Planned Obsolescence Book Review

An interesting looking book, reviewed in Times Higher Education:

At a time of great uncertainty about the future of the humanities, this informed and stimulating book buzzes with excitement for the opportunities that digital technology can offer to humanities researchers. Considering all aspects of the academic process, from authoring to the nature of text and from referring to dissemination and engagement with readers, Planned Obsolescenceenthuses about digital technology’s potential to reconnect humanities research with broader social debates, policymakers and general readers. But it also carries a stark warning: do nothing and our disciplines will cease to be relevant. Kathleen Fitzpatrick is not targeting the technophiles already fully converted to the digital cause, but those of us who care about the humanities, fret about the present state and future of our disciplines and wonder what can be done.


The prolonged economic crisis has given new urgency to debates about the role of the humanities. Much of this discussion centres on the old-fashioned model of academic publishing that is both the symptom of an identity crisis and the starting point for devising new ways of producing and disseminating research. Accusations about academics’ lack of interaction with the “real” world and the incomprehensibility of research to the public are voiced with regularity – together with calls for the wider accessibility of research results. Appeals to demonstrate the public value of research and to promote more effective dissemination, however, clash with a rather depressing publishing landscape. Scholars required to show a tangible “output” in order to advance often look in vain for a publisher; libraries’ purchasing power is shrinking; and the price of journals and monographs rises as fast as their readership drops.


Thus everybody involved in the humanities is wrestling with the thorny issues of the present unsustainable state of academic publishing and the debate about the forms scholarly writing should take in the digital age. As witnessed by the mushrooming in recent years of publications, surveys, blogs and institutional and individual initiatives devoted to the topic, most academics, administrators and librarians agree that humanities research cannot be of public value unless it is accessible to a wider readership – and ideally to all. But questions about the economic viability of open access immediately raise their ugly heads: who should bear the financial burden? Should universities disseminate the research they produce? If commercial publishers are preferable, how do we square their profit-oriented aims with free dissemination? If not, what are the alternatives?