As an undergraduate, I wrote a paper with the same title as this post on Benjamin’s revolutionary vision of mechanical reproduction and Adorno’s grim outlook in his Culture Industry and tried to apply it to the up and coming digital age. I focused mostly on music production and sharing, but I find it extremely interesting how well it applies to this particular case of digital scholarship and publishing. Dawson’s account of the revolutionary potential of OA and online publishing/scholarship mixed with her fear of hegemonic control of said technology and potential is reminiscent of this age old power struggle. As with anything dangerous or possibly threatening to the hegemony, often the ruling powers assimilate and control and/or ostracize and destroy, which they clearly are trying to do with digital revolutions and the like. However, where I think Benjamin might have been over zealous with mechanical production, digital technology rears revolution back to the forefront of society because the means of production and distribution cannot be controlled. This to me is the key for successful restructuring of society. As we are seeing with the music industry, I believe the same can be executed in scholarship and publishing.
My question for you guys, I guess, is:
There will always be a struggle between the scholar, the institution, and those at the top, so will all of this potential be swallowed by capitalist measures and assimilated and controlled or could this digital age actually usher new potential for distinct and definite positive change?
I was struck when I read Dawson’s article and your comments, Adam, Jared, and Karyna, about the very different lens that Fitzpatrick has on the question of university control of scholarly publication. In her books she argued that universities should stop thinking of their presses as income-generating arms of the institution and instead as a service provided to promote and distribute the research of their faculty. As someone who’s currently looking for a publisher for a book that a colleague and I have written, I am perhaps easily convinced by Fitzpatrick’s argument (though of course CUNY doesn’t have a general scholarly press, which complicates matters). Though Dawson’s article gives me pause — is his argument in opposition to Fitzpatrick’s? Is there a way forward that accommodates both?
I also find the comparison between the digital revolution and industrial revolution to be quite fascinating. It seems to me that the capitalist system (either through the machine or the institution) will exploit labor in order to increase profit. So, in answer to your question, the potential of digital technology will be swallowed and wielded by those in power to maintain the status quo or increase their profit. (This profit could be in symbolic capital as well as economic capital.) In order to bring about positive change, perhaps it is necessary to move beyond institutional systems and control.
This is a great question Adam. I am not sure whether it’s my cynicism or reality, but it seems that capitalism is at the winning end now, although there definitely is potential for a revolt. Things like killing net neutrality, oligopolistic control of information flow, and unprecedented massive digital surveillance pose a real threat to the openness of scholarship and freedom of ideas, in particular, and social freedom, in general. Your analogy of the power struggle within the digital revolution with the one within the industrial revolution appears appropriate. Like the factory worker in the beginning of 19th century, many of us are today becoming just the accessory to the software that does most of the work for us. In many ways, this process might be as alienating, to use Marxian terms, as it was for workers back then. However, the world of software does in fact allow for more free self-expression and agency than a factory did. It opens up channels to challenge the established world oder and connect on levels unavailable before. So I guess the question is what can and should we do to bring about positive change? and yet, who is to define what’s positive?