08 April 2009

The Unthinkable

This is a shoutout to a great post on Mr. Fweem's Blog and an article by Clay Shirky titled, "Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable." What an incredible bit of writing.

Shirky talks about epochal change in one branch of publishing, newspapers, but much of this applies to all print publication. The institute that employs me is, in part, an academic publisher. Academic publishing lives in a strange bubble to begin with, but we are even further removed from reality by the fact that our publishing is non-profit (only partly by design). But even we are increasingly asking the question, does it really make sense in the Internet Age to spend diminishing resources putting ink on dead trees? It's not just the cost. If your goal is the widest possible distribution of information, then printing is limiting. And in fact, we put almost all (soon to be all all) of our print publication on our free website anyway. So, why not go direct to web?

The main reason for us is that print publication is still academically legitimating. Scholars in most fields still distrust the internet, as if the expense of print publication somehow is a guarantee of academic quality. Rank advancement committees generally discount web-only publications. This thinking will have to change, and in fact, university administrations may be the force that changes it. They want to own the intellectual property their institutions produce instead of ceding it to publishers. But that is another topic.

Another reason for print vs. web publication is to restrict unauthorized reproduction. But online distribution of print texts, mostly unauthorized, continues to increase. I won't get into that, but in addition, two words to ponder: Google Books. We are just years, but not decades, away from having most print books available to everyone on web, for a modest fee or free. More and more titles will be published primarily as ebooks, and secondarily as print titles, mostly via print on demand. But don't get me going on the death of books.

The Shirky article also has some poignant thoughts on the nature of information revolutions like we are experiencing. Speaking of Gutenberg and the invention of the printing press, he describes the massive upheaval it caused, especially for civic and ecclesiastical hierarchies:

    The Bible was translated into local languages; was this an educational boon or the work of the devil? Erotic novels appeared, prompting the same set of questions. Copies of Aristotle and Galen circulated widely, but direct encounter with the relevant texts revealed that the two sources clashed, tarnishing faith in the Ancients. As novelty spread, old institutions seemed exhausted while new ones seemed untrustworthy; as a result, people almost literally didn’t know what to think. If you can’t trust Aristotle, who can you trust? . . .
    That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen. Agreements on all sides that core institutions must be protected are rendered meaningless by the very people doing the agreeing. (Luther and the Church both insisted, for years, that whatever else happened, no one was talking about a schism.) Ancient social bargains, once disrupted, can neither be mended nor quickly replaced, since any such bargain takes decades to solidify.
Religions and ideologies are experiencing this in a major way, to their benefit (new movements) or detriment (established groups). I found it interesting that Pres. Thomas S. Monson's closing remarks at the recent LDS General Conference focused on the internet. Obviously pornography is the leading concern, but working for a Mormon apologetics organization, I know something of just how challenging the internet is for the church in terms of information and message control.

It is no surprise that Elder M. Russell Ballard, who is heavily involved in the church's proselyting and public communications, has encouraged faithful LDS blogging. That was something of a volte-face but also a recognition that, on the internet, volume is more powerful and persuasive than authorized credentials. It's the means for a million little converations, not the vehicle for one authoritative declaration. But there is still a tendency to treat the internet as a source of information and media rather than the source. This perpective is slowly changing, of necessity. But most of us will really only apprehend the magnitude of this revolution in retrospect.


Mister Fweem said...

Great. Do this on a day when I follow up the post with Monty Python and my contribution to letters via successful submission to Fark.com. ;) Quick, brain, come up with something intelligent!

carl g said...

I resent you disturbing my Knife Month with a compelling bit of intellectual stimulation anyway. I'd appreciate you keeping it light and, if possible, banal.