Who Stole the Value of My Digital Text?

Image: "Paolo" courtesy Paolo Tonon (some rights reserved)Yesterday, I wrote about scanning books into PDFs instead of purchasing them. Mostly I wrote about why I do it. And why, sometimes, I don’t. In today’s entry, I want to think a  little more about how the texts are changed when translated into PDFs.

When I look at how books change, I try to consider several factors influencing or influenced by that change. Changes can happen in the form books take. In the semio-rhetorical conventions operating within them. Does the book circulate differently? Is it stored differently? Do people read/interact with it differently? Does the change expand or limit the contexts in which the book might operate? Does the change afford or repel various contexts of usage? How does this change affect the economics of the book? How does the change fit into current (competing) notions of copyright? How does it challenge, change, or render obsolete some of those notions? How can this change be understood in the context of the book’s history? How can this change be understood in the context of other ways the book might have been instantiated?

So can I ask all of these questions when it comes to a PDF of a book? I probably could, but I’m only interested in a couple at the moment.

First, as PDFs books are stored and circulated differently. If I wanted to, I could post a message (with PDF attached) to a message board like the WPA listserv. Instantly, the book would exist in multiple places for multiple people in a way that copies of the text could continue to proliferate as recipients themselves might forward the text onto other colleagues or interested students. Some people would end up with multiple copies. Some with variations of copies. None of this would be be possible with a print-based text. This may sound trivial, but I think it’s important in the ways people assign value to a copy of a text. Since we pretty much take for granted the easy and resources of it’s replication, the text is often imbued with much less perceived value.

In one sense, this sort of restructuring of value is great: it more often foregrounds the work a text can do, rather than it’s physical existence. Both are important and indivisible, but usually we perceive those aspects of a text independently of each other. We might value the work a text can do more than we value a particular instance of its print existence. But there’s some potential trouble here. From the perspective of consumers, this trend looks great. More free books. Fantastic.

But what about the perspective of the author? And I’m not talking here about Hassler or Rowling or King. I’m talking about the scholar. University presses. Academic publishers. This is an incredibly complex issue, so there’s only so much I can say in a blog post. Scholarly texts require an incredibly intense, thorough, and documentable process of production. The reviews, typesetting, proofing, daily management of the press, etc. All of this work takes time. Professional time. For a professional journal. It may be a labor of love, but it’s professional. Which comes at a cost. Computers, office space, net access, legal advice, and other costs also factor in. Good work is not free. Not free to produce anyway.

And yet, these little PDF files fly around the web proliferating like little, academic guppies. Sure, people aren’t really willing to pay very much for guppies, but that’s not what I’m trying to get at here. It’s about respect, too. Okay, so your academic monograph doesn’t sell. That’s not great, but that’s also not how most academic publications are valued or assessed. It’s about the work that they do. The conversations in which they participate, complicate, and forward.

And there are conversations, too, about tenure and promotion. I’ve always had a hard time understanding why digital work often counts less (if at all) for tenure and promotion than print texts do. Anyone who’s ever produced a digital text or edited a journal of digital texts can tell you that it takes way, way more work to produce, and it takes a much more specialized understanding of the conversations operating within the computers and writing community. And this says nothing of the expertise necessary to understand the rhetoricity of various communicative modes, especially as they related to specific software and coding strategies.

Now I can feel myself getting up onto that familiar hobby horse. I’ll skip it for today. I guess the point I really wanted to make is that digital does not mean non-material. It just means that the text can and can’t do certain things that print can and can’t do. And that it circulates different. Unfortunately, when it comes to evaluating digital texts, I think, they are too often evaluated from the perspective of print texts. The questions don’t come down to “How do each of these texts (print/nonPrint) perform their work and what is the value of each?” Instead, and much to my dismay, the question is more often “We are all working within the long tradition of print–with its generic and rhetorical conventions. How well does this print text perform THAT type of work?” I’d like for more people to say something like: “It doesn’t. It does this instead. And this other thing is important. And your print texts can’t do it as well as this digital one. Go ahead and ignore this digital text. The power and skill you have to communicate about the new digital environments will atrophy. And so will the value of the work you do. At least to the rest of the world.”

But this is some sort of weird argument fantasy. That’s pretty dumb. Good thing I’m venting here on the blog instead of an interview or performance review. More productively, I’d hope to be able to say something like, “I’m so glad you asked that question. Most people don’t even see that there’s a question here at all. I appreciate it. Let’s sit down and take a look at a digital text with which we’re both familiar. Can you think of one?”

And then I’d be curious to see if what they mention is a PDF. Or a text from Kairos or Computers and Composition Online, or something somewhere else. It would be a good place to start.

(image: “Paolo,” courtesy of Paolo Tonon’s Flickr page. creative commons attribution-share alike 2.0 generic license)

This article has 4 Comments

  1. Thanks, Amanda! I hope your loving your iPad. (And yes, I’m aware of all the sarcasm your comment might imply. Well deserved, too!)

    I wrote up a pretty long entry railing against all that it doesn’t do, but now… of course… I want one. It’s hard to know what it CAN do without actually going in and using it. So, we’ll see how the summer shakes out financially. Maybe in the fall. I’ve gotta find a way to write a grant for this or something.

    Thanks for reading!

  2. Thanks, Amanda! I hope your loving your iPad. (And yes, I’m aware of all the sarcasm your comment might imply. Well deserved, too!)

    I wrote up a pretty long entry railing against all that it doesn’t do, but now… of course… I want one. It’s hard to know what it CAN do without actually going in and using it. So, we’ll see how the summer shakes out financially. Maybe in the fall. I’ve gotta find a way to write a grant for this or something.

    Thanks for reading!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *