Landscape organizes everything within sight.

Monday, April 20, 2015


One paragraph in my 4/14/15 blog post seemed to some readers to suggest that David Armitage was responsible for errors in The History Manifesto. That was not my intention.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Challenges of Beginning a Scholarly Debate in the 21st Century

C. P. Snow's The Two Cultures (1959) began a critical debate about the role of the humanities in an increasingly scientific world.  It was also the receipt of such enormous criticism that Snow later wrote The Two Cultures: A Second Look (1963).   In the last few months David Armitage and I have experienced a technologically-accelerated version of the same. In the 21st Century, this debate happens not only between colleagues, but also via pseudonymous blogs and retweeted punchlines.

When we published The History Manifesto in October, we set out to rouse a debate in the university, and in history departments in particular, about the methods and ambitions of our profession in a moment of global warming, growing inequality, academic specialization, and short-term thinking.  The debate took off beyond our wildest dreams; usually positive, sometimes controversial, and even occasionally dipping into extreme ire as individual personalities took issue with our text, some of them choosing to duel in the footnotes instead of to engage the substantive, positive vision that we wrote to offer.  A deliberation of this variety and passion on all sides is evidence, we believe, of a healthy engagement by the profession.  Like others creatures, when historians are aroused, they experience emotions, sometimes violently.  

Passion and critique redound on the internet, mirrored and intensified beyond the bounds of normal scholarly discourse, where debates are moderated by editors as well as conventions of reasonable politeness, in ways that can be particularly dangerous for junior faculty.  In the voicing of criticism online, the norms of academic discourse disappear. Online enthusiasms that use heated rhetoric to suggest that an argument has been totally eviscerated can distract from the question of which data and issues are at the core of a professional debate, and which are illustrations that can be overlooked without harm to the major argument.  

The even-handed, respectful tone of civil debate that we saw in published book reviews in history journals -- the majority of which were positive -- disappeared on Twitter and the blogs. A journal editor noted in his published introduction how the tone of the unsolicited critique of our book were out of keeping with normal practice at that journal.  The norms of scholarly civility were tinged with a form of rhetoric colored by strong pronouncements.  It is my intention here to raise the question of the degree to which those strong pronouncements pertained to the culture and rhetoric of the internet, where one strand of academic debate originated as a result of our open-access publishing venture.  

Online debates bring particular challenges when they concern the debating of footnotes that this debate has involved.  In an earlier blog entry, I told the story of an anonymous twitter personality, "Pseudoerasmus," whose critique was cited by senior colleagues in their footnotes as evidence of sloppy scholarship.  The critique appears largely to stem from an individual who is unfamiliar with historians’ conventions of writing and footnoting.  Where critics pointed to individual footnotes that could be tightened or prose made more accurate, we accepted their criticisms. Indeed, many of the most heated critiques that appeared first on on the internet were leveled against details and footnotes rather than the major argument.  

As we examined the criticism, we found most of it to be taking issue with footnotes that could be fit the text better and summaries of economists’ work that could be made more precise.  Very little of the most heated criticism on the internet (or in the printed engagements that quoted the internet) engaged substantively with the larger arguments that we had made about the tradition of a place of political engagement in professional scholarship in the social sciences, or about the questions of time-scale raised by new work by our colleagues, or about how visualization and digital analysis can help to tell stories on a greater scale.  

On the internet, claims that one of these complaints had destabilized our argument circulate like a rumor mill.  A provocatively titled tweet ran, for example, "stunning take-down of the #historymanifesto!" The tweet easily circulated among even our friends and colleagues, and not necessarily because they agreed that the take-down was successful.  "Retweets" very rarely equal endorsement; I myself have been wont to retweet articles whose headlines I disagree with when I am saving them for myself to read later.  Yet even in such cases the headline circulates nonetheless, perhaps because many people thought the text was important enough that a debate should be read.  And for those who idly read the headlines on twitter, it was easy to get the impression that a "take-down" had happened.  I wonder how many colleagues absorbed that rumor, and dismissed the need to read the book themselves.  Even very clever people are sometimes put off by a rumor of that sort.   

It is hard to debate online in spaces where identity is so fluid, as it can increase the vulnerability of a scholar up for tenure, while disguising some of her critics.  It was me, the untenured member of our writing collaboration, who was targeted by an anonymous twitter personality for his original attack, on the grounds that due to her relative inexperience, it was she, not her senior collaborator, who must have been responsible for any errors in the text.  The attack explicitly singled me out as the faulty party, an assumption that revolved around bizarre notions of authorship that certainly did not apply to our collaboration.  In the process, standards of authorship circulating on the internet, not in the world of scholarship, were applied to tarnish my reputation as a scholar.  

When scholars at other institutions and editors of journals in my field retweeted the headline of a "take-down," they may have appeared to some readers to be buying into this faulty understanding of authorship and intention.  Without paying careful attention to how claims circulated and where, it would be easy for someone arriving at this conversation for the first time to misread the retweets as a vindication of the Manifesto's critics.  Effectively, if such misunderstanding as I have construed has happened in the scholarly community, it would mean that the voice of one anonymous twitter personality and a handful of critics were promoted above the dozens of positive reviews published in scholarly journals by accredited peers across the academy.  

This is a dangerous system of ranking, and it represents a novelty in academic practice that we should note and try to understand as a mechanism.  The academy has evolved, over time, its own standards for understanding praise, blame, and dissent, culling consensus through the slow-moving process of publication itself as well as the published reviews. Where much academic favor depends on reputation, besmirching rumors started on the twitterverse can do immense harm to the scholar whose career is just beginning.  

Internet publishing also brings challenges in the form of the sheer workload that a scholar must take on in order to stay engaged.  Praise, critique, suggestions and invitations flooded in over the first few months of the Manifesto's release.  We soon found that we were inundated by more than we could, ourselves, respond to in detail.  Our critics, while small in number, were prolific writers and tweeters.  Their schedule also differed in its intensity from that of traditional academic review, which has some respect for holidays and academic schedules; two senior scholars released their critique the day before Christmas Eve.  The intensity of the same writers kept up over formal and informal blog entries that continued over the following months.  In the five days after American Historical Review published our reply to our critics on its front page together with the editor’s congratulations, one of our senior critics has released to the internet two further "take-downs".  When traditional book reviews may take six months to two years to appear, and then tend to take the form of a single reply, the volume of praise and criticism that can meet a text with a life on the internet dwarfs that of traditional scholarly encounters, and it can be hard to navigate in the midst of the other academic obligations.

As I described in an earlier blog post, paying attention to which feedback to accept and which to reject on the wide berth of the internet is more complicated than it is in the format of a traditional journal or book revision process, where the scholar responds to criticism from 3-5 pre-selected scholars with expertise in their field.  But readers on the internet do not necessarily share the same expectations of expertise as the authors, or even as other scholars in the field.  As any scholar who has passed through the process of revising an article for journal acceptance knows, the process of considering these critiques is time-consuming.  In bulk, without the guiding hand of an editor familiar with the interlocutors who has his own vision of what feedback to prioritize, the process of revision can be even more time-consuming.  Online publishing is not a arena that a junior scholar should enter without caution about the time-consuming nature of the work, should the debate take off.

Together, these burdens -- the inflation of trivial critiques, the spread of rumor generated in communities with different standards for authorship and excellence, the weight of time to keep up with a discourse at volume -- generate particular vulnerabilities for junior scholars of any gender who engage with discipline-wide questions on the internet.   By engaging in open-access publishing, where the text freely circulates to a public -- and not just a public committed to visiting the bookstore, paying money, or accessing a subscription behind a paywall -- they may inadvertently may place their reputation in the way of anonymous critics, academic incivility, and rumors spread by casual retweets.  

The burdens of online criticism also redound differently through the hierarchy of the academy.  For me as a junior scholar, the weight of these debates has particular ramifications for the processes ahead of me.   The stakes are, of course, extremely real: rumors of scholarly malpractice or an ethical breach can result, especially in junior cases, in losing one's job.  Will the relevant committees and meetings be swayed by these voices from the internet?  There is no sanitary cordon that shields senior voting colleagues from debate online.  When they meet it, will they interpret it as the sign of a passionate debate erupting in the context of a new technology that makes way for more heated debate than past generations of scholars have witnessed?  Or will they be alienated by the fervency of the voices of some of our interlocutors and the intensity of their communications?  The committees who will try to understand my case have likely viewed few examples of similar cases before.  

Public opinion matters in those rooms, and it is not the only thing that matters; scholarly consensus matters, and a range of opinion from the extremely positive to the extremely negative may be a sign of successfully engaging a disciplinary-wide controversy.  Engaging with new forms of publishing and critique in the name of helping our institutions (departments, universities, libraries, and publishing-houses) to evolve may be taken as a sign of a commitment to institution-building.  How my own case will be read has not yet been decided, although my hope is that they will be cognizant of the importance of engaging the issues at the heart of our discipline that cause such passionate eruptions, as well as the vitality of working with established academic publishers like Cambridge University Press in frontier spaces of innovative publishing.  

I would necessarily advise caution, or at least a clear-eyed sense of reality, to younger scholars contemplating the same path.  Nevertheless, it is a collective burden that we come to understand the evolving nature of scholarly discourse online, together with the opportunities and challenges it represents.  

My engagement with the discipline of history and new opportunities represented by the digital was commissioned by a series of awards and fellowships, from a Mellon fellowship in Digital History to a later fellowship at the Metalab to my current position as an assistant professor of Britain and its Empire who has been encouraged by senior faculty, my chair, and various administrators around the university to continue research, publishing, and teaching about these new technologies.  My opinions and work did not come as a surprise to any of those bodies of scholars. 

For me, the research, teaching, and publishing experiment of The History Manifesto followed seamlessly from the writing, research, and teaching about the digital humanities that I had been pursuing for six years already.   My own contributions to The History Manifesto should be read in that light: the fruit of an officially-sanctioned project of research, teaching, and publication.  I was the junior partner in a collaboration, offering my experience with digital tools and the possible audiences for history, reporting on an ongoing conversation with a senior partner who happened to be at the time chairing a major department of History.  We hardly set out to offend our fellow-historians; instead, we were excited about new possibilities for research methodology, theories of history, publishing opportunities, and even political engagement on the part of history, and we wanted to report on this excitement to our fellow historians so that those who approved could play along themselves.  We also hardly suspected that the criticism of a few senior faculty would find its way to the front page of the Chronicle of Higher Education, inflated from a few colorful tweets whose content revolved around editorial suggestions about footnotes and illustrations into a headline about shoddy data and ethical breaches in publishing.  

I myself do not believe that these charges would have happened were it not for open-access publishing and our attempt to engage an online community.  Senior scholars might have still expressed their displeasure at our conclusions, but their opinion might have been limited to traditional venues, as its circulation would have as well.  In other words, we are still very much learning about the opportunities and limits of scholarly engagement online, and about the way that scholarly engagements may open up new challenges for the junior faculty who are first to engage them.

The virtue of having a text published online is that it immediately solicits input from readers.  As advocates of rethinking publishing have noted for some time, online publishing has the opportunity to make less formal the traditional roles of anonymous reviewer, pre-publication, and post-publication manuscript.  Immediate feedback gives authors the opportunity to constructively reflect on critique at any point in the publication process.  We have not been shy about singing the praises of this kind of engagement, blogging in November about constructive criticism of a visualization.  In January, we released a revised version of the text, both online and in hard copy, that took into account particular online criticisms of our phrasing and individual footnotes.  We tightened ten lines of prose and changed five footnotes to better reflect the environmental debates in economics, although we did not substantively change our arguments.  It is important for historians, other scholars, and publishers to contemplate what this new model of ongoing feedback offers to scholarship, raising humanism to the level of a field that can fluidly benefit from ongoing collaboration.  

Some of the praise of online publishing has been overstated. Critics of traditional publishing in academia like Kathleen Fitzpatrick have argued that publishing on the internet could potentially free the humanities of abuse by removing the temptations to abuse that were structural in the blind peer review system used by academic journals, a system that shields senior scholars while promoting discrimination against junior scholars, women, and minorities.  Our own experience with online community criticism suggests that blind peer review possesses a monopoly neither on anonymity, nor on senior scholars flexing their power to promote and denounce new ideas, nor on outright hostility.  

There is a vein of feminist criticism where “dangerous places” are viewed as a positive challenge for radical intellectuals.  Indeed, in the news cycle of the past year, the female game designers and their advocates were attacked on twitter with threats of gang rape and murder in the “GamerGate” controversy, demonstrating what an unsafe space the internet can be.  But the women in question rallied, many of them refusing to go offline, several of them publishing incredibly moving memoirs of their experience. Some of them, including Anita Sarkeesian and Randi Harper, fought back with games and code, the tools of the attackers themselves.  In so doing, they have turned a vicious fight into an opportunity for building solidarity between women in technology and rallying consumers of video games in the direction of social awareness.   

Academic attacks are almost certainly easier to endure than rape and death threats.  All the same, engaging our interlocutors has been far from easy.   On the internet, whether we are academics or gamers, we tame unsafe spaces by continuing to show up, and by continuing to insist on high standards for intellectual exchange and civility.  We create safety by advocating for the respect due to vulnerable individuals like women, junior scholars and minorities.  We have to show up in order to claim the spaces that need to be claimed. 

Is the internet itself really to blame for these heated emotions?  Perhaps not; it might be the nature of manifesto-writing or polemic essays on the state of the academy in general that arouses so much emotion.  Writing decades ago, C. P. Snow would’ve recognized that pattern after the flood of articles and letters, “praise, blame…accumulating at an accelerating pace,” that piled in after he published The Two Cultures (1959). “Do certain kinds of animosity lead to an inability to perform the physical act of reading?” he asked. “The evidence suggests so.”   Snow’s own conclusion, published four years later as is rather like our own: the resulting hubbub was about a Zeitgeist in conflict; the particular acts of vitriol or praise, in the end, “hadn’t much connection with me.”  The same might be said for the victims of sexual aggression in many eras, before the internet and including it: they needn't take the aggression personally, for at the end of the day, the emotions come from deep cultural sources around us.   

On the other hand, the internet is most certainly a new sphere of civil discourse.  We might imagine that humans need to learn how to inhabit it, how to behave in public.  Perhaps we are only beginning the process of learning what to say in public, and our culture (as well as our institutions) need to be patient as we do so.  Just as publishing houses and educational institutions need to come to understand anew the rules for engagement in an age of open-access publishing, just so we as scholars will have to convene to make up our minds about when we accept the word of rumor, twitter, or a handful of internet-published critics, and when we defer to the published authority of our traditional journals. 

On a more individual level, we as scholars or as public intellectuals participating on the internet have ethical choices to make about the tone we take when leveling criticism at a peer.  Should we throw out civil discourse because we are limited to 140 characters and are thrilled by the prospect of a retweet of a scandal-mongering headline?  Should we target a scholar's reputation as a whole when a complaint is with an illustration, a footnote, or a political point of view?  Journalists have done an excellent job of documenting, these last few months, how rumor spreads on the internet, and some have made a case that we are seeing the development of a new culture of public shaming, unparalleled, perhaps, since the Puritans.

Public intellectuals of all kinds today must make up their minds how they participate online, given that a technology for constant circulation of opinion and critique arrives in the middle of a culture that cleaves to event and scandal, that circulates headlines without necessarily agreeing with them.  As anyone who has run a seminar knows, keeping sage opinions and even-handed reading is a skill that has to be cultivated alongside an attention to detail.  Even hackers online are forming a new consensus outlawing "gratuitous negativity" from their boards in the name of promoting more critical thinking.

In The History Manifesto, we argued for the importance of taking the long view on the university, the environment, and the economy, topics about which we argued that historians have a great deal to contribute.  If we apply that lesson to our own experience, we might reason that it takes a long time to develop rules for productive debate in a new social context.  The internet may not be there yet, even when one’s interlocutors are also respected scholars capable of civil discourse in many spheres. 

Friday, April 10, 2015

Open Criticism and the Freedom to Imagine New Forms of Research in the Social Sciences

Publishing online and soliciting tweets gave ample room for an airing of any grievance with our manuscript to be heard.  As advocates of open access publishing, we were enthusiastic about providing this opportunity for dialogue.  But some of that dialogue comes in the form of a heated attack, in a few notable cases, questioning our credentials as scholars in the process.  When does open-access critique offer useful food for thought and revision, and when does it overstep the boundaries of scholarly respect?   I will argue here that traditional scholarly standards have become confused in the midst of hasty communications from our critics.  One of the features of the most impassioned critiques we heard was inflated rhetoric about the faultiness of the text as a whole, coupled with fairly minor critiques of the data we used and our interpretation thereof.  This mismatch has dangerous consequences for debate.

Our book was not a research monograph that claimed exhaustive research on a historical era but rather a polemic, whose purpose was to hold up new methods for research in the social sciences, drawing inspiration from methodological revolutions of the past.  Polemics like these have an extreme utility in the social sciences and humanities, as they unify scholars working with new toolsets (for instance the digital humanities) and propose new possible orientations towards their use. 

The crux of our argument about the waning of an age of mid-century public intellectuals who participated in government debate and the rise of economists rests upon secondary, scholarly sources that have been vetted in other contexts.  These timelines exist independently of our own work. We did not pretend to be doing archival research on a monograph that would review in detail the lineaments of the American academy in the 1970s.  

I believe that some of the rhetoric that accompanied our interlocutors’ fastidious suggestions came because our interlocutors misunderstood the genre in which we were writing.  We were writing a persuasive essay, not a monograph in which we claimed exhaustive, expert authority on the eras and actors in question.   We were taking on the case of history departments as an exemplary case of a profession working within the modern university as a whole, offering a critical stance while arguing positively for the promise of some new practices that we have seen younger scholars pursuing – including digital history, working with big data, and engaging the timescale of the Anthropocene.   

My coauthor and myself both work in flagship departments of history where we are routinely exposed to cutting-edge scholarship as well as the ambitions of young scholars.  We wanted to write a polemic that would foreground the difference and novelty that characterized the work that most impressed us, pulling positive examples of similar revolutions in historical methodology from the past as points of comparison for how important a methodological revolution can be. 

To lift up such examples in the form of our own manifesto should be seen not as an act of hubris, but rather as an act of the routine service that scholars perform when they write review essays about recent work in the field, introduce a new set of theory, or write their own historiographical and methodological introduction to a book or journal article.  

As younger scholars, we cannot match in detail the historiographic richness of a Lynn Hunt or Hayden White, who personally experienced the scholarly revolutions of the 1970s and who published their own manifestos this year.  Yet as younger scholars at the beginning (in my case) and height (in David's) of our careers, we are strongly motivated to notice and rank new trends in publishing, big data, and other methods that seem promising, which we and our students and collaborators may borrow as we seek to plow new routes through the field.  

The purpose of a polemic, after all, is to stir debate about the ethical orientation and methods of a field, not to have the final word on any particular episode in history.  To draw these arguments together as a provocation to professional history is an important task for provoking a debate about where we are going as a discipline.  It is also one of the most ordinary traditions in the academy, the eruption of such disagreements.  Some time in the twelfth century, Peter Abelard got into a dispute with his own teacher.  Things weren’t working out well, so he moved down the valley, and set up his own tent, and students followed him there, where he began giving his own lectures.  Polemics are like that: they are an assertion that one body of scholars have begun to see the matter that motivates us differently than another body of scholars.  These moments are creative; they bring together new bodies of scholars, who by moving apart, begin to think about themselves and their work anew.  Such moments are also polarizing; not everyone must agree or come along, and those who don't come may well complain about what the new camp is doing.  

We wrote a polemic that put distance between ourselves and the practices of social and intellectual history of the past in which we ourselves were trained, looking forward to the research that we are most excited about shaping our own work around and proposing as models for our students.  In our polemic, we talked about how new generations of historians are separated from the past by the political impulses of their time and the arrival of new technical methods like the digital humanities.  To disagree with us would mean taking exception to our theory that time-scales in history have been broadening since 2000; that many great scholars are currently taking on climate change, international governance, and inequality as their major foci; that 1968 offers an exemplary moment for understanding how changing politics beyond the academy has long shaped the way that scholars engage archives; and that digital tools promise some help in this new longue duree even while they raise other ethical issues about access to archives. 

In an era of open-access publishing, when critique is extended, open, and invited, it is crucial that we as a scholarly community do not mistake a criticism of editorial work that could be improved (and is then improved, thanks to open access publishing) or an ideological difference in the making with scholarly failure.  Nor should we allow disagreements over critique and genre to cover up a more profound disagreement about the kind of scholarship, methods, and politics that are new and exciting in our discipline.  

One cannot expect all scholars to be enthused about transferring their labored research into the new tools of the digital humanities, nor should one even expect all digital humanists to agree about my own take on the most compelling trends in digital history.  However, offering a portrait of some exciting trends served a goal of unifying some scholars who agree that big data opens the gate to contextualizing archival research with long time-scales.  Those scholars can now identify more clearly their own orientation, and debate the best methods and practices available within that orientation, as a result of being marked out.  That some students and colleagues are inspired by thinking about the tools of big data in terms of periodization and politics has been my personal experience in teaching, writing, and lecturing about this book over the last year.  

Ultimately the questions at the heart of such disagreements as these — both of how we understand the university past and how we release our texts to the public online — are crucial for making sense of the role of the social sciences in the university to come. 

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Of Conspiracies and Frontiers: The Scandal of Open Access Publishing

Our October book, The History Manifesto, reached broad audiences.  It was a first for academic history to follow in the trails long ago paved by Radiohead: we put the book online for free; we started a twitter hashtag; we invited the public in, and when they tweeted at us, we read, and sometimes tweeted back.   But open access has new rules, and the rules keep one busy.  Somewhere in the midst of watching the commentary and making revisions, we fell afoul of some of our readers, when we accepted their suggestions and updated our text accordingly. >

I believe that we (and the Press) made a mistake in February by releasing a new edition of The History Manifesto without announcing that a revised manuscript was available.   There was a new edition of The History Manifesto, in two parts.  A revised version of Figure 2 came out on November 20, 2014.  Ten lines of tightened prose and five revised footnotes came out on February 5, 2015.   Some readers took this failure to announce a revised edition as evidence of the intent to deceive. 

It's important to differentiate, however, between an intentional conspiracy to sabotage one's critics and the active, ongoing, evolving task of experimenting with a new format of publishing.   We had no desire to lead our readers astray, nor to cover up the ongoing debate, when we issued a revised edition.    Far from it, we believed that we were living into a commitment to bringing new, online, open-access forms of publishing into the heart of scholarship.  Publishing on the internet opens up the possibility of an ongoing process of revision that is new to publishers, writers, and readers in the academy.  I believe that our experience is an exemplary moment for the institution as a whole to learn from, and to benefit from, the lively public engagement that the new frontier of open-access publishing makes possible. 

The concession that we should have announced the "revised manuscript" has been backed up by action, a collective action undertaken not only by us the authors but also by the whole host of staff at Cambridge University Press.  On Monday March 30, a revised website came out that went go beyond merely remarking a “manuscript of record” in the way suggested to us in private correspondence by Peter Mandler – that Cambridge University Press should announce that there has been a revision posted.  On March 30, we listed all of the revisions in detail – the tightened lines of prose, the footnotes, and the altered illustration will are available on the front page, where a document describes them exactly as they were given to the typesetter.  Those who select “download” on the History Manifesto website now have the opportunity to choose between an “original edition” or a “revised edition.”  The process is meant to be as transparent as we, the Cambridge University Press editors and designers, could possibly make it. 

Charges of an “ethical breach” highlight larger questions of publishing process that we, as scholars, will have to reckon with in an era of new technology -- questions all of us must grapple with.  The dynamics of open-access publishing are new, and there is great utility in establishing a “manuscript of record” to which subsequent criticism can refer in detail.  Some of them have participated in publishing discussions in higher education that have underscored the importance to the scholarly record of having a publication of record, noting when particular parts of the text have been changed.  We, and the leadership of the Press, were persuaded.  Revision should not be an unlimited process; there should be an official “revised manuscript” available to readers alongside an original version.

Dealing with these issues is new not only for us but also for Cambridge University Press, a point that was driven home abundantly in our conversations with senior editors and staff.  In book form, "revised editions" are rarely issued with this level of detailed annotation. Standard practice for a traditional print book, our editors quickly pointed out, would be summed up by one quick line on the copyright page of a standard print book: “revised edition: some text has been altered from the original.”  Even when there have been meetings with positions drafted and recognized, activities such as these are still new to Cambridge University Press.

It is also important that scholars understand that an institutional delay does not signal unethical intention, but is part of a necessary ingredient of rethinking how texts are released when publishing experiments are underway and many individuals are involved.  Delay makes room for a minor public relations crisis in publishing and digital humanities.  From the outside, the two-month delay in clarifying the process of revision smacks of conspiracy.  In reality, there was a two-week-long turn-around between the time that our critics directly contacted us and the issue of a new statement online clarifying what had been changed.  That two weeks was an incredibly efficient process, given the number of editors, lawyers, and in-house web-designers who had to be consulted to make such a change happen.  There was immense good will on behalf of all parties, scrambling to get the changes clarified as quickly as possible. 

Actually effecting the updates to the website required both time and the work of an entire staff – including a series of Cambridge editors with book and journal experience, and the Cambridge New York staff who are responsible for the website.  We, the authors, were happy to post a detailed list of the ten lines of tightened prose and five footnotes revised in February.  The press saw the wisdom of all of this, and recommitted themselves to clarifying what had been done.  But even when everyone is on board – consensus is formed, the will is good, and everyone has signed off – it can take a minute to coordinate a dozen people, including various editors, website curators, coders, and even legal counsels – to make sure that the act happens.  

We are living through a frontier moment of online publishing.  It should be remembered that of the five university presses who we spoke to initially about releasing the manuscript, none had released an open-access book in the humanities before; the sole precedents were works from MIT press like Peter Suber’s Open Access not issued in the field of history. There are scant precedents for appropriate habits of keeping readers updated with what version they are reading.  Critique and revision in an online world come bogglingly fast – indeed they can be consuming for editors and authors who have other obligations.  Remember that these November to February revisions came atop a book that had only been published on October 2, 2014; in the traditional world of academic publishing, we would count ourselves lucky to be receiving the first published book reviews so early.

Other scholars who study digital media have nevertheless been optimistic about the opportunities that this new form of publishing holds for revision as a process. In her 2011 book Planned Obsolescence, media scholar Kathleen Fitzpatrick delivered a positive verdict on her experience circulating a manuscript for “open review” on the internet where all readers could comment, instantaneously, on her text. 

Because we were persuaded by arguments such as these, we published The History Manifesto open access (a first for Cambridge University Press).  David Armitage and I had been part of a world of digital humanities conversations in Cambridge, MA from 2010 to 2014, one where open-access advocates like Margy Avery, Martin Eve, and Caroline Edwards were in meetings with the History Department, Harvard Press, the Metalab, and the Harvard Libraries about how and whether Harvard would move from a digital open repository to more daring attempts at open access, for example releasing its back catalogue of academic books to a public readership.  

Advocating for open access was, for us, a moral issue of how scholars should negotiate when working with publishers.  We believed that we should work with the institutions around us to bridge the gap between the academy and a broader public readership, indeed global readership, at present barred from much scholarship by the obstacle of the pay wall.  It also felt like an important issue for institution-building, for helping our departments and universities to adapt to the opportunities of a digital age, and for modeling a form of scholarship that thinks critically about the organs of publishing and dissemination at a moment of technological change.  When we took the manuscript for our new book around to various university presses, we thought of the book negotiations as an important opportunity for faculty to engage publishers about the ethical and pragmatic questions of how scholars engage the public.  We were pressing for open access because we wanted there to be a path for engaged scholars to reach a broader audience and to learn from them, still paired with the credentials offered by a university press.

Like Fitzpatrick, we too have profited from the particular demands for clarification voiced by Danny Loss and others.  In contrast, how many footnotes in traditional monographs go unread for want of a twitterverse or blogosphere filled with active, commenting readers?  Most academic monographs are reviewed by three readers, a process that sometimes extends from months into years and conflicts with timelines for hiring, tenure, and promotion.  Blind peer review for journals is likewise slow. Our lightening-quick reviews from the public pushed our manuscript towards even greater standards of perfection than those to which most manuscripts are held.  

One of the ways that open access invites new frontiers in publishing is that it opens up a wide window to feedback from the public, whether scholars or members of the public at large.  For the first four months of the book's life, we were closely watching twitter and the blogs, reading the praise and blame alike, and noting for ourselves opportunities to improve the text.  It seemed to us that this process might be one of ongoing receptivity and revision.  Thus, at the time, it made sense to talk about a process of revision rather than to announce a revised edition.  We had already released a general statement about revision as a process in a blog entry of November 20, 2014 (link: . 

In the process of engaging with our readers, we closely examined the substance of the critiques, some of which were valid inquiries into what we meant in a footnote; others of which simply evidenced that readers on the internet were unfamiliar with the conventions of writing in the historical profession.   For instance, an anonymous twitter personality whose critique was cited by senior colleagues in their footnotes as evidence of sloppy scholarship appeared, upon deeper inspection, to be unfamiliar with historians’ convention of using a footnote to allude to a body of historical writing that may be useful for further reading, rather than exactly matching the content of a sentence or paragraph to the conclusions of the works in the footnote, as is the convention in disciplines like economics.  

This is an important moment in terms of setting a model for engagement by academics with the public.   It is our hope that the model of engagement that we choose, individually and collaboratively, can remain one that is open to critique from without, one that bears out the idealism of sharing and long-term thinking that we talked about in The History Manifesto in terms of a practice of sharing manuscripts designed to circulate for the long term. 

What Cambridge University Press, as publishers, and we, as authors, are modeling is a new form of engagement with open access publishing -- new for the press and new for scholars.  We hope that our commitment to establishing a manuscript of record, and our ongoing commitment to open-access publishing, will be read in the light that we intend it: as a positive example of engagement by scholars with scholars, by scholars with the public, and by institutions with the longue duree and the collective good.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Finally! Google Begins to Think Big (Big History, That is)

In a keynote address delivered to the Berlin Open Knowledge Festival earlier this year, Googler Eric Hysen set up some big stakes for Google's future: Google, he said, has not yet begun to think big.  To really think big, Google would need to start thinking about history, and to think about infrastructure in particular.

How is it that enormous shifts in economics and politics have been executed in our historical experience?  The industrial revolution and the creation of the modern nation-state both rest upon the building of physical infrastructure, and in particular, upon the building of roads.  If Google wants to really change our reality -- to stand up to promises that the internet can bring transparency to government, that it transform public policy and public health, or that it can actualize democracy through access to information -- then Google would do well to think about how material infrastructure creates revolutions in information, and how the information revolution of our own time is also an infrastructure revolution.  All of these points are picked up by Hysen's keynote.  He gets it: this is not the first time the world has been transformed by laying pipe and getting people together, and we can learn from the past how to do it better and aim for bigger successes than before.

What I hear in Hysen's speech is an important trend in the way certain individuals have begun to understand our world anew, a return to long-term thinking.  That means using history to map out where we are in the present, and to foreground how we might engage vast processes and macroscopic patterns (for instance, actualizing democracy, as Hysen urges Google to do).


Long-term thinking stands out in contrast with many of the ways that policy-makers and consultants urge us to think big, including measuring employment or bottom-line returns on investment -- both important numbers, to be sure, but often one-dimensional measures which in recent decades have served as a distraction from larger goals like political and market participation, income inequality, and ecological sustainability.

The history of long-term thinking, what it consists in, how it went away, and why it's coming back is in fact exactly what I've been writing about for most of this summer, as I've been putting the finishing touches on a new book, The History Manifesto, with my co-author, Harvard professor David Armitage (you can already read the pre-release version online, but you'll miss out on the chapters on inequality, climate change, participation, economists and their data -- so make sure to pre-order your copy of the book).  The way we tell it, our society is in a crisis of short-term thinking where almost no institution from the government to the board room to the NGO thinks on timescales longer than twenty years into the future.  Thinking longer around the bend than that, we argue, has traditionally required engaging experts who think more than twenty years into the past, and that means engaging with history.

Eric Hysen is a member of a new generation of recent college graduates whose questions about the future leave them unsatisfied with one-dimensional measurements.   Individuals like Eric bring questions about the past to bear on speculation about how world-systems change on enormous scales.

Indeed, Hysen is hoping to inaugurate exactly such a pivotal change in the institutions around him.  Hysen's role at Google is to oversee the development of open voting protocols and open government schemes.  His group has established important landmarks for how Google can automate and scale the process of voluntary hacker groups opening up their government's data, including setting up a digital infrastructure for licensing and sharing data across platforms.  "We're not living up to our potential," Hysen states, throwing down the gauntlet.  He looks back three hundred years, and comes up with the turnpike trust revolution of seventeenth-century England, which, as he states, helped to diminish the length of the average Cambridge student's journey to London from two days to seven hours.  To my mind, however, Hysen's talk stops short of its own ambitions, even while it looks in the correct direction.

In one very important detail, Hysen is looking in the wrong place -- or rather, that is to say, in the wrong time.   Hysen's talk explicitly points to the first chapter of the transport revolution, the creation of turnpike trusts by parliament, as an example of how private enterprises working with government support can revolutionize an economic system.  But much of what Hysen is interested in -- the standardization of milestones, the straightening of paths, the leveling of hills and filling in of ditches in order to create flat roads and thus shorter journeys -- was actually part of a slightly later revolution, not the turnpike revolution of 1660-1760, but the interkingdom highway revolution of 1785-1848.  It's that latter revolution that interested me, and I wrote a book about it, setting it out in the history of infrastructure from ancient Persia to the internet.  The interkingdom highway revolution -- not the turnpike trusts -- was the revolution that gave us the modern economy as we know it today.

What separates the two revolutions is a difference in scale that changed everything after in the face of capitalism and what we expected it to do.  In the turnpike revolution, a hundred road startups appeared and improved transportation for a few wealthy individuals, creating a map of affluent towns with cobblestone roads, kicking back the returns to their happy investors.  In the interkingdom highway revolution, those small road startups were bought out and grafted together by a government initiative that had a radical new purpose.  It wouldn't be roads just for the few and wealthy any more.  Now, roads would be built to the poorest communities, the ones that normally couldn't afford to link up with prosperous markets.  Before roads, capitalism was just mercantilism, a trading game for the rich and powerful.  After roads, we expected capitalism to flow horizontally.  A rising tide would float all boats. In many times and places, that miracle of capitalism meant running water, flush toilets, newspapers, and cheap housing for the poor, all delivered through the miracle of free roads, built by someone else, running straight up to the doorstep of every newborn infant in every modern nation.  Without doing anything, without working or deserving it, individuals were born connected.  They could opt out, like Thoreau, moving to the woods, but someone believed that they should have the chance to get to market if they wanted it.  So new-paved roads came to each newborn baby's door, and most of us spend our lives walking on sidewalks and roads built by other people for our enjoyment, without thinking much about how they get us to places where we work and spend and play. Infrastructure is mutual aid, frozen into the form of architecture.  It's the only form of capitalism most of us want any part in.

Consider the implications for Google.  Hysen has smart landmarks -- interoperable data, more regular voluntary hackathon events -- but few of them address this question of reaching people who are on the outside of the normal flow of capitalism.  As a result, Silicon Valley money, whether working in California or Berlin or Bangalore, tends to create a bubble world of privileged software developers creating apps to buy and sell bangles or cars or the best bike routes, mainly catering to other privileged folk of their own race and class.  Like the turnpike trusts of the seventeenth century, they improve a mile or two of road, serving a smooth ride to the the cream of the population.  But for everyone else, life goes on unchanged.


So what if Google took a page from history?  What if Google and the German national government decided that who they really wanted to serve was the slum residents of Dar es Salaam, or the inhabitants of the Zaatari refugee camp, or the citizens of Red Hook, to make sure that they had adequate access to material infrastructure like water-points, toilets, broadband cables and routers, and the tools to govern these systems themselves?  What if they decided, as the designers of the interkingdom highway revolution did, that it was worth a cut to their investors at present to build a larger system, one so different in ambition and scale that it would change everything?  They would be working on creating a state-change in the kind of capitalism and democracy we know today, as different as the world after the transportation revolution was from the world before it.

Google hasn't been in this game, but many ambitious activist groups have been -- ones dedicated to building the digital infrastructure for public participation in places where Google does not yet have a constituency.  These groups -- Geeks Without Bounds, Taarifa, Ushahidi, and Public Lab -- are mainly staffed by coders working for the public good.  Their model is entirely centered on bringing participation to the excluded -- that is, to teaching geeks how to design the infrastructure after listening to the poor neighbors of Dar es Salaam (who are busy, mind you).  The result is some really transformative models of software designed for poor, busy people -- ones that allow folks with cell phones (but no internet) to tell each other when a water point is out of order, and then to pay someone local to repair it, all without the bureaucracy of the World Bank.  Global infrastructure enables a state change in local economies.

However, the efforts here are, much like the era of the Turnpike Trusts, piecemeal.  Coders who really believe that infrastructure brings freedom fly to Dar es Salaam or hang out in Red Hook on the basis of a couple of Knight Foundation grants or World Bank consulting gigs, but they aren't doing it for the money.  They are essentially voluntary and limited by the good will and idealism of a few western college graduates.  As a result, there's a limit to how far they can scale before they run out of funds, time, or enthusiasm, or just need to pay rent or make sure their babies have shoes.  A change of scale tends to happen with institutions like these when information is consolidated and centralized and coordinated.

Here's what I mean by looking backwards to look forwards.  The Big Transport Boom of the eighteenth century depended upon centralizing a vision and then training poor people, lots of them, to make roads for other poor people to get to market.  If they had concentrated only on rich people, it would have failed.

Imagine: if Google decided that it wanted to use its hackathons and intern power to regularly boost the power of these service groups.  Imagine constructing an infrastructure for training and deploying a thousand slum residents to incubate their own neighborhood-accountable projects.  Here's the historical lesson: Poor people build roads for poor people to do other things on.  An institution comes in and makes it scale a hundred thousand times over.  The economy is utterly transformed, a hundred times over.  The lead institution takes an infinitesimal cut on return on investment -- a tiny return, the equivalent of a gasoline tax, not a toll-road return to compensate investors any time within the next twenty years -- and the result is the invention of a new economic system, which pays back all participants on a scale hitherto unfathomable.


The other game that Google hasn't been in is the ownership of material infrastructure.  Eric Hysen rightly suggests that a game-changer would be to move on from apps.  Move from shiny apps to infrastructure and collaboration, he says, for instance more regular hackathons for open government.  It's true, regularizing collaboration would change it.  But there's another lesson of history here -- the importance of the material pipes through which information flows.

In the eighteenth century, those pipes were the roads, which carried state-coaches, which carried mail, parcels, and newspapers, thus generating an information revolution.  In the twenty-first century, those pipes are broadband cable.  Thus far, Google has been content to stand by while Cox and Comcast monopolize broadband across America (practically everywhere except Knoxville, TN and Lafayette, LA) and become pushy in international conversations, thus jeapardizing the relationship of the entire Global South to an open internet.  In practice, the Cox/Comcast monopoly means profits hand-over-fist for those who own the pipes, with almost no incentive to lay new pipes to poor people.  What that means is that there's an upward limit, even with a million Geeks Without Bounds groups in their ilk.  You can design all the software you want, but if there's no hardware to reach the poor, then the poor will still be on dial-up internet in the year 2025.

Fine: Google's is the software biz, not the hardware biz.  But if Google really wants a historical revolution of the kind Hysen describes, they cannot get it without a revolution in three-dimensional infrastructure: pipes, cables, servers, routers.  So consider claims about transformative nature of software initiatives like open government or open health.  Without pipes, the poor will not be downloading open government data in large amounts and doing their own calculations about how government could serve them better.  They might submit their information, but it will still only be a few, affluent, full-time researchers in schools of public health who do the calculations, in 2025 as now.  That's not an information revolution, it's just another notch in the belt of academia.

Google has every reason to want to be the force that creates an infrastructure revolution in our time.  Coordinating a software revolution between many communities using interoperable data is the first step, and the next step is making sure that that software revolution extends into the majority of the world's communities, which are still underserved and unlinked in real terms to anything like capitalism or democracy.  But that infrastructure revolution will be incomplete unless Google, the nations of the world, or the bankers decide to challenge monopoly ownership of the pipes as well. It's time to think big.

PS Many thanks to Evgeny Morozov for pulling me into this conversation

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