Tag Archive for papercentrism

Late Age On the Radio

Just a quick post linking you to my latest radio interview, with WFHB-Bloomington’s Doug Storm.  Doug is one of the hosts of a great program called “Interchange,” and this past Tuesday I was delighted to share with him a broad-ranging conversation about many of the topics I address in The Late Age of Print—the longevity of books, print (and paper) culture, reading practices, taste hierarchies, and more.  Toward the end, the conversation turned to my latest work, on the politics of algorithmic culture.

The program lasts about an hour.  Enjoy!

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Performing Scholarly Communication

A short piece I wrote for the journal Text and Performance Quarterly (TPQ) has just been published.  It’s called “Performing Scholarly Communication,” and it’s included in a special section on “The Performative Possibilities of New Media” edited by the wonderful Desireé Rowe and Benjamin Myers.  The section includes contributions by Michael LeVan and Marcyrose Chvasta, Jonathan M. Gray, and Craig-Gingrich Philbrook, along with an introduction by and a formal contribution from Desireé and Ben.  You can peruse the complete contents here.

My essay is a companion to another short piece I published (and blogged about) last year called “The Visible College.”  “The Visible College” focuses on how journal publications hide much of the labor that goes into their production.  It then goes on to make a case for how we might re-engineer academic serials to better account for that work.  “Performing Scholarly Communication” reflects on one specific publishing experiment I’ve run over on my project site, The Differences and Repetitions Wiki, in which I basically opened the door for anyone to co-write an essay with me.  Both pieces also talk about the history of scholarly journal publishing at some length, mostly in an effort to think through where our present-day journal publishing practices, or performances, come from.  One issue I keep coming back to here is scarcity, or rather how scholars, journal editors, and publishers operate today as if the material relations of journal production typical of the 18th and 19th centuries still straightforwardly applied.

I’ve mentioned before that Desireé and Ben host a wonderful weekly podcast called the The Critical LedeLast week’s show focused on the TPQ forum and gathered together all of the contributors to discuss it.  I draw attention to this not only because I really admire Desireé and Ben’s podcast but also because it fulfills an important scholarly function as well.  You may not know this, but the publisher of TPQ, Taylor & Francis, routinely “embargoes” work published in this and many other of its journals.  The embargo stipulates that authors are barred from making any version of their work available on a public website for 18 months from the date of publication.  I’d be less concerned about this stipulation if more libraries and institutions had access to TPQ and journals like it, but alas, they do not.  In other words, if you cannot access TPQ, at least you can get a flavor of the research published in the forum by listening to me and my fellow contributors dish about it over on The Critical Lede.

I should add that the Taylor & Francis publication embargo hit close to home for me.  Almost a year and a half ago I posted a draft of “Performing Scholarly Communication” to The Differences and Repetitions Wiki and invited people to comment on it.  The response was amazing, and the work improved significantly as a result of the feedback I received there.  The problem is, I had to “disappear” the draft or pre-print version once my piece was accepted for publication in TPQ.  You can still read the commentary, which T&F does not own, but that’s almost like reading marginalia absent the text to which the notes refer!

Here’s the good news, though: if you’d like a copy of “Performing Scholarly Communication” for professional purposes, you can email me to request a free PDF copy.  And with that let me say that I do indeed appreciate how Taylor & Francis does support this type of limited distribution of one’s work, even as I wish the company would do much better in terms of supporting open access to scholarly research.

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Soft-Core Book Porn

Most of you reading this blog probably don’t know that I’m Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Communication and Culture here at Indiana University.  What that means is that I’m knee-deep in graduate admissions files right now; what that also means is that I don’t have quite as much time for blogging as I normally would.  The good news is that I’m rapidly clearing the decks, and that I should be back to regular blogging pretty soon.

Until then, happy 2012 (belatedly), and here’s a little book soft-core book porn to tide you over — an amazing stop-motion animation video that was filmed in Toronto’s Type Bookstore.  If you’ve been reading this blog over the years, then you’ll know I’m not a huge fan of the whole “the only real books are paper books” motif (much as I do enjoy paper books).  Even so, you cannot but be impressed by the time, care, and resolve that must have gone into the production of this short.  Clearly it was a labor of love, on several levels.

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Digital Natives? Not So Fast

I’m about the enter the final week of my undergraduate “Cultures of Books and Reading” class here at Indiana University.  I’ll be sad to see it go.  Not only has the group been excellent this semester, but I’ve learned so much about how my students are negotiating this protracted and profound moment of transition in the book world — what I like to call, following J. David Bolter, “the late age of print.”

One of the things that struck me early on in the class was the extent to which my students seemed to have embraced the notion that they’re “digital natives.”  This is the idea that people born after, say, 1985 or so grew up in a world consisting primarily of digital media.  They are, as such, more comfortable and even savvy with it than so-called “digital immigrants” — analog frumps like me who’ve had to wrestle with the transition to digital and who do not, therefore, fundamentally understand it.

It didn’t occur to me until last Wednesday that I hadn’t heard mention of the term “digital natives” in the class for weeks.  What prompted the revelation was a student-led facilitation on Robert Darnton’s 2009 essay from the New York Review of Books, on the Google book scanning project.

We’d spent the previous two classes weighing the merits of Kevin Kelly’s effusions about digital books and Sven Birkerts‘ poo-pooings of them.  In Darnton we had a piece not only about the virtues and vices of book digitization, but also one that offered a sobering glimpse into the potential political-economic and cultural fallout had the infamous Google book settlement been approved earlier this year.  It’s a measured piece, in other words, and deeply cognizant of the ways in which books, however defined, move through and inhabit people’s worlds.

In this it seemed to connect with the bookish experiences of my group purported digital natives, whose remarks confounded any claims that theirs was a generationally specific, or unified, experience with media.

Here’s a sampling from the discussion (and hat’s off to the facilitation group for prompting such an enlightening one!):

One student mentioned a print-on-paper children’s book her mother had handed down to her.  My student’s mother had inscribed it when she herself was seven or eight years old, and had asked her daughter to add her own inscription when she’d reached the same age.  My student intends to pass the book on one day to her own children so that they, too, may add their own inscriptions.  The heirloom paper book clearly is still alive and well, at least in the eyes of one digital native.

Another student talked about how she purchases paper copies of the the e-books she most enjoys reading on her Barnes & Noble Nook.  I didn’t get the chance to ask if these paper copies were physical trophies or if she actually read them, but in any case it’s intriguing to think about how the digital may feed into the analog, and vice-versa.

Other students complained about the amount of digitized reading their professors assign, stating that they’re less likely to read for class when the material is not on paper.  Others chimed in here, mentioning that they’ll read as much as their prepaid print quotas at the campus computer labs allow, and then after that they’re basically done.  (Incidentally, faculty and students using Indiana University’s computer labs printed about 25 million — yes, million – pages during the 2010-2011 academic year.)

On a related note, a couple of students talked about how they use Google Books to avoid buying expensive course texts.  Interestingly, they noted, 109 pages of one of the books I assign in “The Cultures of Books and Reading” happen to appear there.  The implication was that they’d read what was cheap and convenient to access, but nothing more.  (Grimace.)

Finally, I was intrigued by one of the remarks from my student who, at the beginning of the term, had asked me about the acceptability of purchasing course texts for his Kindle.  He discussed the challenges he’s faced in making the transition from print to digital during his tenure as a college student.  He noted how much work it’s taken him to migrate from one book form (and all the ancillary material it generates) to the other.  Maybe he’s a digital native, maybe he isn’t; the point is, he lives in a world that’s still significantly analog, a world that compels him to engage in sometimes fraught negotiations with whatever media he’s using.

All this in a class of 33 students!  Based on this admittedly limited sample, I feel as if the idea of “digital natives” doesn’t get us very far.  It smooths over too many differences.  It also lets people who embrace the idea off the hook too easily, analytically speaking, for it relieves them of the responsibility of accounting for the extent to which print and other “old” media still affect the daily lives of people, young or old.

Maybe it’ll be different for the next generation.  For now, though, it seems as if we all are, to greater and lesser degrees, digital immigrants.

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Destroying Books in Order to Save Them

One of the recurrent themes you’ll find here on the Late Age of Print blog is the “end of the book.”  Usually when I raise this I’m talking about printed books and the relationship they share to e-readers and other forms of digital technology.  And usually when I go down that road, I end up saying something to the effect of, “however popular e-books may become, printed books won’t ever go away entirely.”

But today, thanks to a friend on Facebook who shared a fascinating blog post with me, I want to approach the “end of the book” theme from a different angle — where destroying a printed book may actually give it a completely new lease on life.

The post, “The Book Surgeon,” showed up a few days ago on My Modern Met. It consists mostly of photographs of the work of artist Brian Dettmer, who, using “using knives, tweezers, and surgical tools,” transforms old encyclopedias, medical journals, dictionaries, and other weighty reference matter into intricately detailed sculptures.  Here are a few images to show you what I mean:

Amazing, eh?  The post goes on to note — and this shouldn’t come as a surprise — that carving these books involves painstaking work.  Proceeding a single layer at a time, “Dettmer manipulates the pages and spines to form the shape of his sculptures.”  There’s also no cutting and pasting of material from one point in a book to another.  In other words, everything that appears in each sculpture is ostensibly in its original location.

I wish I could watch Dettmer at work, since I imagine he must proceed with equal parts planning and serendipity.  Curious to learn more about his process, I checked out his artist’s statement where he says this:

The age of information in physical form is waning. As intangible routes thrive with quicker fluidity, material and history are being lost, slipping and eroding into the ether. Newer media swiftly flips forms, unrestricted by the weight of material and the responsibility of history. In the tangible world we are left with a frozen material but in the intangible world we may be left with nothing. History is lost as formats change from physical stability to digital distress.

Nicely put — and what an apt way in which to frame a body of work that so beautifully illustrates the principle of creative destruction.

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Bye-Bye Borders (in Bloomington)

Just before Christmas I blogged here about the closing of the Borders Bookstore here in my home community of Bloomington, Indiana.  Friday, January 7, 2011 was the store’s final day of operation.  I visited it for the last time on Wednesday, January 5th and snapped a few pictures.  Even for those of you who may never have set foot in this particular Borders location, you can tell that it was barely a shell of what it once was.

The montage of pictures above should give you a sense of what I mean by a “shell.”  The image appearing there on the bottom-left is, incidentally, of what used to be the children’s section, which is a far cry from how it used to look.  In fact, I have a quite vivid memory from the time I was researching The Late Age of Print. I hung out there practically all night on the evening of June 20th, 2003 in anticipation of the midnight release of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Back then it was teeming with books, kids, caregivers, and energy.  Not so much now.

These two close-ups illustrate the scope of the sell-off.  It’s definitely an “everything must go” situation but more, no doubt a result of the chain’s economic woes, which extend far beyond this particular branch.  The picture on the right shows a bookshelf that’s been transformed into a display for cleaning agents — yes, cleaning agents — that are being sold off along with the store’s remaining inventory of books, DVDs, etc.  (Another display nearby held items from the café, including the mixes the baristas would use to make fancy drinks.)  Speaking of books, the vast majority of titles left were either category fiction (romances, sci-fi, etc.) or books by/about celebrities.  Note the unusually large stock of biographies of American Idol’s Sanjaya Malakar in the upper right-hand corner of the image at left.  It was, in other words, pretty much the bottom of the barrel by the time I got there.  Based on the uniformity of the inventory, I ‘d guess that most of the really desirable books had been carted off and redistributed to other Borders stores.

This final image shows a computer terminal located on what used to be the customer service counter.   Instead of facing the customer service agent, it had been turned around to face the customers, as if to greet us as we entered the store on its final days.  The display read, “Your Favorite Book Store.  Now Digital.”  I guess we know how Borders is imagining its future — assuming, of course, that it has one.

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Happy New Year

Since the New Year is always a time for endings and beginnings, I thought I’d share an image I snapped recently at the Monroe County Public Library here in Bloomington, Indiana.  It’s of two old library check-out cards — the type that, when I was young, used to be slipped into the front covers of books and stamped with due dates.

My favorite part has to be the warning about a ten cent penalty in the event the patron loses the check-out slip. It’s also intriguing to see that the latest due date appearing on the top card is from 1982. I wonder if it was from an unpopular book, or if the MCPL began computerizing around then. I should have asked.

If you’re wondering where I found these cards, the answer may come as something of a disappointment. They were in the children’s room, where they were being used as scrap paper for youngsters to practice writing. (At least they hadn’t been thrown away, I suppose.) I’m not much of a nostalgic, yet some part of me still wishes they’d been on display showing visitors — especially those raised in the computer age — the history of libraries and librarianship. It’s interesting to think about how a record keeping device that was once important enough to carry a penalty for loss, however small, is now discarded on purpose. Change isn’t inevitable, but it sure is relentless.

Happy New Year, everyone, and I’ll see you again early in 2011 with some exciting news.

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Feeback, Please!

Earlier this summer Desiree Rowe and Ben Myers, whose podcast The Critical Lede I cannot say enough good things about, invited me to contribute to a journal forum they’re editing on “The Performative Possibilities of New Media.”  Given my interest in the politics of scholarly communication, I immediately jumped at the chance to participate.

Composing the essay took a little longer than I’d expected, but I think I’ve got a respectable version of the piece now in hand.  It’s called “Performing Scholarly Communication,” and it reflects on the origins and possible futures of academic periodical publishing.

This is where you come in.  I’ve posted the draft essay to one of my project sites, The Differences & Repetitions Wiki (a.k.a., D&RW), in the hopes those of you reading this might be kind enough to offer some feedback.  You’ll find “Performing Scholarly Communication” on the site, along with other essays I’ve  worked on over the years.  Don’t hesitate to comment anonymously — I’m completely cool with that — and definitely take some time to poke around a bit.  Oh, and by the way, the piece is pretty short, so it won’t take you very long to read.

If you’re already familiar with D&RW, it’s likely that things will look a little different to you.  That’s because over the summer I moved and totally rebuilt the site.  I used to host it on Wikidot, but the influx of advertising there became so much that I felt compelled to relocate.  D&RW now links directly off of my other blog, Difference & Repetitions, which I also moved this summer from Google Blogger to its own domain.  I guess you could say that “Performing Scholarly Communication” marks the (dant-dant-daah!) GRAND OPENING of the new D&RW.  Enjoy.

Thanks in advance, wise crowd, for reading and commenting on the piece.  I hope you find something in there that intrigues you.

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Books: “An Outdated Technology?”

From the annals of VERY BAD IDEAS comes this story in today’s Boston Globe. Cushing Academy, a prep school located in western Massachusetts, has decided to dispense with its library of printed books — more than 20,000 volumes in all — and switch over entirely to digital media resources. The change was prompted in no small part by Headmaster James Tracy, who is quoted in the article as saying, “When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books.”

To fill the void, Cushing is spending about a half-million dollars on large, flat-screen data displays, laptop hookups, Amazon Kindles, Sony Readers — oh, and a $12,000 cappuccino machine. (I went to public school. The cappuccino machine seems a little — how should I put it? — indulgent to me.)

If you’ve read Late Age of Print, then you’ll know that I’m not one of those knee-jerk bibliophiles who believes the printed page is a sacred thing. I do plenty of e-reading and e-research myself (I wouldn’t blog if I didn’t find value in the “e”), plus I’m not so short-sighted as to believe that print is the only, or even the best, conveyor of information and ideas. But with that said, Cushing’s abandonment of its traditional library resources seems like an ill-considered move to me.

First, it upsets the balance of the whole “media ecology.” There’s a famous media historian and theorist by the name of Harold Innis, who differentiated between what he called “time binding” and “space binding” technologies. The former help to facilitate the endurance of words and ideas, while the latter help to facilitate the extension of messages quickly, across vast geographic distances. For this reason Innis suggested that printed books lend themselves well to the building and maintaining of tradition, a tradition grounded in an engagement with objects that are the material bearers of the past. Electronic media, on the other hand, he saw as more instrumental technologies of transmission. They are less about the creation and preservation of a community across time than they are about its expansion into and across new territories.

Whether or not you agree with Innis, it’s clear that different media do different things; each medium has different strengths. Wouldn’t it make sense, then, to foster as robust a media ecosystem as you can, rather than drive certain “species” toward extinction?

My other concern (as readers of this blog well know) is the compulsion schools and other institutions are beginning to feel to switch over to proprietary e-reading devices such as the Amazon Kindle. What concerns me more than anything is the fact that, at least in the case of Kindle, you’re dealing with what Jonathan Zittrain calls a “tethered appliance.” Amazon keeps a record of your bookmarks, highlights, notes, and more on its server cloud. How is the imaginative life of reading affected when you can no longer be sure that another isn’t reading over your shoulder?

Cushing Academy just gave away 20,000 printed books. They’re not getting them back. This is an object lesson in what not to do in the digital age.

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Good Morning, Amazon…

First it was the cola wars.  Now, it’s the e-book wars.

At this past weekend’s book industry trade show, BookExpo America, Google announced that it will begin selling digital book content in the near future.  According to this article in today’s New York Times, the search engine giant has the backing of major players in the publishing field.

The move should come as a wake-up call for Amazon.com, which, since the introduction of Kindle in late 2007, has dominated the retail e-book market. Many questions remain, however, about whether Google’s latest foray into the book world ultimately will pan out.

Why it Will Work
First, there’s Google, whose power, prevalence, and brand recognition shouldn’t be underestimated.  But the success of its latest e-book initiative will stem from more than just the company’s shear Google-ness.  It will result from its growing recognition of itself as not merely a search engine company but indeed as a platform for online businesses.  This is, incidentally, exactly what Amazon.com has been doing of late — refashioning itself, a la Google, from a retailer to a business incubator; and in this respect it’s playing catch-up to Google.

Second, there’s the Kindle factor.  Google’s plan is to release digital editions of books which, though secure (read: DRM), will not be native to any particular e-reading device.  This is good news for those of us who’ve been less impressed with Kindle than we we ought to be; this is especially so where images are concerned.  Plus, it’s great news for readers who, in a time of economic downturn, are discomfited by the prospect of shelling out hundreds of dollars for the privilege of accessing and reading digital content via Kindle.

Third, did I mention Google?  Besides the technology, one of the major problems that has beset e-books thus far has been distribution.  Amazon has successfully addressed the issue by providing readers with a reliable, centralized hub from which to download e-titles.  There aren’t many companies out there who could compete with Amazon along these lines, but Google is surely one of them.  It’s already become a nodal point for people to access e-book content via Book Search and Google Library.  Becoming a nodal point for distribution of e-content shouldn’t take a great deal more than a hop, skip, and a jump.

Why it Won’t Work
Book publishers are greedy and do not understand how to sell their products in and to a digital world.  As the New York Times today reported, Google intends to allow its partner publishers to set their own e-book prices.  If recent history tells us anything, it tells us that the publishers likely will charge something close to print-on-paper prices for content whose material support has already in essence been outsourced to consumers (e.g., in the form of computers, netbooks, and other mobile e-readers). This is unacceptable and will only hinder e-book adoption.

Relatedly, there’s the Amazon factor.  The company has insisted that, where possible, Kindle e-book titles should be kept low.  Most bestsellers cost around $9.99, and although there are many Kindle books that cost more, Amazon should be commended for pressuring publishers to keep their e-book prices down.  If Amazon can continue to do so, purchasing a Kindle with the prospect of having access to cheaper e-book content won’t seem as off-putting as having to buy e-titles from Google at or near ridiculous print-on-paper prices.

Finally, there’s the question of form.  Will Google’s e-book content largely reproduce what would otherwise be available on paper?  If so, then Google e-books won’t have as much uptake as they otherwise could — that is, if they broke with what Gary Hall calls a “papercentric” model of electronic content.  Indeed, if the publishers want to charge near-paper prices for the e-books they sell/distribute via Google, then readers will expect additional types of features to make up for what is, essentially, lost value.

Bottom Line
Only time will tell what will become of Google’s latest venuture into e-books.  I see a great many downsides that would really spell disaster for an anxious contingent of publishers who have convinced themselves, as they do about every eight years or so, that e-books will “save” their industry.  More optimistically, it is my hope that Google will spur Amazon.com to move more quickly on developing cheaper, better Kindles and related e-reading systems that are even more user-friendly.

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