Having done perhaps more than my fair share of criticism this year, I wanted to end 2010 on a positive, more optimistic note.
“Things don’t replace things; they just add on.”
That’s one of the key lessons New York Times writer David Pogue has learned in his 10 years penning a technology column. While we are often inundated with reports of the latest “iPhone Killer” or “Kindle Killer,” those deaths never really seem to happen:
TV was supposed to kill radio. The DVD was supposed to kill the Cineplex. Instant coffee was supposed to replace fresh-brewed.
It’s a lesson we should all take to heart, as we deal with technological disruption and attempt to plan for the future of the scholarly publishing industry. Scaremongering is rampant, and predictions almost always revolve around a zero-sum game, where one player wins and another loses, one new technology or business model or skill set completely replaces an established one. This sort of Highlander thinking (“There can be only one!”) is misguided and unrealistic.
Kent Anderson’s recent blog entry tearing apart a New York Times Magazine anxiety-driven report on the state of “kids today” provides a great example. There’s no doubt that the Internet inspires different behaviors and requires a different skill set than longform reading. The question is whether we’re losing anything by adding these new skills or simply adding to our repertoire of abilities. Author Alexander Chee tests these theories in his recent essay, “I, Reader”:
Nicholas Carr’s book, “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains,” made a big splash this year, presenting an elegant argument about the way we’re being disarrayed. The problems are structural, he argues: This is our brain; this is our brain on the Internet. One favorite quote: “Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.” Yes, I thought. Me too.
When his book appeared, I’d more or less accepted that this had also somehow happened to me, my brain remapped by the internet.
Chee’s essay is a must-read, a book-lover’s journey through technology, from a great love of the physical objects books embody to an understanding and appreciation of the promise of e-books. After years of immersion in the surface pleasures of the internet, Chee finds himself reading again:
A month ago I picked up the iPad and found underneath a copy of “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon,” by Rebecca West. . . . It’s 1,158 pages long, beginning, as I discovered that day, with West resting in a hospital after surgery in 1934 and being shocked by the news of the murder of the king of Yugoslavia in Marseilles. I kept reading into her record of the way this news drove her to go to Yugoslavia, the subject of the book. I recognized West’s crisis, too — an early 20th-century version of my own. When I paused to make coffee, I admitted to myself I had finally started reading the book. But also, I was reading again in the way I’d always known, previous to the Internet, previous to the vigil. I wanted to cheer a little but I also didn’t want to disturb it either, and so instead I kept reading, which was perhaps the only right way to celebrate this. If I had in fact remapped my brain with my e-reader, which I suspected, the map I’d found had led me back here.
Chee quotes Susan Sontag’s “At The Same Time: The Novelist and Moral Reasoning” to boil novels down to their very essence, to explain what they offer that other types of media cannot:
In storytelling as practiced by the novelist, there is always — as I have argued — an ethical component. This ethical component is not the truth, as opposed to the falsity of the chronicle. It is the model of completeness, of felt intensity, of enlightenment supplied by the story, and its resolution — which is the opposite of the model of obtuseness, of non-understanding, of passive dismay, and the consequent numbing of feeling, offered by our media-disseminated glut of unending stories. . . . (“Time exists in order that it doesn’t happen all at once . . . space exists so that it doesn’t all happen to you.”)
To tell a story is to say: this is the important story. It is to reduce the spread and simultaneity of everything to something linear, a path.
What we see as technology progresses, is a kind of evolution, where the important characteristics of a form are recognized and emphasized. Cory Doctorow makes a similar argument regarding newspapers. He links to an audio clip of HG Wells declaring the newspaper “as dead as mutton” in 1943 because people are instead going to get the news from their telephones. He was wrong, of course, because as Bruce Sterling puts it, “The future composts the past.”
What happened to newspapers is what happened to the stage when films were invented: all the stuff that formerly had to be on the stage but was better suited to the new screen gradually migrated off-stage and onto the screen (and when TV was invented, all the “little-screen” stories that had been shoehorned onto the big screen moved to the boob-tube; the same thing is happening with YouTube and TV today). Just as Twitter is siphoning off all the stuff we used to put on blogs that really wanted to be a tweet.
So with the advent of television, radio, telephones, mailing lists, the Web, wikis, Twitter and other new media and platforms, the important-but-ill-fitting stuff that we put in newspapers because it had nowhere else to go moved off to the new, more hospitable turf.
What we are likely to see then, is a boiling down of the scholarly journal or book into what really matters and what is best presented by this form. Michael Clarke’s eloquent arguments about the nature of scholarly publishing give some insight as to what is likely to stay with us. If those values are best served by the current forms, they will endure. Some aspects may be better served by new forms, but that doesn’t negate the value delivered, nor the importance of the end result.
We should welcome these remarkable technological advances rather than fear them. New approaches are additive and create new and better avenues for doing the things that traditional publications can’t. PLoS ONE, as an example, provides a tremendously valuable outlet for knowledge that might not fit well into the traditional journal peer-review process. This doesn’t take away from anything the top journals do really well, but instead takes something they do poorly and creates a new platform with a different set of goals.
If we are truly dedicated to the dissemination of information, to the verification and recording of knowledge, then this wonderful new toolbox is a blessing, not a curse. This is a time of great opportunity, a time to create new products that better serve the research community and a period that will ultimately reinforce the core values that our established products present.