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Fears and Hopes: Publishing Through the Lenses of Sustainability, Quality, and Chaos

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I love words. They’re often springboards to thought for me, and last week three words — sustainability, quality, and chaos — sprang up during talks I participated in. Simultaneously, an essay by Nicholas Carr and one by Clay Shirky bashed around some of the same terms and ideas as a point-counterpoint featured in the Wall Street Journal.

It may seem surprising, but the word “sustainable” fell into disrepute at the SSP Annual Meeting, starting with Geoff Bilder picking it apart (“it sounds like you’re grimly holding on”) and ending with Joe Esposito worrying that it creates that illusion that we’ve already reached the pinnacle of achievement and only need to sustain it. Both Geoff and Joe had excellent points, with Joe’s feeding more into the next two concepts — quality and chaos. If we’re at the peak of achievement, surely we have defined quality beyond reproach and driven chaos out of scientific discourse!

Well, of course we haven’t done either of those things.

Geoff and I debated “quality,” and I think we ended up agreeing that, as a term, it should usually be met with a challenge to define exactly what the person means. Do they mean the quality of a fine copy edit? The quality achieved through speed and relevance? Quality delivered through precision? Or quality of production and aesthetics? Only by defining these terms better can we overcome the use of “quality” as a synonym for “anachronism.” Ultimately, I’d argue that quality is a moving target.

The word “chaos” also came up again and again — when talking about blogs, low-end scientific publishing, commenting systems, and social media — reflecting the worry that information proliferation will lead to chaos and the destruction of cherished and seemingly effective systems we currently have in place. Shirky summarizes this worry in his Wall Street Journal counterpoint:

. . . amateurs produce endless streams of mediocrity, eroding cultural norms about quality and acceptability, and leading to increasingly alarmed predictions of incipient chaos and intellectual collapse.

His follow-up thought puts this worry in a more compelling context:

But of course, that’s what always happens. Every increase in freedom to create or consume media, from paperback books to YouTube, alarms people accustomed to the restrictions of the old system, convincing them that the new media will make young people stupid. This fear dates back to at least the invention of movable type.

Shirky then outlines how local and “vulgar” versions of the Bible and “distracting” secular writings led to the destruction of a church-dominated Europe — and then to the refashioning of Western culture around science, literature, and the arts in a way that would have been impossible without cultural norms eroding.

Carr’s worries spring from research showing that multitasking is really partialtasking, leading to losses in productivity, comprehension, and retention — he thinks we are making ourselves stupid:

People who read text studded with links, the studies show, comprehend less than those who read traditional linear text. People who watch busy multimedia presentations remember less than those who take in information in a more sedate and focused manner. People who are continually distracted by emails, alerts and other messages understand less than those who are able to concentrate. And people who juggle many tasks are less creative and less productive than those who do one thing at a time.

I tend to find myself poking more holes in Carr’s claims than in Shirky’s. To me, it seems that Carr’s points, being based on psychological studies, are more prone to trendy theoretical frameworks than Shirky’s interpretations of historical fact. I had this hunch reinforced recently when Carr was interviewed by Robert Siegel on NPR. Siegel poked some major holes into Carr’s points, as in this exchange:

SIEGEL: In every age, there are critics of new technologies you write about them in the book. There seems to be an inevitable argument on behalf of innovation, whether it is the calculator or whether it is “Sesame Street” — that was full of quick jump cuts and short items that critics said would be distracting, and would not build up the attention span of the children who watched it. But it doesn’t matter. What is more sophisticated and more technologically savvy inevitably seems to win.

Mr. CARR: I think that’s true. And I’m kind of a fatalist, actually, when it comes to technology.

For people in our industry, Shirky’s essay is well worth reading if only because it touches on peer-review again and again — traditional peer-review that took the printed page for granted, and newer forms to be found in Wikipedia and elsewhere.

I recall reading an essay from a 19th century medical journal in which the author decried the vast amounts of information he was required to master, the lack of time in which to absorb it, and the unreasonable expectations of his peers that he should retain it. The timelessness of these complaints are, to me, more convincing and compelling than recent studies hypothesizing from current debates and worries.

Unfortunately, the hand-wringing will persist. Some may argue this is only proper, but it doesn’t seem very useful. As Shirky writes:

In the history of print, we got erotic novels 100 years before we got scientific journals, and complaints about distraction have been rampant; no less a beneficiary of the printing press than Martin Luther complained, “The multitude of books is a great evil. There is no measure of limit to this fever for writing.” Edgar Allan Poe, writing during another surge in publishing, concluded, “The enormous multiplication of books in every branch of knowledge is one of the greatest evils of this age; since it presents one of the most serious obstacles to the acquisition of correct information.”

It seems that what’s most sustainable is an ongoing and shifting debate over what represents chaos and what represents quality. It’s worth noting that these words, for me, arose during verbal presentations at meetings held over the past week. With that in mind, I’ll leave the last quote to Shirky:

There is no easy way to get through a media revolution of this magnitude; the task before us now is to experiment with new ways of using a medium that is social, ubiquitous and cheap, a medium that changes the landscape by distributing freedom of the press and freedom of assembly as widely as freedom of speech.

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About Kent Anderson

I am the Publisher at AAAS/Science. Previously, I have worked as CEO/Publisher of the STRIATUS/JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics.


11 thoughts on “Fears and Hopes: Publishing Through the Lenses of Sustainability, Quality, and Chaos

  1. Chaos is uncomfortable and much of it is distraction. Unfortunately, except for the extreme cases, it’s not always so easy to know which parts will lead to value and which will not.

    On a personal note, I relate to this quote from the Shirky article: “The Net, in fact, restores reading and writing as central activities in our culture.”

    I have never read or written as much as I do now. In fact, for a while I was beating myself up for not reading enough – until I realized that I just wasn’t reading a whole lot of print.

    I see this with my kids too. Reading and writing are more central to their activities than they ever were to mine at their age. Yes, perhaps most of what they’re doing is the “throw-away” stuff Shirky talks about. BUT – they’re developing the habit, the appetite, for reading and writing. I can’t help but think that the ratio of throw-away to valuable will change as they grow.

    Posted by ann michael | Jun 7, 2010, 7:09 am
    • A great point, Ann. In fact, in the text-based Web, literacy has new importance and currency, and also can be constantly honed and improved. And users will seek and create better experiences. I’m optimistic that we’re on a good path in some fundamental ways.

      Posted by Kent Anderson | Jun 7, 2010, 8:17 am
    • Speaking of “writing,” my wife says that one of the greatest transformations of the digital age is that men have learned how to type. I love this because it is sexist, and anti-sexist, on so many levels.

      Posted by David Wojick | Jun 7, 2010, 10:27 am
  2. Chaos is indeed uncomfortable (to say the least), as Ann points out. But in this case there is compound chaos. First there is the normal chaos of a technological revolution, where confusion is the price of progress. (Note the paradox of progress, that failure is widespread.)

    But then there is the chaos specific to dramatically increasing communication. While the term “chaos” used to mean simply confusion, it now also applies to a specific form of applied math, namely chaos theory or (more properly) nonlinear dynamics. A lot of researchers are looking at the nonlinear dynamics of digital communication, although I am not sure we have a journal yet.

    My research has focused on a phenomenon which I call the “issue storm.” This is when an issue sweeps out and takes hold of a lot of people. Back in Ben Franklin’s day it took months, if not years, for an international issue storm to involve several thousand people. The telephone, radio and television reduced that time to weeks and days, and increased the numbers to millions of people. Today it take minutes, if not seconds, for an issue to go global. Much follows from this, mathematically, scientifically and practically.

    Digital technology, from email broadcasts to blogs and twitter, is facilitating new modes of rapidly rising and unpredictable issue storms. These are changing the political landscape, and to some extent even the nature of work. Herein lies the fear, and the promise.

    (See for example:

    Posted by David Wojick | Jun 7, 2010, 10:17 am
  3. I think Joe and Geoff had great points regarding “sustainability” as an goal, but I do take issue with the idea of it as a “dirty word” that should be avoided. They are both right, sustainability can not be an endpoint. As Geoff noted, even not-for-profit companies have to make a profit. If you have any hope of expanding, experimenting, or even coping with a change in the market, you need a warchest of cash on hand, and that requires more than just breaking even.

    But while sustainability should not be thought of as a goal, it does remain a requirement. You can’t achieve higher things if you can’t keep the lights on. And there are so many publishing ventures going on right now where this is a question mark (no, I’m not just referring to open access models, there are also things like knowledge environments, social networks, and community-driven databases where sustainability is still undetermined).

    To throw in a poor metaphor, it’s not terribly interesting to spend a lot of time thinking about breathing–humans are capable of so much more and should aspire to higher goals. But try going without breathing for a while and see what you attain.

    Posted by David Crotty | Jun 7, 2010, 10:55 am
  4. Carr’s thesis, that the complexity of the new media may interfere with contemplation, has merit. I feel the same way about meetings, which are even more complex than badly designed webpages. But solitary contemplation is not a heavily used skill in general.

    The trade-off is that we have rapid access to better information. For example Carr gives only a vague reference to the scientific review he is keying on, much less to the specific studies. It would take many hours to track these down, so I won’t try. If he had links then I would examine his evidence and make an informed judgement. My feeling is that he is drawing overly strong conclusions from very weak evidence.

    In other words we may have traded monastic contemplation for the contemplation of complexity. I see no reason to believe that this is a bad thing.

    Posted by David Wojick | Jun 8, 2010, 7:24 am
    • Just to elaborate, after contemplation in the form of dog walking. I suspect the cognitive scientists Carr cites are missing the new media induced skill set, probably precisely because they are using text and object based tests. Virtual reality is much harder in many ways.

      For example, surfing the web is a sophisticated problem solving skill. It involves concatenating two strategies, namely (1) word search with (2) link navigation, based on a continuous assessment of progress. This is far more complex that pulling a few books and writing a paper from them.

      Then too, reading blogs is fundamentally different from reading books or newspapers, because of the complexity and unpredictability of comments. Both blogs and social texting introduce whole new levels of dialogical reasoning.

      It appears that cognitive science has yet to grasp these new cognitive abilities, although I am sure some people are working on them. Perhaps Carr just does not like their results.

      As for Carr’s neuro-nonsense, it is worthless. In my view, the only thing neuroscience can tell us about higher cognitive functions at this point in time is where they occur in the brain, if that. But Carr is not alone here. Education too is full of so-called “brain based” theories of teaching.

      Posted by David Wojick | Jun 8, 2010, 11:44 am

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