Network Ecologies


We are witnessing a structural transformation of the technical object. It is now dispersed into multilayered network infrastructures, its constituent elements endowed with forms of agency not yet easily comprehended, its constitution governed by a multitude of protocols and standards. This essay explores the extent to which the book can serve as paradigmatic example of this transformation. Today, the book operates as a node in logistical networks, as a source of big data strategies in new economies of capture, as a sensation surface involved in formatting attention, as a key relay in semiotic capitalism, and as educational resource whose status as core element in open learning systems has been both enhanced and challenged by dynamic publishing. As technologies such as print-on-demand, object-oriented databases, and virtualized computing have matured to the point that a poly-medial architecture is sustainable despite inevitable hard and software anachronization, it is this architecture that is key to our vision of the book.

Comprehending the book as a distributed dynamic rather than a stable object challenges numerous methodological and technological assumptions that have guided and governed book production in the past. The design-based process of exploration we outline here is organized as an iterative process that oscillates between analytical engagements and the development of software tools. Given our interest in relating the structural transformation of the book to processes of institutional transformation and the logistical organization of new knowledge ecologies, the essay is both conceptual and practice-based to explore the various registers of the becoming-immanent of the book in our modes of communicative relation (Rossiter & Zehle 2015c).

Part of what makes a publishing platform like Scalar attractive to us is that it can accommodate the polyvocal actuality of our research. Despite frequent invocations of the pleasures and potentialities of transdisplinary arts-and-technology research, the organization of such research processes involve a fair amount of translation: of conceptual idioms, of methodologies, of assumptions. While the project has not yet been completed, it has already become clear that a large number of incommensurabilities—things that do not translate—will remain and will have to be accommodated rather than disappear in and through translation. One could even say that it is this remainder that drives the project, a kernel around which we wish to organize our research beyond the faith in all-encompassing humanities frameworks and the solutionism of a technical development process. The focus on a technical development process in the second half of this essay intrigues us not because practice is the telos of theory (it is not). But in the world of network media, standards are sometimes set by intervention on the level of multilateral governance, formal and de jure. More often, however, standards are set through the introduction and widespread adoption of a best practice strategy, de facto. Not discounting related efforts to operate on the level of multistakeholder governance, it is on this level we wish to intervene through our research. However, the design of our research process includes the creation of an international stakeholder network, many of whose members are already involved in such negotiations.

The modular approach to the writing of this essay reflects the distinctiveness and diversity of disciplinary positions involved. And finally, it reflects our own uncertainty regarding the digital humanities. It is not at all obvious to us that humanities research will or even should be our primary mode of engagement with the future of the book. Maybe the informatization of publishing demands entirely different forms of engagement, driven by new literacies and organized through new research constellations.

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