Brief Thoughts on Planned Obsolescence

I’ll admit that many of the technical, jargon-laden passages in Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence failed to resonate with me, solely because I wasn’t quite sure what she was talking about (like the performance of metadata in OS 10.5 vs OS 10.4, for example, or the HTML coding required to permit for open commenting), but her overall message was very clear: scholarly publishing and the humanities in general must be reimagined within a digital framework. It is no longer a question of if such a digital revolution will occur, but when; as Fitzpatrick says in her conclusion: “The contradictions in our current system are simply too great to be sustained…I am certain that a revolution in scholarly publishing is unavoidable” (194). I am in complete agreement here, and I appreciated the optimism that Fitzpatrick maintains throughout her text. In a time in which the university’s death is constantly being heralded, it was heartening to read a treatise on the ways in which the humanities and the academy can be revitalized through technology, not destroyed by it. Her chapter on “Texts” and the digital reconfiguring of the book was especially interesting to me; namely, that we need to abandon the fatalistic narrative of the death of print or literacy, and realize that this is simply the transition from one form of print (the codex) to another, and that furthermore, situating print within a digital network will ultimately reward readers and scholars.
Yet this optimism that I so appreciated was also, paradoxically, one of my main complaints of the book; some of her suggestions simply did not seem feasible to me, like the recommendation for university presses to shift to an open-access mode of digital publishing. She notes that such a move would “make clear the extent to which the academy’s interests are the public interest” (161), and while I agree with that sentiment, I still struggle to imagine an industry willingly abandoning capitalistic gain while still operating in a capitalistic market. Ultimately, I wish that Fitzpatrick had tempered her optimism with slightly less radical suggestions, with the understanding that such moves are simply stepping stones that will gradually lead the academy to a full digital revolution.

2 thoughts on “Brief Thoughts on Planned Obsolescence

  1. Elissa Myers

    Christina, I agree with you that at times, Fitzpatrick did seem to make some suggestions that seem unlikely to be implemented. For instance, I found her suggestion that each university should have a press and be responsible for publishing its own faculty unlikely to be implemented as well–in many cases, again, because a lot of smaller, less wealthy universities and colleges don’t already have presses, and probably don’t have the money to set them up. Basically, it just seems like universities would have to have much better spending habits and a lot more money to go around to do some of the things she is suggesting. However, I think her argument for academic presses embracing an open access model is based on the premise that they already aren’t making money, and thus, wouldn’t be losing any by taking this step. I’m not sure some of the bigger ones like Harvard or Oxford would go for this, since, as she says, they are making money, but I can see some lesser known presses going for it.

  2. Catherine Engh

    Christina and Elissa, I agree with you that some of Fitzpatrick’s suggestions re: academic publishing don’t seem feasible given the constraints of the marketplace.

    I find her vision of peer-to-peer review exciting and innovative –esp. after I took a look at Media Commons and found examples of pieces (including of this book, Planned Ob) reviewed in this way. However, this is certainly not the practice of many (most, I think) academic journals and presses.

    In this light, I struggled a little with Fitzpatrick’s call for academic writers to learn to prioritize ‘the process’ over the ‘finished product.’ Or, to move away from the concept of ‘originality’ towards a conception–and corresponding practice–of scholarly work that “may more closely resemble contemporary editorial or curatorial practices, bringing together, highlighting and remixing significant ideas in existing texts.”

    This shift in scholarly practice seems to represent, like the shift to open-source publishing and widespread University presses, an ideal horizon. Given the hiring practices in the profession, I find it hard to wholeheartedly embrace her suggestions re: academic writing. Namely, that we writers prioritize reviewing and publishing in-process work on digital networks. As Fitzpatrick points out, faculty in departments (often beholden to traditions that benefitted them) do value and make hiring and tenure decisions based on publications in peer-reviewed journals and presses. I agree that new forms of media and academic work must be valued. But, if at present, published books and articles are of paramount importance to success in the academy, it seems hard to know how, exactly, to put into practice Fitzpatrick’s communitarian values. It’s probably some sort of middle ground between publishing online and publishing in journals. But, given Fitzpatrick’s hopes for the future, is this middle-ground a kind of acceptance of the traditional status quo that’s making scholarly work increasingly irrelevant in the digital age?

    I, too, wish that Fitzpatrick had treated moves towards a digital revolution as ‘stepping stones’. Also, I wish she had treated the pressures of the current professional landscape a bit more extensively.

Comments are closed.