Introduction to “Planned Obsolescence” by Kathleen Fitzpatrick

In the introduction to her book Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy, Fitzpatrick (2009) claims that academic publishing is in danger of becoming obsolete if it continues in its current state, not because of outdated technology per se, but mainly because of outdated social and institutional structures and scholarship practices. Therefore, in order for academic publishing to thrive, there must be “social, intellectual, and institutional” (Fitzpatrick, 2009, p. 9) changes, not just technological ones.

To support her claim that the current state of academic publishing is unsustainable, Fitzpatrick briefly recounts how academic publishing reached its current state of near obsolescence, and what that state entails. This was all new to me, since I haven’t really thought about the world of academic publishing before, and I was still in elementary school when the impetus for the current decline happened. Basically, the dot-com collapse of 2000 led to a decrease in funding for universities, including their presses and libraries, which led to libraries buying much fewer titles and presses publishing fewer of them out of sales concerns (Fitzpatrick, 2009). As Fitzpatrick (2009) observes, in academic publishing, “marketing concerns have come at times, and of necessity, to outweigh scholarly merit I making publication decisions” (p. 6). That this situation exists in academic publishing is baffling to me. How can the marketability of an academic book over another be assessed? By the trendiness of its central argument? By the renown of the author, or whether they have been published before? I agree with Fitzpatrick and her colleague Matt Kirschenbaum, whom she quotes: “What ought to count is peer review and scholarly merit” (p. 6). If scholarly merit is no longer paramount in academic publishing, then I have to believe Fitzpatrick’s argument that academic publishing needs to change.

Through this reading, I learned a little about the culture surrounding career advancement for scholars in universities. It seems that publishing a book goes a long way in securing tenure or other promotion, while publishing articles is less valuable in that area. Reviewing the work of peers, according to Fitzpatrick (2009), does not count for much in the way of credentials, even though it “requires an astonishing amount of labour” (p. 9). This strikes me as unfortunate, since peer review is an essential part of the scholarship process: without it, the production of knowledge would be less rigorous, and a scholar’s work would not be taken as seriously. Yet, individual achievement, especially in the form of a book, is still prioritized, and the contribution of peers is relegated to a page or two of acknowledgments. Of course, the focus on individual achievement and originality is dominant outside of the university as well, so it is not surprising that peer review is overlooked.

To give peer review more weight, Fitzpatrick (2009) suggests that academic publishing become more community-oriented, privileging collaboration and the process of producing texts, as well as “bringing together and highlighting and remixing significant ideas in existing texts rather than remaining solely focused on the production of more ostensibly original text” (p. 9). That sounds similar to the kinds of activity I often see online, in places like YouTube. Though videos get posted to only one channel, many people could be involved in the production in a video and receive credit. Perhaps academic publishing could shift its focus to groups or publications, not individual authors, and everyone involved could receive the benefits. This would require a major shift in what universities value and how scholars think and work, which would be difficult, given the “fundamentally conservative nature of academic institutions and … the similar conservatism of the academics that comprise them” (Fitzpatrick, 2009, p. 8). In order for scholarship to change, scholars must change, but, as Fitzpatrick (2009) notes, they are not likely to do so if it is risky career-wise, or if the current system works for them. In response to this, I suggest that maybe young scholars—those who don’t have as much at stake, who may find the current system lacking, who are already familiar with new technologies online—can lead the way towards community-based scholarly work. This course, PUB 401, seems to be the perfect place to explore the possibility.

Though the article focuses on academic books, I believe the main argument put forward by Fitzpatrick can be extended to books in general. Fitzpatrick (2009) argues that academic publishing faces obsolescence that is largely due to factors other than technological change. In the same way, the physical book has yet to become obsolete, even among the e-readers and other mobile devices that we have today, partly because we still find value in them besides their technological value. Therefore, advances in technology by themselves are not sufficient to save or end the book. Instead, we should consider the cultural practices, systems, and values that surround it.

 

References

  • Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. 2009. Introduction. In Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy. Media Commons Press.  Retrieved from http://mcpress.media-commons.org/plannedobsolescence/introduction/

1 Comment

  1. Your conclusion here — that Fitzpatrick can help us to resist technological determinism as an explanation for what’s going on in publishing in general — is interesting and relevant to the course as a whole. Keep that question in mind as the course proceeds: if it’s not JUST technology, then how else do we explain the radical changes in publishing?

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