In the News: Academic Privating

Okay, file this one under miscellany, but I thought it was worth calling out. AcademHack recently posted an interesting piece on the future of books, academia, and digital media. The argument, essentially, is that the time for half measures is over: publishing, in all its many forms, needs to think of  completely new paradigms for the transmission of information, rather than simply trying to make print models viable on the internet. These new paradigms, the author argues, have the potential to dispel some of the accumulated prejudices built up around intellectual authority over the past centuries:

many of the things that we have come to associate with the book are not in fact coterminous with its material structure but rather biases developed over the Gutenberg Parenthesis. I won’t fully develop this idea here but this is what I often call librocentricism, or a book biased way of thinking, where the book stands in for certain prejudices and ideas about knowledge.

In other words, the article argues in favor of a culture of curators rather than one of gatekeepers. One particularly charming barb against the increasingly insular channels of academic publishing asserts that

If I can only convince you of one thing, I hope it will be this. If you publish in a journal which charges for access, you are not published, you are private-ed.

In principle, there seems to be little to argue with here. One would have to consider what the new models of evaluation would look like in this scenario, but one logical option would be that works would be assessed according to the number of times they are cited, rather than by a single process of peer review. Of course, that model runs the risk of encouraging inflammatory writing (a citation, as we know it now, is a citation whether it supports or refutes an argument), but this new paradigm could certainly include safeguards against that type of abuse.

Rather than encouraging a proliferation ad nauseum of new, unproven articles on the web, the article argues in favor of a more collective model of information curation (which for some reason is not a word yet, but doubtless will be soon). I find the suggestion very exciting, although perhaps incongruous with the rampant professionalization of academia:

we have to give up being authorities, controlling our discourse, seeing ourselves as experts who poses bodies of knowledge over which we have mastery. Instead I think we have to start thinking of what we do as participating in a conversation, and ongoing process of knowledge formation. What if we thought of academics as curators, or janitors, people who keep things up to date, clean, host, point, aggregate knowledge rather than just those who are responsible for producing new stuff.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could set our egos aside for long enough to collaborate on the aggregation of knowledge? One does have to wonder, though, how viable the Wikipedia model would be if it were not, secondarily, a forum for the promotion of the traditional media cited by its contributors – books, albums, movies, etc. Finally, the author raises an issue of hyperlinks. Interweb enthusiasts like George Landow (Hypertext 3.0) and AcademHack make the argument that the hyperlink is the true essence of internet publishing.

One of the principle advantages of the web is the way it connects, operates as a network of connections within an ecosystem of knowledge, one can search, copy, paste, edit, link with ease, none of which is true of a .pdf. The .pdf is just a way of maintaining print based aesthetics and structures on the web. In the same way you wouldn’t think of publishing a book without the appropriate footnotes, don’t publish to the web without the appropriate live links.

Now, there’s nothing I actually disagree with here – the analogy between footnotes and hyperlinks is actually one of the most sound I have come across.  But it did get me thinking about the place of links in digital media, and the fact that I think they can be, and often are, overused. This overuse, I would argue, both impoverishes the writing in which it appears and – paradoxically – limits the experience of the reader by channeling the readers’ inquiry rather than encouraging their individual exploration of the subject. Unlike the footnote, the online reader is already in the position to access a seemingly limitless store of information on whatever topic was just presented to him or her; this personal pursuit of information is likely to yield a more profound engagement with the subject matter than the imposition of one source by the author. Granted, this is getting a bit far from the scope of the article itself, but perhaps is worth considering nonetheless, if it’s an entirely new paradigm we’re after, after all.

The full article can be read here.

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