With the political season upon us in the U.S., this is a good time to reflect on how publishers align themselves almost along political grounds on the topic of the role of digital media. This is not an attempt to smoke out political liberals or conservatives, nor is there any attempt at an allegory here: Dennis Kucinich and Chrisine O’Donnell are not referred to, hinted at, or invoked in any way. What is apparent, though, is that among publishers of all stripes, not just those working in scholarly communications, attitudes concerning electronics fall into clusters, and the members of these clusters behave as though they belonged to a loosely connected political party.
We begin with the Conservatives. Unlike their political counterparts in the UK, say, which are largely affiliated by class, and certainly different from American conservatives, who seem mostly motivated by malice, publishing Conservatives know a good thing when they see one. The catch is that to see anything, it has to be fully formed. Conservatives are aware of the merits of the printed page (as well they would be, as it has served society admirably for centuries) and the extended print culture that has grown up around it. Rigorous editing, a dislike for the ephemeral, a confidence in the institutions that give rise to editorial authority — these are the hallmarks of a Conservative. Occasionally, perhaps under the influence of a vintage red, a Conservative will chatter about some tertiary aspects of print — a love for the smell of ink, say — but they are more likely to resort to references to the proven and reliable: “I read it in the Times,” or, “There is a fine piece of writing in The New Yorker.”
Conservatives wonder what the fuss is all about. They may have no particular aversion to an e-book, but fail to see any advantages over a paperback, and in any event, it is a lot more pleasurable to browse a tastefully appointed bookstore than to connect to an “interface” and begin the impersonal experience of purchasing a book online. They do not understand the attacks on authority (“But this book is by a Harvard professor!”), and they are horrified by what they see as the revolt of the masses: unfiltered user commentary, self-publishing, etc. In the world of journals they note the value of established brands and are wont to express — and express and express — an ongoing irritation with the Public Library of Science for reasons that they cannot fully articulate.
It’s easy to poke fun at Conservatives, but we shouldn’t. For most people working in publishing, it was Conservative ideology that got us into the business in the first place. Jane Austen, William Shakespeare, Wallace Stevens, Virginia Woolf: it is authors like these that inspire young people to migrate to New York or London. Conservative training brings people into the business, even if it no longer can keep them there.
Reformers, on the other hand, know that the Conservatives have had their day and that their day is coming to an end. They study their own behavior: buying books from Amazon, reading journals on a PC, playing with an iPhone. The world is changing, and they want to be part of it. They push their organizations into digital projects and express frustration that things don’t move faster. They typically work for, or are published by, established organizations and can see a path for that organization that leads to the future. When the last printing press is placed into mothballs (does anyone actually use mothballs any more?), they will be prepared for what comes next.
It could be said that Reformers are Conservatives with their eyes open. Though the Conservatives are surely dead men walking, the open question is how far they will go before they drop. This is of concern to Reformers because although they are prepared to give up many of the trappings of publishing Conservatism (the bookstores, the physical appeal of print), culturally they would be heartsick to lose narrative fiction or reliable guides to current events. Thus Reformers spend a good deal of time in silent prayer that the digital edition of the New York Times will prevail. It would prove a point — that the current ruckus was not about the cultural dimension of publishing but merely a matter of getting the medium right. Proust on an iPhone is still Proust.
Reformers can be as funny as Conservatives. Like political liberals, they occasionally must embrace positions and situations that they just might not entirely believe in. It is after all politically correct to oppose DRM , but like a mugging, having one’s own works pirated concentrates the mind. They support the democratization of media, but still spend most of their time with the old media warhorses and were frankly sickened by the shutting down of the Washington Post‘s book review. Nor can they bring themselves to read the comments posted on Web sites by people with funny handles and a doubtful mastery of spelling. Like everybody else, they proclaim that Steve Jobs is a genius, but privately may admire Apple’s closed ecosystem and wonder if this is proof positive that open source ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.
With the Upstarts there are no complications. The path to the future is clear, well-lit, and inexorable. They do not and can not distinguish between Reformers and Conservatives. Traditional authority structures, including the, ugh, place of editorial review, are all artifacts of a past age, brought into existence by sinister economic forces and perpetuated by the weak-willed and self-interested. Besides, the Upstarts have the Internet on their side. The Internet walks into a bar and orders a drink, and the Upstarts drink along. The Internet decides it is time to leave for a party, and the Upstarts file out. What the Internet does is right and inevitable. Luke, feel the Force.
Upstarts are not funny. Indeed, while they laugh at length at the gymnastics of Conservatives and Reformers alike as these legacyvolk attempt to accommodate their outmoded mental apparatus to the Internet, Upstarts have the serenity of the saved and are imperturbable. They are antinomians, channeling the voice of the Internet, which rules them as it must, for they are chosen, they alone are worthy. Nor are they patient or given to explanation; either one gets it or not, and no amount of pedagogy can make the blind see or make the dignified pages of The New York Review of Books into a thriving Web community.
A useful heuristic test to determine the politics of publishers today is to drop the Wikipedia question. Do you like it? Do you use it? The Wikipedia is to discussions of digital media what abortion is to the American electorate, the topic on which there can be no compromise.
For a Conservative a reference to the Wikipedia is almost in bad taste, like a comment about Hillary Clinton’s sex life or a passing acquaintance with the names of porn stars. The Wikipedia is so, well, so . . . unclean. It is what the world has come to, and that is not a good thing. It cannot be relied upon, no one knows who wrote it, and it is absolutely indiscriminate in what it chooses to cover.
Reformers like to say they have a balanced view of Wikipedia. It’s not perfect, but it sure is handy. No, it’s not the only source to use for anything (yet how many Reformers actually go to a second source after first consulting Wikipedia?), but it is a place to start. Nor is it clear that there is anything wrong with broader coverage than one might find in Encyclopaedia Britannica. After all, what is wrong with including an article on Radiohead? (Hmmm. I see that EB also has an article on Radiohead. What’s the world coming to?)
Ask the Wikipedia question to an Upstart and you will get an are-you-serious stare in reply. The Wikipedia is a community, not a book, and it demonstrates the wisdom of the crowd. It covers more, can be updated virtually in real-time, and has, through its community, built-in safeguards through its constant review process. it is a model for user-generated content and, for all we know, may turn out to be the harbinger of the form of government of the planet. And besides, it’s free!
I stumbled upon the Wikipedia question myself a few years ago, when I mentioned in a mail group that as much as I admired the Wikipedia, I would prefer to have a reference work written by the faculty of Harvard. To which someone responded that they would put more trust into an open community of contributors than in the faculty of Harvard! I backed out of the virtual room, never losing eye contact with my disputant. The irony is that I know this individual professionally. He is, to use a Conservative trope, as smart as a whip and has done an outstanding job with his company. He had my number, and I his, and they do not add up.
Which political party is best suited to lead our nation forward? I think the Conservatives are finished: when they get access to the near-equivalent of a university library with a couple mouse-clicks, even their protests will become increasingly shrill (“But there will always be books!” Yeah, right.) The Reformers want to co-opt the disruptive energy of the Internet and have it serve a mission that is still culturally recognizable. The Upstarts, on the other hand, want to unleash the disruptors and have them create a New Jerusalem. To some extent, whom you believe is a direct outgrowth of who you are.
I have myself swung back and forth between the Reformers and the Upstarts: a Reformer when in the company of Upstarts, an Upstart when speaking to Reformers. To be a contrarian in this context is not so much a behavioral tic (well, not entirely a behavioral tic) as it is an acknowledgment that neither party platform feels right; they both leave something out.
And this is what they leave out. The affairs of the Upstarts will fail 99% of the time. But what happens with the remaining 1%? It took one Upstart product, the iPod, to begin the unraveling of the PC-centric view of the world. It took one concept in search technology, link analysis, to change the rules of discovery forever. It does not take a village, we do not go gently and deliberately into the night.
What happens if the 1% get it right?