Homo neanderthalensis. Skull discovered in 1908 at La Chapelle-aux-Saints (France). (Photo credit: Luna04)

I’m currently reading Yuval Noah Harari’s superb book, “Sapiens,” which continues to impress me with mind-altering insights that seem familiar and sensible even as they deliver body blows to our collective conceits and modern pride.

One of the central arguments/insights of the book is that Homo sapiens succeeded largely by their ability to create fictions and stories capable of unifying hundreds, if not hundreds of millions of people in both general and specific ways. There is no record of similar capabilities with the counterparts we displaced, such as Homo neanderthalensis or Homo erectus, and there are clear tactical advantages this ability creates which likely allowed us to outcompete the others.

The fictions we create feel so natural that we barely notice them — the fiction that there is such a thing as “human rights” or that there is such a thing as “Europe,” neither of which are fixed by biology or natural conditions. After all, human rights are a recent invention that we did well enough in nature without for thousands of years, and Europe is a construct that is currently being looked at again (as seems to be the case every decade or so). These and other fictions can be revised fairly peacefully (changing the laws around gay marriage) or harshly (the US Civil War to end slavery), but no matter where you look, we are spinning fictions of one sort or another.

The coherence and agreement around cultural stories has been a key aspect of human success, which suggests that incoherence and disagreements that last too long or go unresolved may lead to chaos and strife, even severe setbacks.

At last week’s SSP Annual Meeting, some of the incoherence in our industry was on display, as summarized by a tweet from Phill Jones:

This angst seems to stem from an increasingly fragmented media landscape, which is a source of cultural incoherence. Forty years ago, the news landscape in America was known for broadcasts ending in a phrase that suggested one story — “And that’s the way it is” — and newspapers trusted to hold “all the news that’s fit to print.” Each of those signatures suggested a unified cultural story. Now, the only source of agreement seems to be about the time of day as journalists sign off with a tepid “good night” or “good afternoon” while the newspaper industry itself is in tatters. Gone are the days in which the news was telling a set of stories that we would accept as our common update. This dissipation of effect — and the related economic vulnerability within journalism — has made it harder for journalists to bring power to heel while also eroding the sense of common purpose humans have used repeatedly to gain an advantage.

As the media have fragmented, the resulting shards have sprouted labels. There is a channel for everything, a blog for every viewpoint. Such labels travel well and are a source of local unity that simultaneously reinforces the wider fragmentation. You are either a “conservative” or a “progressive” or a “liberal” or a “socialist” in the political realm, or a “foodie” or a “hipster” or a “vegan” in the social realm. This same media landscape — virtual, removed, asynchronous — insulates purveyors of labels from the downsides of stereotyping and pigeonholing, perpetuating the separation by creating barriers to unification.

A recent article in the New Yorker does an excellent job portraying some messiness around these trends and their effects on academia by profiling Oberlin College in Ohio. Oberlin has encouraged diversity via labels so heavily, it now has many “n of 1” situations, where a particular student feels she or he must represent all the gender, racial, cultural, or socioeconomic labels they possess, even to the point of undermining the university’s role of resolving differences and moving them toward a level of common educational achievement. Instead of diversity being resolved, differences have become something to embellish and emphasize. From custom degrees to protests and outrage, it’s a can of worms that’s not easily closed.

Peace and prosperity may have something to do with the situation. Nathan Heller, the author of the piece, quotes Alexis de Tocqueville in an especially compelling section of the article:

Tocqueville thought [the French Revolution occurring in a time of prosperity] wasn’t a coincidence. “Evils which are patiently endured when they seem inevitable, become intolerable when once the idea of escape from them is suggested,” he wrote. His claim helped give rise to the idea of the revolution of rising expectations: an observation that radical movements appear not when expectations are low but when they’re high, and vulnerable to disappointment.

In the case of Oberlin’s identity politics, adding diversity has driven a lack of tolerance among the diverse — some feel that unless their worldview is completely honored and respected, they have been done a disservice by the college and society in general. Some loud voices are unwilling or unable to accept that diversity and compromise can co-exist. They also find themselves trapped by their own identity politics. As one student activist says:

As a person who plans on returning to my community, I don’t want to assimilate into middle-class values. I’m going home, back to the ‘hood of Chicago, to be exactly who I was before I came to Oberlin.

The fragmentation of experience and identification is clear — there is nothing larger defining this person’s world than her own differences, which she clings to in a cycle of self-absorption, which is reinforced by a media landscape that allows her to avoid broader cultural mainstreaming. She can make up a smaller story all her own, and live within that.

Recently, a story with some similarities emerged at one of my alma maters. A renowned environmental humanities professor at the University of Utah, Terry Tempest Williams, resigned after administrators apparently caved to student complaints about the travel requirements of her capstone course, which took students to the Southern Utah desert. As the student newspaper wrote:

As a school, we should worry a little less about . . . student approval and a little more about education.

The political life of Americans is similarly affected by a fragmented media, with some speculating that the media’s inability to confront the worrisome candidacy of Donald Trump comes from their co-dependence on him — that is, the media is so weak and fragmented that few outlets have the power or resources to ignore, upset, or attack him. Those that do are fighting for time in a confetti storm of other media. Many feel so vulnerable that any slip in ratings or ceding of ground to a competitor may be a fatal misstep. Sensing fragmentation provides cover, Trump works the phones to keep his media vassals dependent on him and to spread his appearances across so many outlets that he is hard to pin down.

The fragmentation seems to go deeper, as David Frum speculated recently in the Atlantic, in a piece entitled, “The Seven Broken Guardrails of Democracy.” Frum states a key question early on:

It’s often said that a good con is based upon the victim’s weaknesses. Why were conservatives and Republicans so vulnerable?

Taking us back to Harari’s book, the weakness may be a lack of a coherent cultural story of America and American civics and ideals. The power of a unifying story is seen in a 2006 lecture by Robert Putnam:

In the short run, however, immigration and ethnic diversity tend to reduce social solidarity and social capital. New evidence from the US suggests that in ethnically diverse neighbourhoods residents of all races tend to ‘hunker down’. Trust (even of one’s own race) is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friends fewer. In the long run, however, successful immigrant societies have overcome such fragmentation by creating new, cross-cutting forms of social solidarity and more encompassing identities. Illustrations of becoming comfortable with diversity are drawn from the US military, religious institutions, and earlier waves of American immigration.

Again, those places with strong, unifying stories of purpose — the military, the church — have the advantage by smoothing over differences. Even the “earlier waves of American immigration” fit here, as those immigrating largely wanted to mainstream into American culture. As Frum writes:

The generation that bore arms in World War II returned home with a strong — arguably unprecedentedly strong — loyalty to the nation as a whole. Never before or after did so many civilians move across state lines as in the decade of the 1940s. . . . which in turn discovered new affinities for each other in a common creed of “Americanism.”

Reductions in social solidarity are now also fragmenting a major political party beyond recognition. As Frum writes using his “guardrail” analogy:

The ideology guardrail snapped because so much of the ideology itself had long since ceased to be relevant to the lives of so many Republican primary voters. Instead of a political program, conservatism had become an individual identity. What this meant, for politicians, was that the measure of your “conservatism” stopped being the measures you passed in office — and became much more a matter of style, affect, and manner.

This is an interesting tangent to our own scholarly communication world of ideologically-driven discontents and drift. I’ve often wondered why we started to become factionalized at about the same time as the general culture, and I feel as if this perspective — broken stories, fragmented media, and a loss of coherence — provides some plausible answers.

First, we turn to prosperity and expectations. By 1995, when the web started to become part of scholarly and scientific publishing in a big way, journals were robust, well-functioning, and well-funded. There were few worries about their finances in general, and the societies producing many of them were also doing well for the same reasons. In short, it was a prosperous time — and prosperity can lead to dissipation if handled poorly.

Second, we turn to the expectations, which were very high initially when the Internet came to information businesses. “Disruption” was expected. The possible extent of this was best represented in the incomplete and often-purposely truncated rallying cry, “Information wants to be free.” The expectation which formed was one of unfettered access, and this soon came to mean unpaid access.

Finally, we turn to fragmentation, labels, and identity politics. Over the past 15 years, there has been a protracted campaign to find a way to make free access come to pass. This has led to a major fragmentation in our system between “pro-OA” and “anti-OA” voices, which created many echo chambers that persist to this day (this blog is portrayed by some as one of these, another tactic of fragmentation). Our profession has become so fragmented in purpose that some groups pursue certain goals while ignoring authors, laws, and economic sense.

Have priority and attention become a matter of “style, affect, and manner” more than a measure of effectiveness and competence? Perhaps. For example, the founder of Sci-Hub’s recent appearance via satellite at an OA meeting was described by one person as, “I disagree with what she’s doing, but I like her style.” Whether this person will put style over substance in action remains unclear, but the fact that it’s even a question is informative.

We seem to have lost track of the importance of a unifying story, a unifying purpose — why publishers, editors, and reviewers exist; their purpose and role in academic research and knowledge work; and the benefits they deliver very consistently at very low costs to the system. Is our goal now:

  • to increase public access?
  • to improve the rate of reproducibility?
  • to decrease the rate of retraction?
  • to eliminate fraud and over-interpretation?
  • to increase the rate of disruption?
  • to deliver answers to practitioners?
  • to make data more available?

We no longer seem to agree on the story of our profession, yet unifying stories are exactly what allow us to make progress, allowing us to understand which issues are primary, which are secondary. Reiterating an important phrase from something cited above, “. . . societies have overcome such fragmentation by creating new, cross-cutting forms of social solidarity and more encompassing identities.”

Our fragmentation of purpose is obvious, and the larger media environment supports it, even encourages it. To put it another way, the emperor has clothes, but in the midst of some saying pants are gloves and shoes are hats, he has forgotten how to dress himself.

Continuing to cultivate disruption for disruption’s sake is damaging. It feels like it’s time to start coming together around common goals and purpose once again.

Fragmentation’s damage can be seen in the major media. No longer do the networks sign off with unifying taglines like, “And that’s the way it is.” Tellingly, the mood is moribund to the point of the ultimate sign-off coming in the form of CNN’s infamous “apocalypse video” — in which the network was shown to be preparing for the end of the world.

Is fatalism all we can agree on now?

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


17 Thoughts on "Divided We Fall — How a Fragmented Media Space Affects Academia and Scholarly Publishing"

What you call fictions I call concepts and there is nothing fictional about them. The words we use have the meanings they do because we are trying to say what is true. Thus conceptual confusion is the hallmark of technological social revolutions, such as we are currently experiencing, including in scholarly communication. Established concepts of the world are pulled apart by conflicting grand visions, but a new stability will arise in time. This is the nature of progress. Interesting times.

Whether you call these “fictions” or “concepts” doesn’t matter. Also, because these are human-created, we can’t simply wait around for them to change. Other humans are going to change them, and have been trying to do so.

What you call “conceptual confusion” is also incoherence, and the thrust of human effort has been to reduce incoherence and increase unanimity. In academic and scholarly publishing, incoherence means we aren’t sure whether we’re pursuing higher quality, reduced error, increased public access, increased speed for authors, decreased costs, and so forth. There are contradictions in these potential pursuits, some healthy, some not.

As a service industry, we are not accustomed to defining our own future and place in the world otherwise. It may be that because there are so many voices and potential ideas, we need to clarify our role ourselves in order to reduce confusion and provide the most important functions while eschewing those that are not ours.

Publishers alone cannot define or clarify away these contradictions. Funder mandates, researcher choices and library purchases all have major roles to play, as does innovation. My point is that at this stage in the process confusion is the price of progress. Publishers cannot talk their way out of that fact. The wheel is in spin. What can be done is to understand the confusion. This is a normal revolution.

Confusion that lasts too long isn’t progress. Resolving confusion is progress. Publishers alone cannot solve all the contradictions, but they can help resolve those involving editorial goals, publishing practices, legal matters, and ethical issues. A revolution has only occurred when things start to resolve. Understanding the confusion isn’t sufficient — resolving it is what matters.

How long the confusion lasts depends on the scale of the revolution and this is a big one. For example, the EU just punted OA to its member states, so we have a long road still ahead. The US OA program is still largely undefined. Of course publishers can help, and they are helping, but none of these issues can be resolved at the present time. They are just too big for that.

Successful revolutions occur when you can afford them and those revolting can afford to do so. Indeed these are challenging times but more so than the fascist times of the 1930s? I think not.

News more so than in the past has become a money making proposition. When I was a whippersnapper the evening news was 30 minutes long. Turner made it 24 hours long and then the majors made it one hour long because they could do in depth stories on those of interest produced in the 24 hour cycle. The in depth stories attracted advertising dollars. Then along came cable which needed content so they started the talking heads phenomena.

Scholarly publishing – we seem to forget just how small we are. Additionally, because of the lack of size, piracy is a greater threat.

“By 1995, when the web started to become part of scholarly and scientific publishing in a big way, journals were robust, well-functioning, and well-funded. There were few worries about their finances in general, and the societies producing many of them were also doing well for the same reasons. In short, it was a prosperous time …”

Wow! I must have been in an alternate universe in 1995! Granted, I was viewing things from “libraryland,” but 1995 for me was a time of despair over deep cuts in journal subscriptions and the closing off of scientific communication. By then many of us were in our 3rd to 5th round of massive subscription cuts. The wheels were coming off the apple cart. Perhaps things were better for some publishers, but not for their readers. A “prosperous time?” That phrase simply didn’t apply on the other side of the fence – it wasn’t an equation.

With that stated, I do agree that the debate of Open Access has some troubling camps. Those of us trying to find funded methods of providing Open Access literature are often vilified by colleagues who conflate Open with Free.

Library funding was a much smaller part of the pie for many publishers in 1995. However, I agree that the wheels were coming off the bus for libraries at the same time — they’ve been coming off since the early 1980s, when libraries started to see a continuous and continuing decline in their share of university budgets. But with advertising, personal subscriptions, and a growing digital licensing landscape, many publishers were doing well, with libraries a much smaller part of their overall financial picture.

I don’t know, Kent. I ran a small publishing company between 1995 and 2008 and the mid-1990s were pure upheaval in my part of the publishing world. Desktop publishing had made it possible for thousands of upstarts like me to hang up a shingle and enter the publishing ranks, which began to force a change in what was published and what authors expected from publishers. At the same time, it also became harder for these upstart publishers to get their books to market because small bookstores were collapsing under the weight of big box stores (not Amazon yet) and distributors were harder to come by. One result of this disruption was more innovation in how small publishers got their books to market, as well as more fragmentation among small publishers, who quickly learned that specialization was the key to success. Another outcome was an explosion in what was considered “publishing” as more and more reports, white papers, etc. were issued (not to mention the beginnings of web publishing).

I agree with David that this chaos will eventually begin to sort itself out, but I also agree with you that a deliberate effort to work together toward a better future is important because there’s a lot at stake here. This isn’t a matter of expanding the universe of available literature, but of preserving research that will advance discovery—not that the former is unimportant, but the latter is critical.

I disagree that we have a natural tendency to seek this order as a society—quite the opposite in fact. The thrust of human effort has not been to reduce incoherence and increase unanimity but to survive at all costs. Our ingenuity has been the key to our survival as a species, plus our ability to form alliances and to communicate effectively so we can more effectively achieve that which improves our odds for survival. Layered on top of this, every once in a while in history we see a clash of cultures or a confluence of historical events—the American Revolution and writing by French and American philosophers egging on the French Revolution, the Great Depression fueling the rise of facism in Europe, church excess and abuses leading to the growth of Prostestantism and other breakaway movements, etc.—but none of this is an effort to reduce incoherence and increase unanimity. Rather, it is early social media—an attempt to upend the status quo by identifying our cultural failures and finding like-minded people who agree with our remedies for change and are willing to stick their necks out (often literally).

All this said, what I think is interesting is how—as you point out— it has now become impossibly easy to protest and fragment into every smaller fractions. We are, maybe for the first time ever, faced with an interesting situation where we need to define how small is too small. Surely we share some common allegiances. And even then, these allegiances may not break along traditional dividing lines: We may feel less of a bond toward our city or state than toward our political or social group. What are the implications of these borderless realignments over time? What are the implications of an extended lack of cultural cohesion? Or is an appreciation and even celebration of this lack of cohesion the new cohesion? Obviously, we’re talking about a lot more than publishing upheaval here.

“The thrust of human effort has not been to reduce incoherence and increase unanimity but to survive at all costs.” I’m not sure that’s what’s been driving (or should drive) human effort these days. Most people living in larger societies today make choices according to their personal foibles for technology and lifestyle rather than to survive at all costs, but a corrosion of societal consensus (unanimity) and coherence could well threaten both individual and collective survival in these societies.

Would most of us die or have their future jeopardized if iPhones (a product of a major thrust of current human effort) disappeared all of a sudden tomorrow? Probably not–there are plenty of other ways to communicate. Would a breakdown in communication (greater incoherence) and greater discord among people in a society put many lives in jeopardy? Quite likely, not least because of the examples of past upheavals you mentioned and the emerging signs that more and more people begin to question the legitimacy of government. That’s in part because some governments have been recently powerless in reining in big moral wrongs, and in part because of popular messaging aimed at stirring up feelings and us-versus-them thinking rather than fostering community and empathy.

In another excellent book, “Collapse,” Jared Diamond gives a poignant example for what happens when members in a society (in this case Europeans in Greenland) use the eye-for-an-eye, dog-eat-dog paradigm to settle discord (granted, in an unforgiving environment). The result was a failed effort of colonization, chiefly because of cultural values that spurned working out compromises to resolve conflict. It’s a microcosm example to be taken seriously as a warning what might happen if we don’t try harder at making our relationships with each other work; no amount of snazzy innovation will replace trust and unity as engines of long-term success.

Agreed. You’ve stated more clearly the tension between self-interest (which drives everything in the natural world, including us) and group-interest (which allows groups—including us–to find the optimal balance between self-interest and the greater efficiency and effectiveness of group survival). When the benefits of belonging to the group are no longer apparent, different regimes arise (in human society and in the natural world). I know history isn’t that simple, of course, and much more learned people than us have spent lifetimes ruminating about the root causes of human behavior, so I hope readers will forgive our arrogance here of boiling it all down to three paragraphs!

I absolutely agree that working together is important, though, but so too is the dynamic of letting a dysfunctional group system fall apart so a more just group (that better serves the needs of the group) can take its place. In the end, it’s our own sense of self-interest—our own satisfaction, moral outrage, or what have you—that push the agenda. And today, it has become impossibly easy to push a wide variety of agendas at a pace that society has so far been unaccustomed to seeing (and accommodating).

Great piece. Interesting that it begins with reference to a book published by… a trade press. What does this say about the need for separate species of publishers known as “scholarly publishers”? What should distinguish them, if they work along the lines of the same economic assumptions as trade presses?

Trade presses and scholarly/academic presses sometimes share a piece of the Venn diagram, but usually trade is trying to reach the general public while academic is focused on the PhD-MD-Masters market. There are some similar economics, but I don’t think trade presses are doing as much site licensing, providing their content online to developing nations for free, and so forth. Also, “Sapiens” will probably never have an impact factor calculated.

Don’t forget the regional publishing that university presses do, usually trade oriented and not scholarly (cookbooks, bird guides, etc.), which have been a major souyrce of income for those presses that do it (mostly connected with state universities).

Excellent piece, and I’ve added “Sapiens” to my reading list. As for the severe fragmentation and disorientation that seems to have befallen large segments of society and politics, I think it’s a reflection of the fact that Wall Street thinking and action has upended both our way of life and moral compasses.

Sounds hoary, I know, but it doesn’t seem to want to go away. For instance, individual (and company) wealth, success, or achievements are no longer be signaled through truly personal accomplishments that usually accrue slowly over time because investors’ money flowing into the direction of those with the best sales pitches for whatever product (including bad mortgages or “miracle” blood tests) has mostly erased the idea of building a life or company on slow and solid work.

Add to that the observation that no matter how badly you screw up or treat your fellow human beings (by misleading investors and displacing millions of families) in the realm of managing finances, you not only needn’t worry about going to jail but you actually will get rewarded.

People sense and respond to moral failings going unpunished and they do so in many different ways: engaging in (or profiting from) questionable moral conduct themselves, disrupting an existing (read: corrupt) system (assuming some form of complicity of any system operating in a morally bankrupt environment), voting for populist political candidates, or simply laying low in hopes that once the dust settles from whatever cathartic event, things will go back to “normal” (whatever that might be).

So, yes, some fatalism (and perhaps despair) seems a natural response. But then again it’s probably part of a human history of continual dissent encapsulated in that story of the divided church congregation in which one side holds that one should stand during prayer while the other insists on kneeling, making the argument over the practice a time-honored tradition. Basic human frailty that’s okay to live with unless one side threatens to burn down the whole church or other edifice of dispute.

Useful fictions pervade our lives: think of the frictionless plane in science, the rational utility-maximizer (rational choice theory) in economics, the “reasonable person” in law, etc. I’m also inclined to think that “race” may become a fiction soon itself (and perhaps not a useful one) as we increasingly become a society of individuals who are themselves multicultural by ethnic heritage. Look around you: there are fewer people all the time who can claim to be just Caucasian, or just Asian, or just Black, or you name it. The stigma against interracial marriage has long since disappeared, and we live in a multiracial society that doesn’t mean just a mixture of races as groups but a mixture of races in each individual. In this context identity politics becomes increasingly dysfunctional–and fictional.
As for technology’s impact on publishing, remember that its impact was first on internal operations–all those desktop computers that replaced typewriters, allowed designers to get rid of their pasteup boards, allowed marketing departments and business departments to crunch data in new ways, etc. Only much later did it affect the types of products publishers put out–ejournal, ebooks, ereference, etc. There was no conflict to speak of in the first round of technology’s revolutionizing of publishing. It was the Internet that became the game changer.

A century and a half ago, our adolescent nation got its driver’s license to navigate a vehicle–the United States of America– across this vast continent at a speed heretofore unknown in the annals of human history. The outcome was a new phenom called the “Wild Wild West.”
Now, in the 21st-century–thanks to Watson, Fairchild, Gates, Jobs, Zuckerberg, Sergei and Larry, et al– we have belatedly embarked upon a wildwildwest of communications.
Anything could happen; all the rules are changing, and every half-cocked coummunicator with a message to propagate sets out across the pony-express cyber-prairie with a satchel full of bloggish conjecture and a saddlebag full of .jpg imagery.
This could go on for a while, until the classic, feudal pecking order of human activities settle into new channels, new sedimentary layerings of power accumulation and concession,whence individual persons can once again know their place and perhaps even feel content to have “a place” in the world.
Buckle your seat belt, scholars. Welcome to the wild, wild west. Don’t get too settled in your ways, and you’ll do just fine. Don’t get rattled by the turbulent priests of this unstable phase, especially the one whose empire is founded the upon shifting odds of Atlantic City casinos.

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