I’m vastly behind schedule, I’m afraid, but am at last pressing forward with revisions on Planned Obsolescence for the print edition. One of the things that’s been most useful to me in working back through the early parts of the text has been the comments from readers who suggest that I’ve grazed too lightly across a point with larger significance than I realized. As Michael Roy pointed out on the last paragraph of the introduction,
you should consider turning up the volume even further in this section, suggesting that the crisis is not just around scholarly communication, but more generally around higher education in general and liberal arts education in particular. By making this link, you are more apt to capture the attention of presidents and trustees who worry about such things, while not necessarily worrying so much about the details of the tenure system. But the problem is not something that a single college can solve all by itself; there is a way in which you need to differentiate between individual schools that are institutions, and the industry/institution of higher ed. The issues you are grappling with are industry issues that no school all by itself can come to grips with.
So I’ve attempted to do that as I revise, moving from the local issues to that larger significance:
In the end, what I am arguing is that we in the humanities, and in the academy more broadly, face what is less a material obsolescence than an institutional one; we are caught in entrenched systems that no longer serve our needs. But because we are, by and large, our institutions, or rather, because they are us, the greatest challenge we face is not that obsolescence, but our response to it. Like the novelists I studied in my first book, who may feel their cultural centrality threatened by the rise of newer media forms, we can shore up the boundaries between ourselves and the open spaces of intellectual exchange on the internet; we can extol the virtues of the ways things have always been done; we can bemoan our marginalization in a culture that continues marching forward into the digital future ‚Äì and in so doing, we can further undermine our influence on the main threads of intellectual discussion in contemporary public life. The crisis we face, after all, does not stop with the book, but rather extends to the valuation of the humanities within the university, and of institutions of higher education within the culture at large. We tend to dismiss the public disdain for our work and our institutions as a manifestation of the ingrained anti-intellectualism in U.S. culture, and perhaps understandably so, but until we take responsibility for our culture’s sense of our irrelevance, we cannot hope to convince it otherwise. Unless we can find ways to speak with that culture, to demonstrate the vibrancy and the value of the liberal arts, we run the risk of being silenced altogether.
And we will be silenced, unless we can find a way to create new ways of speaking with that culture, and amongst ourselves. We can build institutional supports for the current undead system of scholarly publishing, and we can watch as the profession itself continues its decline. Or we can work to change the ways we communicate and the systems through which we attribute value to such communication, opening ourselves to the possibility that new modes of publishing might enable not just more texts but better texts, not just an evasion of obsolescence but a new life for scholarship. The point, finally, is not whether any one particular technology can provide a viable future for scholarly publishing, but whether we have the institutional will to commit to the development of the systems that will make such technologies viable, and keep them viable into the future.