Maybe it’s not so much physicality but ‘edges’ we are looking for in Humanities scholarly communication

In my recent interaction with Peter Suber’s 2004 article “Promoting Open Access in the Humanities,” I offered an additional point to the nine he had proposed to answer the question: Why is open access moving so slowly in the humanities? My point focused on a research tradition or ethos that has long shaped humanist scholarship and scholarly communication.

Until a few years ago, I would have added (only half-jokingly) that humanities scholars had just recently become fully comfortable working with computers in an online environment! Putting this in a more culturally-sensitive way, many areas of humanities scholarship (including religious studies) have historically operated from a strong engagement with the substantive physicality of printed texts and artifacts. This engagement has carried over into a long tradition and preference for a printed mode of scholarly communication. Part of the “weight” of a scholar’s research and argumentation is communicated through the equal physicality of his or her printed journal article or monograph (preferably in hard cover). Since open access as a mode of scholarly communication operates almost entirely in the online environment, the challenge for humanist scholars is to admit the legitimacy, viability, and preservability of the non-substantive virtuality of their research work now in electronic form. I’ve been told that folks are getting over this concern, though I still encounter hesitation from scholars and librarians who wonder if their bit-based articles and books will endure half as well and as long as the paper-based tomes and ancient manuscripts they have committed their scholarly lives to study.

Yesterday, I was catching up on some reading over at John Gruber’s (Apple and technology) blog Daring Fireball. Gruber linked to a compelling essay written by Craig Mod entitled, “The Digital-Physical: On building Flipboard for iPhone and finding edges for our digital narratives.”

Craig Mod is a writer, designer and publisher. He is interested in the future of books, and especially how book form, design and publishing negotiate the transition from print into a digital environment. It turns out I had read some of Craig’s stuff before (I thought that name sounded familiar). It’s good stuff.

Craig Mod had worked on the development team that produced the free iPhone/iPad app called Flipboard. Flipboard aggregates your social media (Twitter, Facebook, RSS feeds, etc.) and presents them in an attractive and engaging magazine-like interface that updates in realtime. In “The Digital-Physical,” Mod reflects on his process of chronicling the development of this piece of software through, ironically, the production of a physical book.

At first, it would appear the only commonalities between software development and scholarly communication in an electronic environment are that they both involve bits and sitting in front of computer screens. But as I read Mod’s essay, I got this overwhelming sensation that he had anticipated the heart of what I had said above about humanist scholars—even down to use of words like ‘weight’ and ‘physicality.’

We’ve entered a…binary on/off era for physicality. Big physicality. Star Trek style. To go digital-physical and back again is increasingly frictionless.

And so:
What do we gain from these jumps?
How can they reframe experiences to help us better understand them?

These are questions I’ve found myself returning to repeatedly these past few years.

Abstractly, you can think about going from digital to physical as going from boundless to bounded. A space without implicit edges to one composed entirely of edges.

For a while now it had been clear to all of us that edges are a critical framing aid in helping us consume but it wasn’t until last year — helping build Flipboard for iPhone — that I began to understand how critical they are to gain perspective on creation. To gain perspective on a journey captured in bits.

This is an essay about recognizing and reorganizing our journeys that live largely in digital space. How do we ground and bind those experiences? What is the value in giving them edges so we may hold them in our hands and hope to understand, perhaps, the weight of the work we produce? (emphasis his)

Mod characterizes the feeling experienced by many who work digitally from a computer screen as ‘thinness.’

There’s a feeling of thinness that I believe many of us grapple with working digitally. It’s a product of the ethereality inherent to computer work. The more the entirety of the creation process lives in bits, the less solid the things we’re creating feel in our minds. Put in more concrete terms: a folder with one item looks just like a folder with a billion items. Feels just like a folder with a billion items. And even then, when open, with most of our current interfaces, we see at best only a screenful of information, a handful of items at a time. (emphasis his)

The problem is a perception of boundlessness, which humanities scholars may fear as they move from the physical to the digital in their research communication. Mod brought the boundless to bounded by producing a physical book from the digital artifacts of this software project. And the weight of the physical book he produced (using an online digital printing service called Blurb) came to “nearly eight pounds.” How’s that for substantive physicality?

But Mod is talking about frictionless movement, back and forth, between the physical and the digital—not either/or but flip-flop. I infer that Craig Mod was not so much after physicality as ‘edges’ to bound the boundlessness by being able to communicate physically the work he and his team did in the digital. By the same logic, humanities scholars should be able to bring those bounding edges with them from their work in the physical as they increasingly communicate their scholarship digitally.

[W]hat projects like this speak to is the unique and increasingly important value we can give data by abstracting physicality. Jumping back and forth. Creating that space. Capturing a journey effortlessly in bits, and then giving it edges. This dance makes our digital experiences more understandable, parseable, consumable.

Edges are about feeling as much as seeing. With edges comes a sense of weight. And with that comes the ability to feel — physically and psychically. And with that, a better understanding of what we’ve built and where we’ve been. (emphasis his)

Definitely worth a read.

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Posted in "The Hat Tip", Book/Article Review
One comment on “Maybe it’s not so much physicality but ‘edges’ we are looking for in Humanities scholarly communication
  1. […] My recent thread on traditions of scholarly communication in the Humanities (here and here) reminded me of a piece I originally posted to a now mothballed blog back in early 2009. Last year […]

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