Readings, Part I: Planned Obsolescence

Planned Obsolescence

Note: This is part one of the readings, just the book. Click here part two for the articles.

The system of academic publishing doesn’t need to become digital, it needs to undergo a digital revolution. Looking at the different stages of academic publishing from peer review, to authorship, to texts, to preservation, to the university as publish, Kathleen Fitzpatrick offers models to learn from and experiments to attempt. Using a variety of horror and monster metaphors, this work looks at the inherent flaws in academic publishing, and that the clinging to of prestige and authority is slow suicide by scholars.

              Peer Review

Peer review has not only become a critical part of publishing but affects the tenure and promotional tracks of professionals. This tradition is not as old as many would think and comes from a state censorship attempts in the 18th century. Fitzpatrick offers models including Slashdot, Philica, and MediaCommons to suggest physical ways in which the process of peer-review could be updated and improved by moving to digital formats. But ultimately, the cusses of these models depend on experimenting effective ways to create quality review made by quality reviewers, but an accompanying change to the mindset: “not simply on being smart, but on being helpful.”[1]


Fitzpatrick begins this chapter by looking at what an author is, using Barthes and Foucault. The chapter examine how digital formats, especially the blog, have already being to change the meaning of authorship. Fitzpatrick asks readers to consider the malleable nature of blogs, that show the process of thinking and the interactive nature of comments and updates, as productive avenues to the future. Remix culture is also brought in as a new possibility for scholarly work, as well as looking at multimodal scholarship: audio and video among others. Again, a change in attitude is suggested away from the individual, and towards a productive collective, and “to understand the collective not as the elimination of the individual, but rather as composed of individuals.”[2]


Text serves as the basis for digital scholarship now and for the past six hundred years, but eh way in which scholars use text has not caught up with the times. This chapter opens with a critique of current electronic reading mediums: chiefly PDFs and e-books. Both of these mediums can be essentially summed up as “pages under glass,”[3] in which active reading and reader interaction is impossible. Fitzpatrick also notes the potential of hypertext, of decentralizing the structure of books to reflect natural thought progression. This can be confusing for readers used to traditional structures, and also takes away some of the authority of the author (which, as explored in the previous chapter, may be a good thing). This chapter ends with a case study on CommentPress, which sought to bring the social activity of reading to the forefront. While it ultimately failed due to technical concerns, CommentPress set up important lessons:

“CommentPress grows out of an understanding that the chief problem in creating the future of the book is not simply placing the words on the screen, but structing their delivery in an engaging manner; the issue of engagement, moreover, is not simply about locating the text within the technological network, but also, and primarily, about locating it within the social network.”


This class has discussed before the issues of digital preservation. Data can become corrupted or glitched, but there is also a materiality to data that makes it muss less fragile than many think. Yet the preservation of digital materials is a serious consideration that will only become more difficult and time consuming the longer we wait. Scholars need to understand the standards by which data is maintained and the metadata that keep it from becoming lost. Two case studies, LOCKSS and CLOCKSS are two models for preserving large amounts of data. But for these to be successful, there is a significant amount of communal investment that needs to occur.

              The University

Finally, Fitzpatrick looks at ways in which the University publishing system can adapt to the changing times. The first suggestion is to allow open access to work, or to shift away from profit-driven models. The case study on a multimodal journal, Vectors, is used to show the potential of a digital-age journal, but it constantly struggles with funding issues. For new modes of publishing to be found, at some point Universities are going to need to invest in experimenting. They might also re-consider the relationship presses have with institutional libraries, scholars, and how their mission fits in with their parent institution. Fitzpatrick’s hope is that university presses “must be treated as part of the institution’s infrastructure, as necessary as the information technology center, as indispensable as the library, organizations increasingly central to the mission of the twenty-first century university.”[4]

              Some Questions

  1. Why is peer review important? What benefits come from this tradition?
  2. Does co-authorship or communal feedback really remove the authors authority? Does Foucault seem like a super pretentious person?
  3. What is to gain from creating texts with interactive elements? What are potential dangers?
  4. How can scholars contribute to the process of preservation?
  5. Do Fitzpatrick’s suggestions for the future of the university press seem feasible?

[1] Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy, New York: New York University Press, 2011. 46.

[2] Ibid, 74.

[3] Ibid, 93

[4] Ibid, 187.

13 Replies to “Readings, Part I: Planned Obsolescence”

  1. 2 Does co-authorship or communal feedback really remove the authors authority? Does Foucault seem like a super pretentious person?

    I think that, to an extent, co-authorship and communal feedback removes some of the author’s authority, but this happens in a new way. Through these processes, I think we have a sense of shared authority, which does remove some individual authority. However, in this shared authority, the majority of the author’s authority does remain, as they will have done the majority of the work. Only some of this authority is taken away, to be shared by the co-author or the community, but the authority largely remains intact.

    Also, Foucault does seem super pretentious, but you could get that from just about any of his pieces, not just what Fitzpatrick analyzes.

    5 Do Fitzpatrick’s suggestions for the future of the university press seem feasible?

    While Fitzpatrick’s suggestions absolutely do seem feasible, I’m going to play devil’s advocate for a minute and explain why these changes won’t occur. These major university presses have been working to perfect their printing services for decades, centuries in some cases. A major change like the one Fitzpatrick outlines would require a new system and a major funding source. For now, I feel like the impression for many of these businessmen and -women (remember, the people running these presses have $$$ in mind) is to maintain the status quo. This may change if a grant is awarded to a university to make changes similar to Fitzpatrick’s ideas. Unless this happens, it seems like Fitzpatrick’s ideas will remain hopes rather than accomplishments.

    1. I think the business and economic concerns of university presses are really undervalued in this reading. Overcoming funding and profit issues are going to be monumental towards overcoming any deep foundational challenges.

  2. I don’t see the entire discipline shifting into digital publication exclusively, so elements of the status quo will of course remain in place though they will lose some relevance. Publication, peer review, authorship, all will continue, but that’s not to say that some historians will have to accommodate themselves to digital training to some degree, whether its simple blogging or full-blown programming of digital projects.

    I think the nature of historical production will change, not necessarily publication. Telling history accurately requires massive amounts of text, to present an argument and to prove it. We’ve already discussed in this class that a digital project does not create a theory, so much, but lay out history in an interactive way. To say that publication itself will become irrelevant is to say that theory will become irrelevant, and I don’t think anyone would make that argument.

    The shift in production I have in mind is really based on what training a historian chooses, because theoretical history and digital history are splitting into two different things. It isn’t likely a historian can become proficient in both, at least not without great challenge.

  3. 1. Why is peer review important? What benefits come from this tradition?
    If anything was drilled into my head in College Writing, it was that good writing is peer reviewed. Our history department also holds this to be true, as I have taken surveys which have included the question: what does peer review mean? By having another set of eyes look over a piece of writing through peer review, I think there is more credibility in your writing to be gained since there are multiple perspectives brought to the table. I know whenever I write a piece of research, I love to get feedback either from professors for their knowledge on the subject or from my family/friends to make sure that my ideas can be easily understood by anyone. These are just some of the benefits from this tradition.
    However, this example is from a traditional setting. What happens when this is brought up in the digital age? Does peer review count as comments made on a blog post? Am I technically peer reviewing your analysis of Planned Obsolescence? It’s interesting to think about since these questions will be crucial in the future of scholarship.

    1. I think the issue here that comes up in the institution of peer review and your post, is that peer review is an institutional construct. Getting fresh eyes on a paper is one thing, or getting a colleague to look at a paper, but the peer review process is one of pretty rigid structures that may be limiting the potential of this profession’s digital presence.

  4. To your question regarding the importance of peer review, I think that there is definitely a place for it in academia and in the social sciences. That being said, Fitzpatrick’s critique of the peer review process was refreshing to me, even though in my opinion the “monster” to which she refers at the end of the chapter was a tad hyperbolic.

    The basis of her argument I do agree with, however. Peer review should be seen as an ongoing conversation, wherein quality does matter over quantity, and should be judged as such. It is unfortunate that CV’s (and resumes for that matter) are turning into a formality of sorts that cannot adequately encapsulate the academic’s potential or their accomplishments outside what is currently considered “acceptable” in the eyes of the academic community. As Fitzpatrick states, the current system is doing a disservice to the potential that can come from an ongoing peer-to-peer review system. And this possible shift is not even just “being helpful” as Fitzpatrick states, but her argument about the potential for future scholarship once it is considered an ongoing process is well-founded (48). Although it is not at the point yet of being a “monster”, her concerns over the future of tenure and promotions are valuable, especially for those of us with the desire to head professionally into the academic world.

  5. I thought Fitzpatrick’s discussion of the University presses was fascinating because it was able to express why presses are failing, mainly because they try to behave like commercial presses which they are not, while also acknowledging that University presses are fundamental to the mission of most academic universities. With that in mind, Fitzpatrick’s suggestions to make published works more of a collaboration and funded by the institution make a whole lot of sense, but I doubt that it will happen in our careers. Collaboration will probably happen before Universities are willing to front the bill, but that still involves asking classically trained historians (and introverts) to work together.

  6. Interaction definitely offers some exciting possibilities. Interactivity can provide further insight into the author’s argument and reasoning. People will engage further with the work than they otherwise might as they have some modicum of control over their experience.Interaction also allows for increased ease of sharing of ideas. Academic work is built on the contributions of others so any platform that eases the process of collaborating is beneficial to the field.

    However, interactivity does detract from the author’s narrative. Academic works must be constructed very carefully so as to remain focused and convey the necessary information without distraction. Interactivity does present a danger to this as increased external input muddles the message.

  7. Why is peer review important? What benefits come from this tradition?
    Peer review is a mechanism by which to verify one’s scholarship. If one can get their peers to agree that the work has merit, and only then is it considered for publication, then an author can point to that verification to prove their work and their intellectual properties were worth something. I think that a great deal of benefit can come from that kind of mechanism because it’s a way to prove to others that the scholarship is worth something. If it’s on a blog, well, anyone can publish anything on a blog. That doesn’t say whether it’s good or not. At the same time, who’s to say that a room full of peers are going to necessarily going to give credibility to everything that deserves it. Leaving peer review abandons the traditional metric of determining what’s “good” work and what’s not academic.

    Does co-authorship or communal feedback really remove the authors authority? Does Foucault seem like a super pretentious person?
    Second question first; yes. Does that stop me from appreciating and enjoying his work? No.
    First question second; no. I don’t think that co-authorship removes authority for the same reasons that participatory public history removes the authority from the history professional. The role might change from content creator to facilitator (or similar) but the need for professionals to do work is not challenged by the community. In fact, it is made in some ways more difficult by an interactive community. The need for professionals who know how to facilitate conversations, provide accessible and interesting content, etc…is still present and will remain present in some form.

  8. What is to gain from creating texts with interactive elements? What are potential dangers?

    Obviously, the answer to this will depend on what elements of the text are made interactive, but the possibilities range from minor quality of life improvements for readers to comprehensive changes in how we organize information. Traditional texts are organized sequentially, i.e. paragraph 3 follows paragraph 2 which follows paragraph 1. An interactive text would allow for an organizational structure in which the reader can follow concepts throughout the paper, by having their interactions with the text lead them to other segments of the text which are related to them.

  9. The virtue of peer review and the problem with peer review is virtually the same animal: peer review depends on intensive study by vetted professionals with extremely regimented and archaic standards. The issue is this gatekeeping also makes interaction by the general public difficult if not impossible. Only someone educated in academic articles can easily read academic articles. And yet in some ways that’s also the virtue of them—much harder to be bastardized, much less likely to contain basic flaws.

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