What is a post-digital scholar?

Guest —  November 26, 2014 — 1 Comment

post-digital-scholar-conference-2014-hybrid-publishingThis is the first blog entry of a #pdsc14 review series on the Post-Digital Scholar Conference 2014 written by Luca Brennecke, Student of the Leuphana University.

Everything is becoming Digital. MP3 crushed the vinyl record, YouTube obsoleted the DVD, and now the Kindle is scaring bookshops, publishers and authors alike. As the ephemerality of the Digital is disrupting the analog world order, there’s hardly any realm of our lives that is not at the brink of deep transformation. So is the case with academia. Once the pillar of Truth, the secularized religion of the 20th century, the archaic walls of academia are being sieged from from all sides.

In this rather dim context, a conference took place that attempted to shed some light on possible futures of books, publishing and scholarship and how they relate to the humanities. Librarians, academics, publishers and a handful of lost students came together to discuss how the Digital changes the lanscape of scholarly publications.

Some questions of more technical nature – like document formats or storage issues – were touched upon. The business models of for-profit corporations that thrive on gate-keeping the distribution of scholarly knowledge were criticized, prominently by Geert Lovink, who, in the same breath, pinpointed what is at stake in this discussion: “We should work on the political economy of the digital publishing; a lot of us are going to lose our jobs.” In the same talk, he laid out the tracks for an interesting train of tought that traversed the conference: The social aspect of reading and writing digitally.

There’s a lot of buzz and noise aroud “sharing” in the context of corporate social media. What I’d like to highlight though is something hopefully a bit more interesting that sharemania of
self-staging. Self-dissolution! David Berry had something noteworthy to say about the Digital author. He talked about book sprints, where a handful of caffeinated people come together to produce written content in just a few days, and how these intellectual marathons change our traditional notion of the author: ”The role of the authors is a dirty secret of book sprints. There’s a certain ideology to it: People take part as authors but pretend that they are not authors. Software algorithmically hides the authors. But the final book is pushed through a single person, the ’meta-contributor’.” He then problematized the danger of surveillance in the algorithmic mediation of writing. While his concern is appropriate, this comments on the Digital author are questionable.

Borrowing ideas from Clara Birchall, Geert Lovink, Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Nisthant Shah, I want to challenge the traditional idea of the masterful author. Birchall, who is insterested in secrecy and transparency in the digital age, was the first speaker who asked us to “rethink the book as collective creation“, suggesting a “processual and performative way of publishing”. Loovink followed, pointing away from the “skills of the individual” and towards “the social, how we negotiate each other’s presence”. Questions we should think of, he says, are: How we can share a collaborative online environment? How can we develop forms of social reading and virtual communities? What comes after the decline of corporate social media?

Following this track in her speech, Fitzpatrick convincingly argued that even related to physical books, the conventional idea that an author “possesses” his text is misleading and unhelpful. She asked us to think everything happening to the ideas contained in, stories built around, misinterpretations evoked by, ideologies built upon and lives transformed through books; events that take place in a realm that lies far beyond the author’s reach (Marx, Smith, the Bible, anyone?). Thus she proposes to think of a book “not as a medium but a mediator”, and she made me question the notion that books “contain and preserves ourselves”.

Then, Shah blew the book out of the water: ”What is a book?
We still don’t really know what a book is. A book is like pornography. We know it when we see it.” In a brief conversation, he addressed Berry’s comment on book sprints, in which we denoted the death of the author, by pointing out that once you start with the concept of a “book”-sprint, you are already caught up in cultural conventions that limit our though horizon. But what if we try to break free of these conceptions? How could a natively Digital text creation process look like?

Yuk Hui had a great comment on how the practice of scholarship chaged in the course of some thousand years from speaking to annotation to citing. So let’s bring back the annotation that has been literally marginalized both physically and intellectually. An annotation is an elaboration, an accentuation and a reformulation of a tought, a passage, a book. That’s what’s happening all the time with academic texts in the shady realm of the “pravate” before they enter the spotlighted realm of the “public”. Shah has something to say about this: “Especially in the day of visibility where our work travels on blogs and videos and mailing lists before they reach academic platforms – why this arcane culture of hiding? Isn’t it time to actually go in for open peer and crowd reviews? To acknowledge that our scholarship is embedded in and in and formed by a community of intellectual interlocutors? What do we gain from this elaborate ruse of double blind when collaborative and open would have so much more potentials?”

If we would take the decentralization of the subject seriously, how would this change authorship, ownership and authenticity? How would we read/write and “publish”? What tools would we use? One way to think of it: Digital sholarship is like playing jazz.

Note: You find more #pdsc14-reviews here.

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  1. Zum Wandel des Publikationsbegriffs in der post-digitalen Wissenschaft | Hapke-Weblog - January 6, 2015

    […] Blog-Beitrag einer Studierenden zur Konferenz endet mit dem Satz "Digital s[c]holarship is like playing […]

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