Review: Planned Obsolescence

It is rare that how a book is made is as important as its content. Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi stands on its own as an outstanding action film, yet it is a rare review that does not mention the tiny budget with which it was accomplished. And here it is difficult to resist the urge to note that I, like many others, read Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s new book, Planned Obsolescence, before ink ever met paper. Fitzpatrick opened up the work at various stages of its creation, inviting criticism openly from the public. But in this case, the making of the book–the process of authorship and the community that came together around it–also has direct bearing on the content of the work.

Fitzpatrick’s book is a clear and well-thought out response to what is widely accepted as a deeply dysfunctional form of scholarly dissemination: the monograph. In the introduction, Fitzpatrick suggests that modern academic publishing in many ways operates via zombie logic, reanimating dead forms, feeding off of the living. As a result, it is tempting to conclude that the easiest way to deal with academic publishing is similar to the best cure for zombies: a quick death.

Planned Obsolescence does not take this easy path, and instead seeks to understand what animates the undead book. For Fitzpatrick, this begins with questioning the place and process of peer review, and this in turn forces us to peel back the skin of what lays beneath: authorship, texts, preservation, and the university. The essential question here is whether the cure to the zombification of scholarly communication may be found in a new set of digital tools for dissemination, and explores what the side effects of that cure may be.

In what constitutes the linchpin of her argument, the first chapter takes a bite out of one of the sacred cows of modern academia: the flawed nature of peer review as it is currently practiced. Unlike those who have argued–perhaps tactically–that open access and online journals will keep sacrosanct peer review in its current form, Fitzpatrick suggests that new bottles need new wine, and draws on a wide-reaching review of the history and problems of the present system of peer review, a system driven more by credentialing authors than promoting good ideas.

Fitzpatrick does not offer an alternative as much as suggests some existing patterns that may work, including successful community-filtered websites. She acknowledges that these sites tend to promote an idiosyncratic view of “quality,” and that problems like that of the male-dominated discourse on Slashdot would need to be addressed if we do not want to replace one calcified system of groupthink with another. The argument would be strengthened here, I think, with a clearer set of requirements for a proposed alternative system. She presents MediaCommons, an effort she has been involved in that provides a prototype for “peer-to-peer review,” as itself a work in progress. It is not clear that the dysfunctional ranking and rating function of the current peer review system is avoided in many of the alternative popular models she suggests, in which “karma whoring” is often endemic. As such, the discussion of what is needed, and how it might be effectively achieved could have been expanded; meta-moderation of texts is important, but it is not clear whether this is a solution or a temporary salve.

If we move from peer review to “peer-to-peer review,” it will have a significant effect on what we think of as “the author.” In her discussion of the changing nature of authorship, Fitzpatrick risks either ignoring a rich theoretic discussion of the “death of the author” or becoming so embroiled in that discussion that she misses the practical relationship to authors working in new environments of scholarly discourse. She does neither, masterfully weaving together a history of print culture, questions of authorship, and ways in which digital technologies enable and encourage the cutting up and remixing of work, and complicate the question of authorship.

The following two chapters discuss texts and their preservation. As the process of authorship changes, we should expect this to be revealed in the texts produced. Naturally, this includes the potential for hypermedia, but Fitzpatrick suggests a range of potential changes, not least those that make the process of scholarly review and conversation more transparent. This discussion of the potential edges of digital scholarship provides some helpful examples of the variety of scholarly discourse that is afforded by new media forms–a set of potentialities that is richer than the future that is sometimes presented by academic publishers whose visions are clouded by models and technologies that require profitability. The following chapter on the processes of disseminating and preserving this work I found to be particularly enlightening. As in earlier chapters, Fitzpatrick manages to draw together a surprisingly broad set of experiments and analyses into an intriguing and concise synthesis.

The penultimate chapter of the book discusses the question of how to support and sustain the creation of these new texts. The chapter argues that university presses should not try to beat commercial presses at their own game, but should instead invent a new game. It presents a number of models and strategies through which this might be achieved, and suggests those that show the most promise: notably, providing for open access and drawing the university press more directly into the work of the university and its library.

Planned Obsolescence itself was born of the realization that Fitzpatrick’s previous book was rejected due not to the quality of its thought but by the potential for press profit. That her next book is of now in a bound physical volume, published by New York University Press, and that this review will itself appear in a bound journal, published by Sage, seems to suggest that in some ways this born-digital scholarly conversation has itself succomed to the slow-moving process of traditional scholarly publication, and as such, might appear as something of a rebuttal to the argument that the only good zombie is a dead one. On the other hand, any criticism I provide above represents a form of slow, printed conversation that is largely outmoded by digital scholarly communication.

In fact, this neatly reflects the complexity of the new structures of scholarly publishing, and the promise for its future; a future in which we stop hiding from zombie books and invite them to a more convivial scholarly conversation. Anyone who is serious about understanding the future of scholarly publishing–and anyone who cares about knowledge and society should share this concern–will find Fitzpatrick’s book an essential, thought-provoking, and highly approachable introduction to the conversation.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy. New York: NYU Press, 2011, vii+245 pp. ISBN 0-8147-2788-1, $23 (pbk)

A version of this review is to appear in New Media & Society, which provided me with a review copy.

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