It was never announced officially here, in part deliberately, in part just because my life got the better of me… but let this be official: we (Me, Rex, Jason B. Jackson, Kimberly Christen, Tom Boellstorff, Michael F. Brown and Michael M.J. Fischer) published a Really Great Interview about Open Access in Cultural Anthropology. For those who subscribe, the paper copies have now arrived, for those who don’t it is an Open Access article available to everyone (even in AnthroSource!). It is also hosted at the CA website for your commentary and discussion using the CommentPress software of which I am so fond.
The fact that I am announcing this “too late” is also related to a discussion we started earlier in the month, regarding the issue of attention to and care for various new kinds of internetty and webliche zweipunktnullische projects. In particular, the difficulty academics have of devoting time and attention to such new projects, and the way in which what Rex called the “field of care” structures how academics take up and run with certain projects. There are a lot of really great points in that thread… and I think it’s worth continuing the discussion here, and hopefully, over at Cultural Anthropology as well.
What spun the discussion off in interesting directions, I think, were two points:
1) An issue regarding the different scales of temporality that people live within—from the 72-hr blogosphere horizon, to longer scales of semesters and years and multi-year research projects. One term we’ve used to capture this is “pace-layering”—originally a term Stewart Brand used in his book about buildings and how they “learn” or change at different paces (structures are there for decades while exteriors and interiors change more rapidly). This is a good metaphor for academic research projects which can often have unresolved core issues for years, decades, centuries even, but are surrounded with faster-moving forms of attention… from ongoing experiments, archival investigations, digs in the field, long-term fieldwork to short term paper-writing, data analysis, close reading of texts to even shorter term participation in the blogsphere, or local colloquia and collaboration. It’s my opinion that the new tools available to us on the Internet are obsessed primarily, if not solely, with only the fastest of these scales, the 72-hr bloghorizon. Few, if any, of the tools—like social bookmarking, rss feeds, wikis or blogs themselves have been designed with longer, slower scales of interaction—and keeping people’s attention—in mind. In fact, “longer” and “slower” are in some ways anathema to the ecstatic web 2.0 promises of rapid and large-scale effects which people are seeking from these new technologies. I think this is in conflict with the goals of academic work at all but the most superficial levels. The question is, can these tools be adapted to the deliberate, long-term, “future-proof” (as some information professionals like to say) aspects of scientific research and knowledge generation we angage in.
2) But this begs the question, in some ways, of what exactly are the scientific research and knowledge generation practices we engage in. Prompted in part by my assertion that students today are “more used to the idea of remixing,” Rex suggested that on the contrary, students are just people who have not yet been inculcated into the “field of care” that professionalized academics have been. I like this term very much—both for its prosaic familiarity and for its philosophical overtones of being in the world and attention-tuning of a more fundamental sort. A field of care structures our sense of participation and contribution, our time, our priorities, our horizon of the reasonable and our sense of value of our work. It is something more than a ethos, but something less than a habitus… or to put it differently, it is something learned, but not quickly, and something social—it is not possible to simply opt out of it. Whether or not people take up a project in academia is heavily structured by this field of care, which to outsiders starts to look like tradition, conservatism, expertise, or maybe madness, depending.
What matters for an issue like open access, therefore, is not just the better arguments, the more powerful ideology, the more efficient technology, or the cheaper alternative; rather that what is at stake is a deeply—but not too deeply—embedded way of doing things that structures how and when people can take up a new “field of care” with new technologies, new possibilities and new priorities (and I should say that such a field of care would exist amongst any group with members so inculcated—not just academics, but even more so amongst doctors, lawyers, accountants and so on)
I for one, am not surprised at what Rex called the “lackluster success” of certain projects—like the “modulations” of my book, or the Anthropology of/in Circulation article, or my attempts to make the Anthropology of the Contemporary project work… in large part because I have become more and more familiar with the tenacious grasp that sedimented habits and practices can have on people—even people who are just a couple years out of graduate school and might be expected to be generationally different somehow.
So how do we change this? How do we change habits and practices of this sort? On the one hand, we don’t. Those practices change slowly, and that is a very good thing. If they changed with every new whim in technology or every new academic fashion, it would be nothing but a good sign of their ephemerality, and the ultimate irrelevance of the work produced by those habits and practices. On the other hand, however, we change them by examining them carefully and I think it is this, above all, which new technologies let us do. Blogs and wikis are not tools to liberate discussion and interaction amongst academics trapped in a pointless traditionalism, but tools for examining the existing field of care, carefully. They are tools that reveal what has been naturalized. Rather than simply going on more efficiently with the going concerns of academic life, they reveal, they dis-cover modes of work and interaction that not so long ago seemed natural and unchangeable. But such a revelation is not a change, only a moment for reflection—a question is thrown out: is this the best way of organizing our work, our collaboration, our generation and preservation of knowledge… or should we change it? And if the latter, how, exactly?
If we want to take open access seriously, it’s not just because it’s a good idea, or because it gives us a public anthropology, or a warm fuzzy feeling about contributing to a better world… it is because it reveals really hard questions about how we do what we do: how we organize our research, how we make and distribute new knowldege, how we make it good and make it authoritative and how we trust it. These are issues of profound importance—and what’s more, issues for difficult and painstaking reflection—political work in the sense Arendt gave it, and not mere issues of bureaucratic housekeeping, or technical wrangling.