Johanna Drucker’s article in the Los Angeles Review of Books, “Pixel Dust: Illusions of Innovation in Scholarly Publishing,” raises important questions about digital publishing, digital humanities, and the role of scholarly publication, not only within, but beyond the walls of academia.
Drucker claims it is a misconception that digital information production is cheap, permanent, and done automatically by machines—or even that everything is already available digitally. The costs in terms of time, human input, and money for the creation and preservation of digital resources can be just as significant, if not more so, than the costs of physical, print production. She asks why it was ever assumed otherwise. According to Drucker, the one thing that is missing in digital publication is the business model.
Drucker also refutes the notion that the digital environment offers an alternative to the strictly linear mode of a print book. She argues that a book need not be considered linear at all, as anyone can easily jump around in a codex text, looking for information as needed by means on contents listing or index. A time-based video clip, however, is certainly linear.
She offers that the potential of digitizing texts is not in the digital platform or the non-linear approach to reading, but in the analysis and search-ability of a text with structured data. (Ah, structured data—that’s metadata!)
Drucker is making an argument for the importance of content. She makes a case for maintaining the vitality of the humanities as if they were “cultural ecologies” of scholarship similar to an ecosystem in the natural world.
Digital humanities, digital publication, institutional repositories, open access journals—all these new formats offer exciting possibilities to be sure. And the digitization of information is certainly inevitable. Drucker is right to warn against magical thinking, though. These new formats will also come with limitations and costs, and it is better to embrace them with realistic knowledge based on experience rather than pretending the digital platform is a panacea for all the woes of humanities and scholarship.