Review by Keith Dorwick, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette

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Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy

Kathleen Fitzpatrick

New York and London: New York UP, 2011. Print.

Image: Cover of 'Planned Obsolescence'Planned Obsolescence is an ambitious work by Kathleen Fitzpatrick in which she takes on the convoluted, difficult, and often charged relationship between authors; the academic or corporate settings in which they work; their editors and reviewers; and their publishers. She does so by exploring (in chapter order) peer review, authorship, texts, preservation, and the university. This is of course hardly uncharted territory as other authors have explored this same set of issues but Fitzpatrick’s work, though often exciting and useful, sometimes makes claims that seem a bit too broad:

the anonymous peer-review process, however, effectively closes the author out of the main chronology of the conversation, which instead becomes a backchannel discussion between the reviewer and the editor. As such, the author is hindered in her ability to learn from the review process even if she is given a copy of the reviewer’s comments. (italics in original)

This does not seem to line up with my experiences as either an author or an editor, especially in light of the next claim: “by the time the comments arrive, generally speaking, the decision about the manuscript’s fate has been made [. . .]” (28). Well, no. At least at Technoculture, most of our editorial decisions involve “revise and resubmit” at some part of the process. The author is then invited to do revisions that can be very substantive. In my experience here at TC Journal, the articles that our readers see here are very changed by the time they appear onscreen. Most end up with much longer works cited pages and have increased in length by 2,000 to as much as 5,000 words, especially since I read each article and make suggestions to the authors even before the review process begins.

And why call that “backchannel”? The conversation is between the editor and the reviewer, because peer review assumes that no one editor, even of a specialized journal, can properly and singly evaluate all texts. Hence the presence of the reviewer. The author can be brought into that conversation at any time: editors can send out the reviewer's comments to authors and send author's questions back to the reviewer, thus facilitating a conversation. Editors can also intervene at the moments they feel the reviewer has simply misunderstood a move by the author.

My work as an author leads me to the same conclusion—I can’t think of an article that I have published that has not greatly benefited by anonymous peer review, something reported by many authors and editors to whom I have spoken in the past. (I can't speak to non-anonymous peer review as an author; as such, I've always been part of a double-blind process.)

Certainly there are problems with peer review—some people use their power as editors and reviewers badly, to force their own beliefs about their field upon authors in ways that are not appropriate. And authors have only one way of responding to those problems: they can withdraw their essays but that means huge losses of time while they resubmit to another journal and no guarantee they won’t get the same reviewer a second time.

All this is anecdotal, of course, but my point here is that there are a whole set of assumptions buried in Fitzpatrick’s text that need pulling apart as when she states that we all need quiet to write. Some do, some don’t. (One of my colleagues does his writing exclusively in busy coffee shops, a setting that would make me crazy while trying to pin down an elusive thought.)

The second chapter on “Authorship” is on stronger ground as it reviews such concepts as the death of the author (57-60); collaboration (72-76); remix (76-80); and the relationship between gift economy and intellectual property (80-83). Authorship is indeed a complex issue, and perhaps especially for digital texts, but I am not sure that Fitzpatrick’s call for increased collaboration is key. Collaboration should count when it occurs but, at least on the level of the article, is hardly necessary. Again, the big statements harm Fitzpatrick’s argument: “print publishing hasn’t made the changes produced by a text’s reception and the responses to it quite so materially evident [as has digital publishing]” (72). That’s exactly what footnotes, endnotes, and letters to the editors are for as one article builds upon the critical past (what Burke famously called a “parlor conversation”). Both Bolter and Landow have argued for scholarly texts as a form of hypertext—there is, I guess, nothing new under the sun. Do digital texts show the responses more quickly? Of course—but not necessarily to more effect.

The next chapter (3) on "Texts" is stronger yet though I still have my problems with it. This chapter serves as a good review of the changes and challenges that face authors who are working in other textual formats than print. Her discussion on hypertext (95-100) is engaging, but I don’t know that it follows that “hypertext can often be difficult to read” (97). Perhaps the early Eastgate versions of literary and scholarly hypertexts that serve as Fitzpatrick’s examples were difficult. I remember being mesmerized though also confused by Joyce’s afternoon and Jackson’s Patchwork Girl, but who doesn’t read Facebook these days? Wikipedia is another widely read hypertext and I could list dozens of other examples such as the Internet Movie Database in which readers move easily from one text to another. So too, smartphones in which users move from their e-mail to Google to texts to games to music and most with no or little difficulty, a series of tasks that take reading to whole new levels. More importantly, something we forget as scholars who are highly literate is that all reading is difficult. We’re just used to it; our students not necessarily so.

Her discussion of databases goes much better as she considers the impact of the digital humanities. She identifies what many scholars have noted as the big problem that making such databases widespread entail: there is no current consensus on formats. I’d add as a publisher and editor of electronic texts that the browser wars haven’t helped this one little bit—as we supply variants of code just to make sure that one given bit of text will read the same in Internet Explorer 10 as it does in Firefox 23. (Of course, not all databases use browsers as their primary interface, but many do.)

The chapter that worked best for me was Chapter 4, "Preservation." The preservation of texts is a huge problem we all face and it looms over us like a storm. The academic ideal that today’s book or article will be available 100 years from now is very doable with print technology. Sew your bindings and use acid-free paper and you’re going to be able to read that text for decades to come. Digital texts, in contrast, need what Montfort and Wardrip-Fruin have called “acid-free bits." Many, if not most, of the texts of the 1980s have been lost—or at least very difficult, if not impossible, to read. My copy of afternoon and of Patchwork Girl sit in my office on 3.5 diskettes and there they sit. The articles in Technoculture are safe—so long as the staff continues to have the energy to produce the journal and maintain backups. Today’s HTML, DHTML, and XML may be backwards compatible but what guarantees have we that such code always will be? It is deprecated all the time and readers are dependent on the kindness of browser engineers to make sure texts don’t break down and become obscure.

Fitzpatrick’s discussion of open access, metadata and other topics in Chapter 4 are all equally on target, as is her discussion of the tensions between the need of authors to be published and the fate of the university press (Chapter 5). She rightfully refuses to allow open access to be the champion of the future of publishing—it’s useful but as a very recent blog post by Kent Anderson noted, librarians are concerned that “open access (OA) threatens to defund libraries and marginalize their librarians and staffs.” As Fitzpatrick notes, “open access distribution is hardly likely to solve the budgetary crisis the [university] press faces” (161).

Nor will the change to digital platforms be sufficient, she argues throughout her book, though it is clear to any editor that publishing electronic texts is cheaper in some ways than are print costs (especially shipping). The true costs are labor—as Fitzpatrick rightfully notes, the true costs are shared by both platforms and often obscured by the fact that so much academic publishing is a labor of love, not profit as we depend on reviewers and editors and technicians, and authors, to forgo a wage for their work.

Thus, while there are certainly problems with Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence, it remains an important text for those of us who write, edit and publish electronic texts: clearly, as she notes throughout her text, the world is changing and publishing has to change with it—or be lost.

Works Cited

Anderson, Kent. “The Conversations We’re Not Having—Overcoming Uncertainty, Chilling Effects, and Open Access Complacency.” The Scholarly Kitchen: What’s Hot and Cooking in Scholarly Publishing. 9 September 2013. Web. 15 September 2013.

Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy. New York and London: New York University Press, 2011. Print.

Montfort, Nick and Noah Wardrip-Fruin. "Acid-Free Bits: Recommendations for Long-Lasting Electronic Literature, v1.0 June 14, 2004." The Electronic Literature Organization. 14 June 2004. Web.

Keith Dorwick, an associate professor of English at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and editor of the online journal Technoculture, has several interests. He is a visual artist who works primarily with video and audio; artistic director and producer of The Plastic Theater of Lafayette; and author of both critical articles in journals such as Harlot, Computers and Composition, The Journal of Bisexuality, CCC Online, and book chapters in such edited collections as Mediated Boyhoods (Peter Lang 2011) and The New Casebooks: C. S. Lewis and the Chronicles of Narnia (Palgrave 2012).

© 2013 Keith Dorwick, used by permission

Technoculture Volume 3 (2013)