Walled Gardens and Websites in Boxes: Planned Obsolescence, “Texts”

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 “The Internet hates walled gardens,” Kathleen Fitzpatrick writes in the “Texts” chapter of Planned Obsolescence, and this reality highlights some of the failures of digital publishing to acknowledge and facilitate the communal readings of texts (117). Certain file formats—namely, PDF, EPUB, and Kindle—often encourage the reproduction of the look and feel of the print book while the economics surrounding these file formats often isolate readers in ways that the economics of the print book did, and do, not.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 With the PDF, the encouragement to reproduce the look and feel of the print book seems clear enough: this format fixes text into place, as typesetters do, freezing it for printing and portability and not much else. In “Texts,” Fitzpatrick writes that “these documents are, until printed, like paper under glass: mostly unmarkable, resisting interaction with an active reader or with other such documents in the network” (93). It comes as no surprise, then, that, before delivering the finalized version of a book to a printer, typesetters export that book to PDF (from software such as InDesign or Quark). With EPUB and Kindle files, however, the encouragement to reproduce the look and feel of the print book operates in a more subtle fashion. In fact, both formats rely on HTML, CSS, and some basic metadata (mostly captured in the Dublin Core standard)—all core web technologies. Yet, EPUB and Kindle documents remain discrete entities, unconnected to larger networks of text; they become “websites in boxes” as I once heard a conference speaker call them. Furthermore, these digital documents are often rendered via skeuomorphic software. Consider, for example, the way in which you can “flip” through pages in iBooks—an older version of that software actually featured a “flipping” sound effect. Even something as necessary and useful as the EPUB 3 Structural Semantic Vocabulary encourages publishers to partition and code their files using epub:type values such as frontmatter or pagebreak (IDPF). As Fitzpatrick argues, “we remain tied to thinking about electronic texts in terms of print-based, or, more specifically, codex-based, models” (94).

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Perhaps more concerning, however, are the economics of the digital publishing environment in which these file formats reside. While PDF, EPUB, and Kindle documents operate as discrete entities, they often operate as discrete entities tied to one reader or one device through digital rights management (DRM). Intended to thwart piracy, DRM takes many forms, from prohibiting the transfer of a file to watermarking a file with a reader’s name, that seem to roll back some of the communal benefits of the print book. For example, while a reader can share a purchased print book with a friend, she or he might not be able to do so with an ebook with restrictive DRM. Similarly, while publishers might sell print books to libraries with liberal terms of use, they might license ebooks to libraries with more stringent terms of use and expiration dates, potentially depriving readers access to these digital documents via public institutions. Meanwhile, the Kindle file format remains proprietary and intended to keep Amazon customers within the confines of Amazon. All of this is not to suggest that the economics that have surrounded, and do surround, the print book are necessarily ideal. Instead, I want to suggest that the economics surrounding these file formats might frustrate and isolate readers in new ways.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 How, though, can we avoid the walled gardens of these file formats and create texts that neither mimic the look and feel of print books or operate in problematic economic systems? For Fitzpatrick, acknowledging the communal nature of texts might be a good start: “developers of textual technologies would do well to think about ways to situate those texts within a community, and to promote communal discussion and debate within those texts’ frames” (107). A platform like CommentPress does this, she argues, by encouraging “the social interconnections of authors and readers” and, ultimately, implying that publishing remains an ongoing process conducted across time and texts (119–120). Meanwhile, a more recent project like EPUB Zero, which explores reading the EPUB format in browsers and freeing it from dependency on reading software, might encourage us both to rethink the nature of digital texts while acknowledging that all texts operate within networks and should, therefore, be portable and shareable among readers (Cramer).1 Ultimately, Fitzpatrick’s ability to address some of the shortcomings of digital publishing and gesture, through an understanding of textual scholarship, towards a more open, interconnected environment seems like the most compelling part of this chapter.


5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 1. Planned Obsolescence does not mention this project. Instead, I have mentioned it here as another, more recent (from 2015) example.

Works Cited

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Cramer, Dave. “EPUB Zero.” GitHub, 30 November 2015, https://github.com/dauwhe/epub-zero/blob/gh-pages/readme.md.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy. New York University Press, 2011.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 IDPF (International Digital Publishing Forum). “EPUB 3 Structural Semantics Vocabulary,” 5 October 2016, https://idpf.github.io/epub-vocabs/structure/.

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    Encouraging students think about the impact advancements in digital technology have on the future of scholarship from the moment they enter the Graduate Center, the Digital Praxis Seminar is a year-long sequence of two three-credit courses that familiarize students with a variety of digital tools and methods through lectures offered by high-profile scholars and technologists, hands-on workshops, and collaborative projects. Students enrolled in the two-course sequence will complete their first year at the GC having been introduced to a broad range of ways to critically evaluate and incorporate digital technologies in their academic research and teaching. In addition, they will have explored a particular area of digital scholarship and/or pedagogy of interest to them, produced a digital project in collaboration with fellow students, and established a digital portfolio that can be used to display their work. The two connected three-credit courses will be offered during the Fall and Spring semesters as MALS classes for master’s students and Interdisciplinary Studies courses for doctoral students.

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