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.