Digital Documents and Academic Productivity
What is the nature of digital documents as an innovation, that it is possible to ask whether they might affect the value of information and its use and the organization of academic research? Geoffrey Nunberg has identified two differences between digital and mechanical technologies that affect both the value of knowledge and the organization of its reproduction.
Unlike mechanical antecedents like the printing press, the typewriter, or the telegraph, the computer isn't restricted to a single role in production and diffusion. In fact, the technology tends to erase distinctions between the separate processes of creation, reproduction and distribution that characterize the classical industrial model of print commodities, not just because the electronic technology employed is the same at each stage, but because control over the processes can be exercised at any point.
... The second important difference between the two technologies follows from the immateriality of electronic representations and the resulting reductions in the cost of reproduction.
The fundamental consequence of these differences, Nunberg argues, is that the user has much greater control of the process of digital reproduction of knowledge as well as its content, essentially transforming the meaning of publication by allowing the reader to replace the author in determining the context and form of knowledge.
However, these differences in the process of the reproduction of ideas do not apply to all digital information, only to information that is "born digital," sometimes also called "digital documents." Today's marketplace consists largely of digitized documents, that is, works written for and reproduced in printed journals, then scanned and distributed on the network. Digitized documents conform to the modes of production of print journals: to the rhetorical rules of the genre of scientific and to the traditional relationships between author, publisher, and reader. If prior processes of technological innovation hold in this case, however, digitized documents represent only a transitional stage, one in which the attempt is made to
use new technologies to increase the productivity of traditional modes of production and to reinforce traditional authority patterns. CD-ROM technology is a good example of the attempt to preserve the traditional modes of production yet take advantage of the capability of digital signals to include multimedia, by packaging them within a physical medium that can be managed just like a printed commodity. The immateriality of networked information is much more difficult to control, although encryption and digital watermarking are technologies that give to digital signals some of the characteristics that enable print copyright to be regulated.
The interesting points to watch will be whether the content of digital and print versions of the same works begin to diverge and whether readers will be allowed to appropriate published digital works and reuse them in new contexts. Markets are made by consumers, not just by publishers, and the fundamental question concerns the future of readers' behavior as the consumers of information. What, for example, is the unit of knowledge? Will readers want to consume digital journals by subscription? Or consume single articles and pay for them as stand-alone commodities through document delivery? Or treat a journal run as a database and pay for access to it as a searchable information service? As Nunberg points out, the intersection of technology and markets will be determined by the nature of the digital signal, which unifies the processes of production, reproduction, and use of information.
In thinking about the nature of digital documents and the kind of social relationships that they make possible, consider the credit card, which may well be the most successful digital document thus far. The credit card itself is only an interface to liquid cash and credit, taking advantage of mainframe computer technology and computer networks to manage market transactions wherever they occur around the world. It replaces printed currency and portable forms of wealth such as letters of credit and traveler's checks with a utility service. It creates new kinds of value: liquidity, through an interface to a worldwide financial system; timeliness and access, through 24-hour service anywhere in the world; and customized or personalized service, through credit. These new kinds of value are not easily measured by traditional measures of productivity; Brynjolfsson notes that by traditional measures, the ATM seems to reduce productivity by reducing the use of checks, the traditional output measure of banks. Yet to characterize the new kinds of value simply as improvements in the quality of service is not a sufficient description of the value of credit or debit cards, since they have created entirely new kinds of markets for financial services and a new interface for economic activity that supports entirely new styles of life, creating a mobile society.
One of these new markets is worthy of a second look, not only as an example of innovation, but to explore the reflexive quality of digital documents. When I use a debit card, a profile of my patterns of consumption is created, information that is of economic value for advertising and marketing; thus I often receive coupons for new or competing products on the back of my grocery receipt. Information
about my use of information is a new kind of economic value and the basis of a new kind of market when used by advertisers and market analysis. In tracking the use of digital services, network technologies might also be described as keeping the consumer under surveillance. Issues of privacy aside, and they are not sufficiency recognized as yet, this tracking will make possible an entirely new, direct, and unmediated relationship between consumer and publisher.
Thus the discussion of protecting intellectual property on the Internet has focused not only on technologies that allow for the control of access to copyrighted material, but also on technologies that audit the use of information, including requirements for the authentication of the identity of the user and tracking patterns of use. The consequences of this reflexivity may well reflect a fundamental shift in how we conceive of the value of information. While markets for physical commodities were regulated by laws and inventory management techniques, markets for digital services will focus on both the content and use of information and will use the network as a medium for knowledge management techniques.
To summarize this process of innovation, credit cards might be described in productivity terms as an efficient new way to manage money, but they might also be described as creating entirely new genres of wealth, literally a new kind of currency; as new ways of life that create new kinds of social and geographical mobility; and in terms of the new kinds of markets and organizations that they make possible. Digitized documents may lower the costs of reproduction and distribution of print journals and perhaps some first-copy costs, but they also create new kinds of value in faster modes of access to information, new techniques for searching, and more customized content. And in the longer run, true digital documents will produce new genres of scholarly discourse, new kinds of information markets, and perhaps new kinds of educational institutions to use them.
At the moment these new possibilities tend to be discussed in terms of the capacity of the new technology to disrupt the laws, cultures, and organizations that have managed research, reading, publishing, and intellectual property in the era of print. Most prominent among these disruptions has been the discussion of the protection of copyright on the Internet, but there is also active concern about the social impacts of digital documents. For example, we have just identified the problem of privacy and surveillance of networked communication, a capacity for surveillance that has already begun to change the nature of supervision in the workplace. Or, to take a second kind of social impact, pornography on the Web has been defined as a social problem involving the protection of children. But these problems are only two examples of a broader issue concerning the impact of a global communications medium on local norms, for the scope of the network transcends the jurisdiction even of national regulatory authorities. There is discussion about the quality of social relationships in Cyberia, negatively manifested by the problem of hostile electronic mail and positively manifested by emerging forms of virtual community. And in national information policy, debate continues about the proper balance between the public interest in access to information
and the commercialization of information in order to create robust information markets.
To summarize, digital technology is not so much about the introduction of intelligent machines, a process that Wriston described as "the application of information to the means of production," as it is about the productivity of knowledge workers. The process of technological innovation implies social and economic change and will be marked by changing knowledge cultures and new genres, which support new styles of life; by changing modes of production, which are likely to be manifested in new kinds of rhetoric, discourse, and new uses of information; and by new forms of communication and community, which will be the foundation of new markets and institutions.