Last Time with Feeling: On Digital Books and Designing (Academic) Culture

August 23, 2012

I have committed some real time and energy this summer to reading books about digital culture (Capitalist Realism, Digital Vertigo, ‘We are All Children of Algeria’, Blog Theory, You Are Not a Gadget, Networks with a Cause, and Hello Avatar!) and then writing blog posts about them. Given these books’ shared focus on the Internet, perhaps I should not have been so surprised to find that these many volumes about things digital were themselves often also about the writing and reading of books and blogs, thereby making this effort, like so many Internet enterprises, meta. So, it actually comes as no surprise as the summer wanes, that my final assignment, my friend and collaborator (on FemTechNet) Anne Balsamo‘s new monograph, Designing Culture: The Technological Imagination at Work, concludes with a chapter focusing on her ruminations about presenting her research on paper: “The Work of a Book in the Digital Age.”

Attending to her thoughts, and the “transmedia project” that she produced with Duke University Press to address or perhaps situate them, will serve as a fitting conclusion to my rather old-fashioned (if also meta) campaign. Before that, however, I will draw a few other conclusions about that dying form, the summer book list, from also having recently completed Siva Vaidhyanathan‘s The Googlization of Everything, Evgeny Morozov‘s The Net Delusion, and Sherry Turkle‘s Alone Together. I unceremoniously clump these three offerings not because they are unworthy of attention in their own right but because they exemplify another, contemporary fix to the challenges of scholarly publishing: the trade book (of course Vaidhyanathan’s book is with UC Press, but it reads and moves like a trade book, more on this soon).

Frankly, given the volumes already written (pun intended) on the Internet about these three books, my delayed prose on this under-read blog, seem irrelevant or at least not really worth the effort. And this question of effort and pay off will prove definitive for my understanding of this particular compromise and the situation of scholarly digital publishing more generally. For, I had in point of fact, put off reading these particular books—or even buying them for that matter—because I felt I already had read them, given the amount of writing about them that had already moved across my reading-radar (robust coverage on both my blogisphere and within publications that I routinely read on paper). By slightly modifying their academic prose, method, and voice on paper to better suit a broader audience, it seems these astute scholars have also managed to enable their own transmedia projects. However, by condensing and clarifying their thoughts to suit the intelligent lay-reader, they enable even more writing (about their writing) that is ever more compressed. As Jodi Dean worries: “The forms of theory’s presentation likewise highlights how communicative capitalism fragments thoughts into ever smaller bits.”

And it’s true: given the bits, I needn’t have bought the books. All that Internet chatter, not to mention blue-chip reviews, did adequately serve to explain the authors’ main preoccupations to me (with many less words and much less effort). But, stuck in the logic of their own publishing compromise, because these scholars have chosen to write in more accessible styles, there was not, for me, lady Professor, that special surplus accrued when reading a book-size effort because they had filtered out complexity (the pleasure of the grueling, careful, hard, long idea). And, I’ll be honest, the longer the Internet is around, the harder it becomes for me to focus upon a book (or anything) without some payoff: a really hard new idea, a place of my own to work them out and share. By writing about stimulating books that I read here, that payoff is not the number of readers, but it is the pleasure of my own original expression situated, as it may be, I hope, within a community of sympathetic thinkers.

Balsamo explains: “For humanists, the book remains the privileged signifier of academic credibility. Curiously, the value of the book as a testimony to scholarly trustworthiness isn’t due to the size of the audience it reaches immediately … Rather, its value is tied to its particular affordances that allow for the expression of complex explanations of abstract ideas and of critical analyses of particular texts, applications, and situations.”

As blog writers and readers, and book writers and readers, and members of Internet culture all, we are somehow, suddenly it seems, asked to take account of all our efforts, big and small. To do so is exhausting, and confusing, and sometimes nearly nonsensical, what with all reading and writing and publishing systems being currently in disarray, but I’d say, in the long run, this might be edifying if not productive. There will be no one size fits all model for any scholarly author, project, or audience. And just as has been painfully true for many of us mediamakers (once the government no longer helped out with independent and artistic forms and when the Internet allowed us new ways to move our output), scholarly writers will now have to think through not just our big ideas, but also a funding and distribution strategy for our every effort: we’ll have to design our own publishing culture (with the help of innovative presses … and soft money).

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/26987589″>Designing Culture: the Technological Imagination at Work</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/user7911734″>Anne Balsamo</a> on <a href=”http://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

The upside is complex, tailor-made, multi-modal things, like Balsamo’s, which are best suited for the complex aims of her specific project: “transformative research that is designed to explore new possibilities and new social arrangements.” By writing about the process as well as outcomes of a “hermeneutic reverse engineering” that takes into account who makes things, how and why, and then engineering the best home for these words, Designing Culture is not a book at all, but rather a “transmedia project realized as a print book, a dvd, and an interactive flash website” with a blog, videos, and web-based experiences of the exhibits, interactive wall books and applications that Balsamo discusses designing in the book.

The down-side, another up-side: to succeed in this new writing and reading order, we have to not only know our tiny piece of the intellectual pie, but also its pan, oven, and who grew the berries and under what conditions. We need to think about where and by whom it will be eaten, how much to sell it for, and how hot and even sweet it needs to be. That’s the really hard but really good work: to understand that “technological innovations have cultural consequences,” according to Balsamo.

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