Lately, all the news about e-books, iPads, social networks, digital information, and so forth has left me a little cold. Searching for an explanation, I think I found it.
We need to go deeper than just the glow of technological changes.
We need to truly adapt to the modern information age.
On this blog, we’ve talked before about how culture trumps technology or why scholarly publishing hasn’t been disrupted yet, but I think academic culture is in a sort of passive-aggressive dance with change. Look around, and you see academics going through the motions, but with an increasing awareness that something has changed, that they’re aiming their work into the technologies of yesteryear, not at those right in front of them daily.
It’s time for some revolution, not just a slow evolution.
Humans have always adapted culturally and socially faster than evolutionary forces would demand. In a recent NPR story, Robert Boyd, an anthropologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, was quoted as saying:
What we are able to do which other animals aren’t able to do is to rapidly adapt to completely new environments. Most animals — all animals except humans — would have to adapt to that by changing genetically.
The past 15 years have been extremely turbulent for everyone in the information industry surrounding scholarship — first for journal publishers, next for librarians, now for book publishers, and soon (I’d posit) for academia as a whole.
Since the introduction of the Mosaic browser, the subscription annuity model has morphed from paying for content to paying for distribution; media preferences have shifted dramatically; distribution advantages moved from publishers to online retailers; new payment models emerged; device-makers created new platforms for content and interactions; social media changed expectations; email became the daily window on the business world; print-on-demand emerged as a solid production platform for short-run works; game producers created useful, immersive environments for learning and interaction; e-commerce took center stage (for purchasing, banking, and donations); self-publishing gained credibility as major authors began to adopt it; short-messaging (text messages, Twitter, IM) went mainstream; and print stood steadfast like a rock in the waves, eroding slowly at first, with big chunks now being ripped away as newspapers fail, bookstores buckle, and newsweeklies shut down.
It’s been hard to know what to do. Some reactions have been a combination of innovation and exploitation (the Big Deal comes to mind). Some have been reminiscent of Aesop’s fly on the chariot wheel exclaiming “What a dust do I raise!” as players like Barnes & Noble mistakenly think they’re actually driving the vehicle of change.
The real perpetrators of change have been Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, and dozens of other digital companies, hundreds of creative engineers, and thousands of non-publisher implementation experts. And that’s perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the changes we’ve been experiencing — we’ve become outsiders to the emerging publishing paradigm.
We’re not in the midst of change. We’ve been changed. Our audiences have new expectations, new definitions of value.
Parts of the culture that haven’t changed are viewed increasingly cynically — papers are published because it’s expected, not because an article in a journal provides the most effective distribution system or media solution for a research report; citations are created in an old paradigm not because they’re the best way to link ideas but because academic expectations have yet to embrace the new possibilities; letters to the editor are still submitted not because they are the quickest, clearest, or most effective way to inquire about or dispute articles, but because the formalities of journals have not embraced new possibilities in truly effective implementations.
The waves of change are now lapping at our cultural norms.
From a construction standpoint, it’s over with. The big rocks have been moved. The network is in place, wireless is abundant, devices have proliferated, media have been absorbed (moving pictures, still pictures, sound, text, and interaction), and people have connected. The rest of the physical work is going to be about landscaping and sifting, not long sessions with the backhoe.
But if the changes to the infrastructure are largely known in their direction (networked information), scale (huge), and aspects (social/devices/mobile/collaborative), the challenge becomes, “What do we do now?”
Fundamental change is the next step — social, cultural, structural, and personal change will lead to a widespread adaptation, and adaptation means we can embrace the possibilities. These deeper changes will come more slowly, they may surprise and startle, and many will require leaps of faith, abandonment of comfortable arrangements, and restructuring of artifices we mistake as absolutes.
- Will editorial creativity become an emphasis (and I don’t mean writing style)?
- Will editors finally begin working with electronic publishing platforms rather than using “print as an input”?
- Will online advertising finally claim its crown as more important than print?
- Will creativity be directed at the networked information possibilities rather than at static, print-like designs, layouts, and form factors?
- Will publishing a comment be equated to publishing a letter to the editor in every possible dimension?
- Will universities begin to look at substance instead of form (e.g., would running an excellent blog count as much toward tenure as publishing a single review article in a mid-tier journal)?
- Will journalists stop being brow-beaten by economics, poor management, and outmoded technologies and take the reins?
Our goals should be quality, probity, and relevance. Journalism’s fall from grace should be a warning to us all — it has become a hollow shell, underfunded, adrift, manipulable, and only sporadically useful. If we fail to address the necessary cultural change facing us, science communication could become just as empty and vacuous.
We need to adapt.
Tomorrow, Thursday, and Friday, three posts — one by Joe Esposito, one by Michael Clarke, and one by Phil Davis — will continue the exploration of this topic of cultural change. Tomorrow, we’ll talk about it through a familiar lens — the editorial sensibility. Thursday, we’ll talk about it philosophically and historically — and about some of the mistakes people make when thinking about it. And Friday, we’ll talk about whether science is realizing the potential that exists in exchanging information.
There’s a torrent of cultural, business, social, and strategic change coming at us, and we must decide how to shape our future.
Outsiders have installed the new technical infrastructure for publishing, by and large. Now, we’re on the threshold of many other, deeper changes. Our domains will experience upheaval. In fact, one could argue that they should be revolutionized — they are imperfect, and should be pushed forward, torn apart and re-examined, argued over, reshaped for a new world. Will we live in denial and remain defensive or reactive? Or will we take the future into our hands and transform these new realities into new forms of realizing research reporting, scientific inquiry, and scholarship?
Adapting by emphasizing text along with audio, NPR is a great example of successful, albeit strenuous, adaptation. So it’s fitting that the NPR story concludes with:
Wherever it goes, if we don’t like the outcome, we’ll have only ourselves to blame.