Media Commons: the impossibility of translation, among other things

Via purse lip square jaw :

The Institute for the Future of the Book just launched a new project entitled Media Commons, an attempt to bring scholarly discourse into a “scholarly network” through development of new means for creating and reading scholarly works.

While I agree in principle with the desire to revamp the means of academic production, I have a number of worries, highlighted below.

This need has grown for any number of systemic reasons, including the substantive and often debilitating time-lags between the completion of a piece of scholarly writing and its publication, as well as the subsequent delays between publication of the primary text and publication of any reviews or responses to that text.

I have seen this argument raised often in the cry for new forms of publishing. However, I have not seen evidence that the problem actually exists. In the neurosciences (at least in my experience, caveat lector) there is not this incessant call for speed in publishing: true, researchers worry about being “scooped” by others working on similar problems, but this does not seem to be the concern that is raised by the quote. Rather, I read in it a worry that the topics on which media studies authors write might become stale before they receive feedback. I am sure that I am missing something here, since what I just articulated would suggest that the pieces were journalistic rather than depth-treading.

Not that I disagree with having regular, immediate feedback as to our work; yet I regularly worry about the need for speed that underlies these requests.

Such openness and interconnection will also allow us to make the process of scholarly work just as visible and valuable as its product; readers will be able to follow the development of an idea from its germination in a blog, though its drafting as an article, to its revisions, and authors will be able to work in dialogue with those readers, generating discussion and obtaining feedback on work-in-progress at many different stages. Because such discussions will take place in the open, and because the enormous time lags of the current modes of academic publishing will be greatly lessened, this ongoing discourse among authors and readers will no doubt result in the generation of many new ideas, leading to more exciting new work.

I question the connection between shortening time lags and the “generation of many new ideas”. Like my concerns highlighted in the previous paragraph, I do not see immediately how increased speed leads directly to better ideas. Given the difficult and detailed arguments of scholarly discourse, sometimes time is exactly what is needed to understand, internalize, and react to new ideas. Along the same lines, I also question the belief that better work comes through “open” discussion; in fact, I would suggest, although I can’t prove, that much of what we term as “great” pieces of philosophy would not have come about had they been worked on in the public eye: the ideas, the radical thoughts toned down due to feedback from peers. We are not speaking of the methods of peer review here, which exist to help find errors in quantitative logic; rather, we deal with a qualitative logic at times, where the rules and the assumptions cannot be entirely agreed upon. I agree in part with Serres, where in an interview with Latour, he says, “What makes for advancement in philosophy, and also in science, is inventing concepts, and this invention always takes place in solitude, independence, and freedom—-indeed, in silence.” (Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time, p. 37)

(As an aside, my copying of the above quote highlighted a present technical problem that will haunt academic discourse, unless we decide to change our conventions: I just copied and pasted that paragraph from the linked post, yet it lost the emphasis on the words “process” and “product” in the first sentence. While this might be immaterial to the quoted example, in other contexts, where these subtle choices of typographical highlighting are crucial to the point of the argument, the visual loss might lead to interpretations not intended. Thus for academic discourse, which does often rely on nuance, such technical hurdles (softened slightly, I hate to admit, by word processors such as Word which preserve formatting in pasted excerpts) need to be dealt with.)

Moreover, because participants in the network will come from many different perspectives — not just faculty, but also students, independent scholars, media makers, journalists, critics, activists, and interested members of the broader public — MediaCommons will promote the integration of research, teaching, and service.

This relates directly to a post by Anne Galloway discussing the special problems of generalisation and inter- and multi-disciplinary work. I wrote there, and still contend, that perfect translation between different disciplines is not possible, and that the person who straddles or works between boundaries acts as a mediator and lives in a space of continual cognitive dissonance, with conflicting modes and means of discourse. I worry that a stated attempt at “integration” is not only doomed from the start, but is contrary to what we actually want. Instead of integration, why not nesting? Instead of trying to tie everything together in a neat, enlightenment-influenced package, why not focus on multiple understandings, from a variety of perspectives, realizing some will always disagree, some will always agree, and that total integration will merely eliminate the differences that are so interesting, that give life to a multitude of disciplines.

Finally, regarding this entire endeavor, I worry about the issue of time: not only the archival-or-not status of these texts, but also the time need to read, digest, post, comment, revise, collaborate, and publish (and this is for only one text!). This same issue has been brought up recently on the iDC list in the context of participation in list cultures. I also worry about what I crudely call the “bathroom” test: can I make comments on this piece of scholarly work while sitting in the bathroom? Substitute bathroom for any other non-desk place and you see my point. Until I have the easy means to mark up a text, to write in the margins, without having to use a keyboard or a mouse, and which affords me at least as many options as pencil/pen and paper, I will not use such an annotation system on a regular basis. I worry that whatever the underlying technology of Media Commons, the same practical problems will haunt it, just like any other collaborative, annotation-type system that has been developed.

Even with all of my criticisms, I am glad to see that some are working on the problem, and I wish them the best of luck: something like this will happen, incorporating answers to these and other’s criticisms, and enabling a certain transformation of scholarly work.

Comments

[...] zeitkunst Blog Archive Media Commons: the impossibility of I worry that whatever the underlying technology of Media Commons, the same practical problems will haunt it, just like any other collaborative, annotation-type system that has been developed. [...]

Add new comment