Saturday, February 23, 2013

Zach's Suggested "Approaches"

So that you can get an overview without scrolling, I'll summarize my "approches" here: 1) Material Ecology Approach, 2) Economic Approach, 3) Legal Approach, 4) Historical Material Approach, 5) Reader Approach, and 6) Miscellaneous.  I like the "approaches" way of organizing my suggestions because they are capable of encompassing a lot of material, including things that might not obviously appear connected.  I have also tried to use them to get a handle on what I think are some important underlying issues.  Nevertheless, I do realize that their biggest disadvantage is that they encompass a lot of material. 
1) Material Ecology Approach:  “Material ecology” is my disciplinary-buzz-word way of saying that I think we should examine not only the afterlife of books, but the afterlife of Nooks.  Where does the Kindle go when we’re done with it?  Amazon and Barnes and Noble come out with new versions of their devices every year, and they strongly incentivize updating.  It’s still early in the electronics race now—everyone thinks e-readers will supersede books soon and all—but what happens to all those outdated devices and “bricked” Kindles?  What’s piling up when devices are broken?  And it’s not just e-readers.  If the current average life of a laptop is five years, where will the ten or so laptops (or whatever replaces them) I burn up throughout my life end up?  I think this is an essential question because it’s already an important problem in the world, and it may be that in the next five years, someone initiates a campaign against the device craze of the early twenty-first century.  This brings up the question of whether things are shifting towards digital media, but it is a reminder that digital doesn’t mean “immaterial.”

2) Economic Approach: Another thing I really want to consider is how companies in a capitalist market are affecting the changes happening in the textual-information world (is there a way of saying it that doesn’t involve “print” or “digital”?).  This topic is, probably, hopelessly related to the previous one.  I think it would be productive to study how markets have changed.  Andrew and Mei also bring this up.  Within this topic, I would group three things, which some other people are splitting up (probably for good reason): 1) retail, 2) amateur publishing, and 3) digital rights management (DRM).  I include these three because I think it would be productive to study how they are developing alongside each other.  In their own way, each responds to some of the unintended consequences of the ways print has changed recently.  Retailers have had to change their strategies, so now we have stores at (what I view as) two ends of a spectrum: Half-Price Books, the re-retailer, and Barnes and Noble, the hybrid e-book/popular publishing/coffeehouse/multi-media super-outlet.  As for the second group, amateur publishing, I admit that I don’t know enough about it.  The third group, DRM, seems really important because of how it has changed ownership of documents (this will probably blend into another area I suggest, though).  For this economic question, I’d be really interested in doing case studies of Amazon, the NYT, or even Apple because they seem to be the companies who are re-creating the relationships between author, publisher, and retailer.  What I’ve outlined here already seems like a lot to me, but what I think is most important in this is 1) cutting through the marketing hype about the “death of print” and 2) exploring how the relationships between author, publisher, and retailer are being restructured.

3) Legal Approach: When I think about the history of print both in books and in newspapers, I think about the history of copyright law (which Striphas, I think, discusses).  The market is, after all, regulated both nationally and internationally by laws.  This approach could encompass a history of both print and digital media by exploring intellectual property, digital rights management, and piracy.  Part of this approach would be tracing copyright law, but it would also pay attention to new ways that laws regulate intellectual property and how this has changed our discussions of what people actually “own.” 

4) Historical Material Approach: I admit that I don’t know fully how to articulate what I want to say here, but what I have noticed over the past few weeks of the course is that my own questions and doubts about what is “new” in print and digital media are often addressed by asking what came before.  This came up last week when Greg asked about what the historical precedent of newspaper comment sections was.  I personally, didn’t know much about chat rooms, etc.  I think that this kind of approach could be applied in several other places.  I like Ambar’s focus on printing (especially personal printing), and that makes me wonder, What is a personal printer?  What is the history of personal printing?  Can we historicize it?  Jordan asked, What is a link?  What is the history of hypertext?  I think that’s a good and interesting question—one that seems counterintuitive to me, a humanities grad student with no background whatsoever in computer languages.  I also want to know, What is an algorithm?  Who makes algorithms?  What preceded algorithms?  I think there’s an interesting material history to the rise of the computer and its computational abilities that could have additional unintended consequences for print and how it circulates via Amazon recommendations and for information and how it circulates via Google.  (Could this also be a place to talk about the post office?  I think that Mei’s question about shippers is especially interesting given the recent reduction of postal services.)  Ultimately, I think we need a way to get out of the hyper-focus on our present moment that it is so easy to fall into (I speak for myself), and I think that focusing on material or physical objects (and I do include hypertext in this) can help.

5) Reader Approach: I admit that this isn’t a very clear categorical name, but I think this fact emphasizes its importance.  What is a reader?  Is “reader” a sufficient categorization?  Is a reader a “user”?  A consumer?  A citizen?  An owner?  A producer?  A viewer?  A listener?  Do we imagine only people who are able to intake media with their eyes?  Do we imagine only internet users?  Do we imagine only people with purchasing power?  Are readers shifting from one of these categories to another?  And who reads anymore?  E-readers, if anything, signal an increase in readership, but as one of our readings points out (I can’t remember which) it could be that fewer people are reading more.  I’d be interested in seeing statistical or quantitative analysis of this aspect of media and readership.  I think that this approach could also get at the knowledge question Jordan brought up in class.  If we know what people are doing with the stuff of media, then we can know a little more about what kind of information/knowledge value they think it has.

6) So, I only have five things, and I’m really stretching to think of another logical “approach” category.  Perhaps, if I were to propose six “stops along the way,” I would break apart the Economic Approach or the Historical Material approach into two stops rather than just one—they’re large enough.  But I also recognize that I haven’t addressed how information access and libraries fit into this framework, and I think they are quite important.  Perhaps these leftovers get at something important I haven’t yet considered—the function of media.  What do people use media (print, digital, auditory, and otherwise) for?  Why do we even want it in the first place?  Maybe this question isn’t important.  Maybe it should go first.  I’m not sure, but I throw it out here at the end in an attempt to consider whether I’ve forgotten something foundational. 

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