly text. But such inclusion remains a mode of illustration rather than production, by and large; as Stuart Moulthrop has argued, academics cling tenaciously to an “old separation of media, whereby all things not of the letter must be exchanged for letters in order to enter the system of learning” (Moulthrop). We can thus write about images, but not in images; we can write about video, but not in video. As Moulthrop goes on to suggest, the clear separation among forms during previous eras of media transition made this possible; there was never a threat that the film about which I wrote could somehow bleed into the words with which I wrote about it:

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Earlier so-called communications revolutions wrought only partial transformations: the increased emphasis on the image in photography and film; the recovery of orality in telegraphy, telephony, and radio; the creation of mass consciousness through broadcasting. Though they began to challenge writing as the primary foundation of culture, these media did not affect the conditions of writing itself. This was good news for academics. It was possible to study just about any medium through the miracle of content — by which we meant, written representations of our experience of the other medium — without having to become much more than auditors or spectators. Among other things, this allowed the academy to draw a bright line between production work in various media (mere techne) and the writing of criticism and theory (the primary work of scholars).

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 With the coming of cybernetic communication systems — hypertext, the World Wide Web, soon now the Semantic Web — the conditions of all media are strongly transformed, and writing is clearly included. (Moulthrop)

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Now, when my computer translates my words into the very same digital substance that sound, image, and other modes of representation exist in, we encounter the potential for a radical change, one that doesn’t just break down the boundaries between text and video, for instance, allowing me to embed illustrative clips within the analysis I produce of them (this is the case that Moulthrop covers by saying that “Writing is still writing, even with funkier friends”), but that instead changes the fundamental nature of the analysis itself.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 1 Numerous possibilities exist for this kind of change: remix culture, for instance, suggests that my analysis might itself take the form of video, producing a response to a cultural object in the same form as the object itself. It’s not too much of a stretch, after all, to argue that if authorship practices have changed, the very nature of writing itself has changed as well — not just our practices, but the result of those practices. But there’s something more. At the beginning of this chapter, I made a number of claims about the significance for the process of academic writing of the technological shift from typewriter to word processor. However, not only did that shift change whose hands were on the keyboard, and not only did it change the ways the thoughts that wind up in our texts come together, but it’s also changed the very thing we wind up producing. A mildly tendentious example, perhaps, but I think a significant one: rather than putting ink onto paper, when my fingers strike the keys, I’m putting pixels onto a screen[2.32] — and, it cannot be said clearly enough, the pixels on the screen are not my document, as anyone who has experienced a major word processor crash may be able to attest. The image of my document on the screen of my computer is only a representation, and the text that I am actually creating as I type does not, in fact, look anything like it, or like the version that finally emerges from my printer. The document that is produced from all this typing is produced only with the mediation of a computer program, which translates my typing into a code that very, very few of us will ever see (except in the case of rather unfortunate accident) and that even fewer of us could ever read. On some level, of course, we all know this, though we’re ordinarily exposed to the layers of code beneath the screen’s representations only in moments of crisis; computers that are functioning the way we want them to do so invisibly, translating what we write into something else in order to store that information, and then re-translating it in order to show it back to us, whether on screen or in print.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 It’s important to remain cognizant of this process of translation, because the computer is in some very material sense co-writing with us, a fact which presents us with the possibility that we might begin to look under the hood of the machine, to think about its codes as another mode of writing, and to think about how we might use those codes as an explicit part of our writing. As Moulthrop says, “when [John] Cayley opens the definition of writing to include programming, he registers a change in the status of the letter itself — crucially, a change that flows into writing from cybernetic media” (Moulthrop). If “the letter itself,” the smallest unit of our discourse, has been thus transformed by the computer that encodes and represents it to us, it’s arguable that we need to begin wrestling with that encoding process itself, to understand code as a mode of writing, to become literate in markup/computer languages as well as human languages.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 The thought of looking under the hood like this, of being asked to understand not simply another publishing format, but another language entirely, will no doubt result in new kinds of anxieties for some authors. Perhaps we don’t all need to become comfortable with code; perhaps literacy in the computer age can remain, for most of us, at the level of the computer’s representations to us, rather than at deeper layers of the computer’s translations. I raise the question of reading code, however, as a means of asking us to consider what a text is, and what it can be, in the digital age. If we have the ability to respond to video with video, if we can move seamlessly from audio files to images to text as means of representing music, it may behoove us to think about exactly what it is we’re producing when we write, how it is that these different modes of communication come together in complex document forms. And, as the next chapter will argue, we need to think about textual structures at multiple levels, in order to develop new digital structures that can begin to do some of the work that the codex form has long done.

  • Technically, of course, this isn’t true; striking the keys triggers a switch that completes a circuit that sends an electrical signal to a microcontroller, which then translates that signal into a code sent to the computer processor, which finally uses that code to produce certain effects (instructions to a hard drive causing voltage changes that result in magnetic inscription on its surface; instructions to a display device causing pixels to appear on a screen). But the effect for most computer users is what I describe above.
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    Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/plannedobsolescence/two-authorship/from-text-to-something-more/