Within the last few weeks, an essay was published in that venerable news outlet, The New York Times. Entitled “Amongst the Disrupted”, Leon Wieseltier’s essay was about the threatened loss to the life of the mind in an information environment obsessed with assessment of value based on quantified data and metrics. Written in the wake of lay-offs and resignations at The New Republic where Wieseltier had served as literary editor for several decades, the piece was a sad plea that the 21st century not dismiss the practices and values of centuries of humanist thought in order to satisfy a culture of urgency and economic profit. Wieseltier fears a disruption to the considered and authoritative expression of ideas.
As communication, even for the educated audience of the Times, it’s not clear that the piece successfully delivered its message. While there were elegant turns of phrase, the essay used sentence structure and vocabulary more usually found in scholarly monographs than in a daily newspaper. Reactions expressed on external platforms were plentiful, and not always sympathetic.
A critic writing for The Slate Book Review characterized it as an “almost impossibly erudite and complex elaboration”. On a private listserv to which I subscribe, the piece was referred to as “mawkish” nostalgia. Others mocked the essay on Twitter where it was chiefly interpreted as ranting by a grumpy old geezer incapable of understanding and embracing technology. (That happens when an author ecstatically notes “What a voluptuous device paper is!”. One may be willing to allow the tactile delight, but the act of communication is not primarily about the medium. It’s about conveying understanding — if not always agreement — between two minds.)
There was one brief passage that summarized Wieseltier’s anguish about disruptive technologies and their impact…
The processing of information is not the highest aim to which the human spirit can aspire, and neither is competitiveness in a global economy. The character of our society cannot be determined by engineers.
Wieseltier believes that the attention given to tools of technology is in danger of eclipsing attention given to the real work of the mind.
Two pieces, also cautionary in tone, appeared within a week of Wieselter’s essay. One was by Georgia Tech professor Ian Bogost in The Atlantic (The Cathedral of Computation) and the other — also in The Atlantic — was by Olin College of Engineering Associate Professor, Debbie Chachra (Why I Am Not A Maker) While using slightly different arguments, the two essays echoed the worrisome idea that we are apt to endow new technologies with an undeserved value and criticality, losing sight of the human creator.
In one of the responses to Wieseltier’s essay, “Who’s Afraid of Robot Culture“, there was a quote that both justifies Wieseltier’s fears even as it expresses a rationale for embracing new forms of scholarship. Freelance journalist Kyle Chayka quotes artist Matthew Plummer-Fernandez as saying “I was imagining that such a system would provide a more innocent and honest reading of art, without being burdened by art history, peer reviews and collective consensus.” (added emphasis mine)
From where we sit in the Scholarly Kitchen, the idea that anyone might view art history, peer reviews, and collective consensus as burdensome is frankly appalling. But to focus on that misses the point of the artist’s work. The Novice Art Blogger is essentially an artistic experiment in cognitive computing. (See this brief write-up for background.) How does a combination of algorithms, an artificial intelligence — a ‘bot — see and interpret works of art? If not constrained by how human minds have done it historically, the ‘bot may be able to see and express meaning for itself, if not more successfully, than at least differently. The value of the work lies less in the ‘bot itself (the technology) than in the ways it may better define the value of the human in an increasingly techno-centric world.
Has this anything to do with scholarly publishing? Perhaps less to do with scholarly publishing as a business, and more to do with scholarly communication as a function. If you listen to publishers and librarians, much of the current conversation is practical, focused on ensuring that our various systems are interoperable, that unique identifiers are adopted and taxonomies properly leveraged. As necessary as all of that is, at times it can sound to our clientele as if it is all about the technology and not about supporting the work of the mind. In thinking about the evolving scholarly record in the 21st century as I would hope we all are, information industry professionals need to recognize the objectives for publishing such a record and the needs of subsequent usage by the community. We need to ask and we need to evaluate responses to these questions:
- What new formats foster new understanding, and under which disciplinary conditions?
- When (and why) do scholars actually need to author a full-length monograph in order to convey in-depth research findings?
- When should images and video supercede text as research output?
- How might the processing of statistical data in materials science (as an example) differ from the processing of scientific data in another discipline? What impact has that on output presentation?
- What kind of context should surround any given form of output?
- Which metrics reflect actual (as opposed to inferred) use?
The challenge is not just to answer such questions, but for the information community to answer them in the context of supporting effective communication.