This era of historically unprecedented production and dissemination of ideas has arguably made informed and authoritative editorship more important than ever; paradoxically, the Internet's technologies are geared, in Kathleen Fitzpatrick's words, "to promote the open exchange of data in a content-agnostic fashion." Fitzpatrick's Planned Obsolescence — its title a sardonic speculation on the future of the printed book — considers how academic publishing might best resolve this challenging dilemma. As co-founder of the digital scholarly network MediaCommmons, Fitzpatrick — who lectures in Media Studies at Pomona College in California — is well placed to observe the development of digital culture in academia.
The MediaCommons blog is a scholarly community grappling to harness the potential of the new technologies. Scholars from across the United States relate and reflect upon their experiences with digital publishing and create a series of web-based experimental initiatives. One such program is In Media Res, where media studies scholars curate a daily slideshow, with each image accompanied by 350 words of text, with fellow participants posting feedback; the aim is allow scholars to share their ideas and engage one another in a constant and dynamic dialogue. That the MediaCommons project also feels remarkably directionless — in the sense that it lacks an identifiable linear goal — is no accident. Reader participation and engagement, albeit of a highly involved and integrated kind, would appear to be the end in itself. This, in a nutshell, is how far we have come with the new technologies thus far.
Notions of authorship have always been in flux. During the French revolution, Nicolas de Condorcet found the notion of "absolute authorship" both politically and philosophically untenable. His experiment in doing away with exclusive rights culminated in a chaos of sedition, libel, and piracy before the legislators of the First Republic reinstated legal authorship. Fitzpatrick reminds us that received ideas of authorship "derive less from the technologies and process that produce the author's text" than they do "from the legislative and economic systems that govern those technologies and processes." It is a sobering antidote to the vulgar technological determinism that characterizes so much of the hype around the digital revolution. Digital technologies represent a potential threat to our own notions of authorship, individualism, and private property as the dominant mode of text delivery shifts from the "read-only" structure of print to a digital "read-write" structure, in which a new generation increasingly "expects that the reader will likewise be allowed to write." Authorship becomes increasingly unassignable as work comes more and more to resemble the dialogue streams of MediaCommons experiments.
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