Boek 2.0

Nieuws | de redactie
25 juli 2006 | Boeken kunnen veel meer dimensies krijgen als middel voor kenniscirculatie en inspiratie dan voorheen. Dankzij de koppeling met online reflectie, publicatie en verspreiding zijn zowel de intensiteit als de kwaliteit van het debat over wetenschappelijk werk in een revolutionaire omwenteling. Frits van Oostroms ‘Stemmen op schrift’ werd onlangs al voorzien van een webbased omgeving om de reacties en suggesties te bundelen en open te stellen. Ook elders zijn zulke ontwikkelingen gaande en wordt nieuw gekeken naar de functies en de kansen van het wetenschappelijke boek.

Hier leest u een analyse over het debat dat ook in de USA gaande is onder de pakkende titel Book 2.0.

Book 2.0

Scholars turn monographs into digital conversations

While most scholarly books are reviewed by a few carefully chosen experts before publication, McKenzie Wark’s latest monograph is getting line-by-line critiques from hundreds of strangers in cyberspace, many of whom know absolutely nothing about his academic field.

Mr. Wark, a professor of media and cultural studies at New School University, has put the draft of his latest book online in an experimental format inspired by academic blogs and the free-for-all spirit of Wikipedia, the popular online encyclopedia that anyone can edit. Each paragraph of Mr. Wark’s book has its own Web page, and next to each of those paragraphs is a box where anyone can comment — though readers are not permitted to alter the original text.

The scholar says he looks forward to sitting down each day to read a new batch of comments, some by colleagues whose names he recognizes and others by people cloaked by pseudonyms.

That input has persuaded him to sharpen the opening section, and he says he will probably make other changes as well. But not all the online feedback has been helpful, or kind. “This doesn’t have substance,” wrote someone identified as “toad.” “Take some time off, and teach a little.”

Mr. Wark is in the habit of responding publicly to just about every comment, but that left him virtually speechless. “Harsh, dude,” he replied.

Welcome to what is either an expansive new future for the book in the digital age, or a cacophonous morass that will turn scholarship into a series of flame wars — or both.

Scholars like Mr. Wark, who are as comfortable firing off comments on blogs as they are pontificating at academic conferences, are beginning to question whether the printed book is the best format for advancing scholarship and communicating big ideas.

In tenure and promotion, of course, the book is still king — the whole academic enterprise often revolves around it. But several scholars are using digital means to challenge the current model of academic publishing.

Thanks to the Internet, they argue, the book should be dynamic rather than fixed — not just a text, but a site of conversation. Printouts could still be made and bound, but the real action would be online, and the commentary would form a new kind of peer review.

Even some publishers are experimenting, though so far the most ambitious efforts have been at scholarly journals. Nature, for instance, started a program this summer in which authors can opt to have articles they submit made available immediately as electronic pre-prints that anyone can comment on. Those papers are still reviewed the old-fashioned way, but the comments by online users are also taken into consideration.

Many academic publishers shrug off open-review e-books as simply the latest technological fad, saying that the time-tested peer-review process should not be replaced by bands of volunteers.

Whether traditional publishers join in or not, there is no doubt that academic discourse is increasingly occurring on blogs and other online forums. So how can that energy be channeled into accepted forms of scholarship? Is it time for the book to get a high- tech makeover?

Game On

Mr. Wark’s book is called GAM3R 7H30RY (pronounced “Gamer Theory,” and rendered in a code-like language style popular among computer geeks). It offers a cultural critique of video games and argues that popular culture increasingly casts life itself as a kind of game — where you’re only truly a survivor if you can avoid being voted off the island.

Mr. Wark originally planned on sticking with the old-fashioned peer- review model — and he has, in fact, submitted the book for publication by a traditional academic press (Harvard University Press). But as he was finishing a draft, he was approached by Ben Vershbow, a researcher at the Institute for the Future of the Book, an unusual academic center run by the University of Southern California but based in Brooklyn.

Mr. Vershbow is a fan of one of Mr. Wark’s previous books, A Hacker Manifesto (Harvard University Press), an excerpt of which the scholar placed online. So Mr. Vershbow asked whether Mr. Wark would have been interested in having users comment on that book while it was under production.

“Hell, no,” Mr. Wark responded — at least by his retelling, over brunch at a Brooklyn restaurant last month. “That’s one of those books where you sit alone on a mountaintop and not talk to anybody. … Not everything can be ‘engage with the reader’ every five minutes.”

But he agreed to turn GAM3R 7H30RY into a conversation with his audience. So he sat down with researchers from the center — a group whose work ethic blends long brainstorming meetings with bouts of hands-on multimedia production — and helped design a format that would put both text and comments in the foreground. In May they unveiled their creation and opened the rhetorical floodgates.

“The first thing I figured out about this is, you outsource the proofreading,” said Mr. Wark, noting that many of the comments have nitpicked his text’s grammar rather than confronting its substance. “I’m loving that because I’m bad at it. I mean, structural things I can figure out, but, particularly for a writer, it’s hard to see tiny, tiny details.”

Thanks to mentions on some popular blogs, the e-book has also attracted video gamers who have commented on the book. The problem, though, is that many of those gamers have dissed it. “They’re saying, This is a stereotype of what gamers are like,” said Mr. Wark. “And I’m trying to say, I flip it over, that’s the whole point of the first chapter; I start with the stereotype and then I flip it over. But you’ve got to signal that earlier on, so people aren’t put off.”

He plans to make that change for the published version because he wants the book to appeal to a broad audience. “The thing about scholarship is it tends to create homogeneous readerships, so you write for the new-media- theory crowd,” he said. “I don’t do High Theory, as it’s called. I do Low Theory, which is, Is there a way to bring a little bit of distance and reflection into people’s everyday experiences and lives?”

Mr. Wark admits that he is not much of a gamer himself, though he did pick his favorite games to write about, including the Sims, a popular simulation where players control the social interactions of a suburban family. He considers himself a writer foremost, and he sports the markings of an artist — with hipster-style sneakers and a sticker for an experimental art group on his laptop. He says he chose to write about video games because he thought the subject would appeal to today’s students.

“If you want to have conversations with 20-year-olds,” he said, “one good way is to start with their own common culture and make it unfamiliar.”

Though a few of the comments on the e-book have been cutting — one user said “Is this a textbook or a novel? I’m confused” — Mr. Wark notes that most of the responses have been thoughtful. (In fact, a look at the more than 300 comments reveal that readers are examining the book’s argument closely and posting specific suggestions.) He doesn’t remove any of them, no matter how negative, though he does delete spam, postings similar to the ads that clutter many e-mail boxes.

“I’m meeting new people,” he said, adding that the experiment is working. He said he had interacted online with a range of people who had commented, including a Derrida scholar, a fan of the video game Civilization, and a middle-aged librarian. “To me that’s half the reason to write anyways, to meet new people.”

One of Mr. Wark’s inspirations for the e-book form is Wikipedia.

“That is the literary work of our time,” he said. “It’s the Shakespeare of 2006. It took a traditional form, which is an encyclopedia, and completely rethought it. It rethought what authorship is. It rethought what collaboration is. It rethought textual form.”

That sentiment is likely to rile other scholars, many of whom dismiss Wikipedia as full of inaccurate, misleading, or otherwise flawed information contributed by people of unknown background. But Mr. Wark argues that Wikipedia’s power is that it brings many thinkers together. And because Wikipedia allows anyone to see the history of who has added what to each entry, he said, it is self-correcting when errors do emerge.

“Wikipedia is based in sound academic practices to do with peer review — it just changes who those peers are,” he said. “They’re not people who are authorized by Ivy League degrees or anything like that. But there’s more of them, and they work faster.”

Pointing to a recent study in Nature that showed that Wikipedia entries are about as accurate as entries in Encyclopaedia Britannica (though Britannica disputes those findings, and the study’s methods), he said these new knowledge-makers are “not doing too badly.”

“You’ve really got to ask yourself,” he said, “What have I got against free knowledge produced by the people?”

A New Kind of Publishing

The Institute for the Future of the Book, which produced the GAM3R 7H30RY e-book, is not your typical academic center. For one thing, it’s located in a row house in Brooklyn, just steps away from the residence of the institute’s founder and research director, Robert Stein. A tiny, hand-scrawled label on the building’s door buzzer is the only physical indication of its existence.

The institute’s five researchers often work in the same room, sitting with their laptops around a large, funky conference table. If one of them needs to make a phone call, he goes into one of two small meeting rooms and shuts the door. If you want to know what is on their minds on any particular day, you can visit the institute’s blog, called If:book, where the group’s members post thoughtful riffs on digital publishing.

On a recent afternoon, Mr. Stein, Mr. Vershbow, and the three other members of the research team gathered around a table in the institute’s yard to talk about why they think academic publishing is broken. And, naturally, to talk about the future of the book.

Mr. Stein has been involved in e-book publishing longer than just about anyone. He founded the Voyager Company in the 1980s, which produced multimedia projects on CD-ROM; he worked on electronic-text projects for the research division of Atari, the early video game company; and he founded Night Kitchen, a company that developed multimedia publishing tools in the late 1990s. At least, that’s what the Wikipedia entry about Mr. Stein says. (And those facts check out.)

“For the first 20 years I was working in this field, I really thought the main thing we were doing was putting audio and video in them,” he said of e-books. “In the last couple of years it’s become clear that locating the book inside of the network is fundamentally more important than adding multimedia to it.”

What changed his thinking was an essay by a University of California at Berkeley historian, Carla Hesse. The essay, “Books in Time,” argued that the idea of the author was a fairly recent invention, dating from only about the 18th century. The implication: Books don’t have to be so lonely.

“I realized that this questioning that goes on while you read, that that could happen sort of in real time and in a dynamic way,” he said. “And best of all would be if readers could talk to each other, and if readers could talk to the author, because the reason for a book is to afford conversation across space and time, and so why shouldn’t some of that conversation take place literally within the book itself?”

Mr. Vershbow, who is newer to the field of e-publishing and does not yet have a Wikipedia entry about his career, said the group is not advocating the death of the physical book — though it is worth noting that there aren’t many printed books in the institute’s offices. “This is not a proposition that every book should be written in this way,” he said. But the networked e-book is ideal for scholarly books, or any work dealing with big ideas that might be difficult for a lone author to tackle, he argued.

In a way, he said, the institute seeks to apply the model of open-source software development to scholarship. Open-source software, in which a distributed group of volunteer programmers contribute to large software projects, was also the inspiration for Wikipedia.

“We’re kind of talking about open-source development of big-idea books — that go into more depth than a Wikipedia article would, obviously, and that are more perhaps original and more provocative and are less balanced than a Wikipedia article is trying to be.”

Mr. Stein chimed back in: “We are suggesting a new idea of peer review that is fundamentally similar, in that it is an exchange among peers, but that is in the open,” he said. As it stands, most scholarly presses, and journal publishers for that matter, keep the peer-review process private and anonymous. “We think that the way that peer review in theory enacts scholarship is actually of value, and it’s worth being seen, and it might spark further discussion and further critical engagement,” Mr. Stein said.

But how can five guys sitting around a table in Brooklyn revamp the peer-review process?

That’s the question that is driving them lately as they have organized a series of daylong meetings with well- known bloggers and other prominent scholars.

The answer, they have decided, is to start their own scholarly press. It’s a relatively modest step, as it will focus only on the discipline of media studies. The tentative name is Media Commons, and the plan is to publish more academic books like GAM3R 7H30RY, as well as scholarly articles, and even blogs — all of which will be subject to a public, open peer review. The institute unveiled initial plans for the project last week.

“We decided we’re going to publish really fabulous stuff, we’re going to let anybody comment, and the editorial board will take the responsibility of vetting commenters as peers,” said Mr. Stein, though he noted that the details are still being worked out. “We think we can do such a good job of publishing, and have such a high level of comments and discussion, that we think it will suddenly become prestigious to be published here. And that’s how precedent gets set.”

War Over Words

For that project, the institute found another collaborator eager to buck the publishing establishment.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick, an associate professor of English and media studies at Pomona College, said she started thinking critically about academic publishing after a maddeningly long struggle to find a publisher for her own book, about depictions of television in literature

The short version of her story, as she tells it: Several publishers told her that her book was great, but that budgets were too tight to print it because it was not seen as of broad enough interest to be a big seller. When she finally found a willing press, and after the book was favorably reviewed twice and accepted for publication, the marketing department still pulled the plug because it felt the book wouldn’t sell enough copies. Ms. Fitzpatrick wondered why she couldn’t take the book’s text, and the two scholarly reviews, and just post it all online herself. But she knew that would not impress her tenure committee.

What she did end up publishing, on a blog, was a series of manifestos on scholarly publishing. And even though her book did eventually find a publisher (Vanderbilt University Press), and she did get tenure, she says change is needed.

“The entire system right now of academic publishing, especially in the humanities, is broken,” she said in an interview. It should not take years for a monograph to find an audience, she said, and too much pressure is placed on book publishing in the tenure-and-promotion process.

“The process of communicating one’s research through a book or through an article has become more about markers of individual success — lines on a CV” — than it is about convincing other scholars of ideas or arguments, she said.

She said she hopes that the Media Commons Web-publishing effort will bring more voices into peer review and turn the process into a valuable contribution to discourse.

“It will be more inclusive, and it will be basically community-regulated rather than regulated by a small editorial board,” she said.

Though the details are still being determined, she described one possible model: Though anyone would be able to comment on manuscripts in the Media Commons, some users would be chosen by the board as official “peer reviewers.” A professor whose book has been reviewed could then take the top 10 reviews from official reviewers and submit those to a tenure committee.

“The promotion-and-tenure committee will have to do a little more work — actually looking at what peer reviewers said rather than simply at whether they voted yes or no,” Ms. Fitzpatrick said.

But leaders of traditional scholarly presses wonder how people will know what to make of the reviews conducted in an open-review model.

“How do you know about the quality of people doing the peer review online?” asked Alex Holzman, director of Temple University Press. “I’d really want to know who’s commenting, and why.”

Ken Wissoker, editorial director for Duke University Press, said the current system of peer review works well for identifying the best books in each discipline.

“We have a very demanding peer review,” he said of his own press, and “reviewers might go through several rounds of revision.

“You’d have a really different situation when what someone did with the reviews was optional, or where it was continuous — where it’s more like going to a writing group,” he said.

Rice University announced this month that it would start the first all-digital university press, focusing on art history and other disciplines in the humanities. But even that effort will conduct peer review in the traditional way, said Charles J. Henry, vice provost and university librarian at Rice. “It’s extremely important that the press establish its authority from the start,” he said, noting that many scholars are likely to be skeptical of the quality of a book publisher that does not actually print books.

The new Rice University Press does plan to use the online medium to encourage discussion of the books it publishes. Mr. Henry said it would put up something like a blog with each of its books, where readers and the authors could have a public dialogue, and authors can better learn how their books are being used in class and in research.

The idea of replacing printed books with networked texts recently attracted the attention — and derision — of John Updike.

“Yes, there is a ton of information on the Web, but much of it is egregiously inaccurate, unedited, unattributed, and juvenile,” he said, addressing the topic at length this summer at BookExpo America in Washington, an event sponsored by the American Booksellers Association and the Association of American Publishers.

“The printed, bound, and paid-for book was — still is for the moment — more exacting, more demanding of its producer and consumer both,” Mr. Updike said. “It was the encounter, in silence, of two minds, one following in the other’s steps but invited to imagine, to argue, to concur on a level of reflection beyond that of personal encounter.”

Mr. Updike essentially argued that what books achieve transcends and improves on conversation, and that reducing the book to simple chatter would harm scholarship and discourse.

Ending his remarks, which were met with enthusiastic applause, Mr. Updike urged his colleagues to resist letting the network subsume the printed word. “Booksellers, defend your lonely forts. … For some of us, books are intrinsic to our human identity.”

Blogs Have the Last Word

On the Institute for the Future of the Book’s blog, Mr. Vershbow responded to Mr. Updike’s much-quoted speech.

Calling Mr. Updike a “nostalgic elitist,” he said it was unfortunate that the author was helping shape the popular conversation about e-books, and he criticized The New York Times for giving the remarks so much ink.

In a comment posted on the blog in response, a user with the nickname “renee” agreed with Mr. Vershbow. “Regardless of what Updike thinks or wants, the new Renaissance is under way,” she wrote.

Another reader of the blog quickly jumped in to defend Mr. Updike, however: “I think he is simply acknowledging the changes to the book, and I think he has an honest concern of what might [be] lost in the transition of moving ideas to the Web, especially from someone whose life has been about books,” wrote Eddie A. Tejeda, a computer consultant who helped the institute build the GAM3R 7H30RY e-book. “I think it’s fair to lament what might be lost.”


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