Opportunity, Responsibility, and the Edutainment War

Michael Jensen

Keynote speech given at the "Association of American University Presses Second Electronic Publishers Workshop, Washington, DC, June 1994.

Good morning, and welcome.

As many of you know, I've got some strong beliefs about the status of scholarly publishing in the online environment. I've been taking every chance I get over the last year to get across to the University Press community some messages about the moment--about how we are in a crucial, pivotal period in history.

That isn't going to change today. I've got fifteen minutes, and I intend to use them, in hopes that I can set a tone for the next two days.

Lorrie LeJuene from Michigan and I have to some extent already set the tone for the seminar by inviting the people we have. She and I agree on many things, if not most things having to do with the Internet and the future of publishing. She and I crafted the next two days to get as wide a variety as possible--pioneers, developers, policy makers, strategists, and thinkers in the public sector. We tried to get this wide array to give us as broad a perspective as possible on the strategic, political, policy, and economic considerations of electronic publishing.

But in all fairness, there are some people who haven't been invited. We didn't invite, for example, any corporate drones from Microsoft to talk about the value of edutainment. We didn't invite the little girl from MCI to talk in airy tones about the Tao of interconnectivity. We didn't invite anyone from Sega or Nintendo to talk about gamesmanship, or anyone from Disney to explain that it's a small virtual world, after all.

A year ago, in Snowbird, I gave a little introductory talk for that seminar, in which I outlined some issues, some fears, and some imperatives. Like all curmudgeons, I've only become more cemented in my opinions. I'm more convinced than ever that we're in a war, folks, a war for the heart of our culture and the minds of our children, our students, our teachers, and eventually our scholars.

The nonprofit, educational, and governmental publishers must, absolutely must, begin to look beyond the next three years. We must realize that ten years from now we will look back upon these years as being the birth of the online environment. It is a new baby, and one whose character is being formed. It is our responsibility to assure that its character is formed with the best interests of our citizens in mind, not the best interests of the corporate bottom line.

This may seem too extreme for you, for an introductory talk--almost sociopolitical commentary. After all, it's only publishing, right? Just books that people choose to buy or not buy, right?

Wrong. We do more than print books. We Publish--make knowledge, research, information, even occasionally wisdom, Public. We judge, improve, publicize, and distribute that material for the advancement of education, scholarship, and eventually, and humankind.

We are publishers who share certain commonalities--who give more than lip service to the tenet that publishing high-quality content really matters. Who understand the process of peer review. We are publishers for whom quality control of content is as important as quality control of form. We are publishers who are also readers, who understand the value of research. We are non-profit, and believe that plowing profits back into continuing quality is expected.

We are also the most Internet-connected group of publishers in the world. Nearly all of us have the ability to work with our universities and our libraries and our schools, to gain--almost for the asking--an online site for experimentation, with a big pipe to the outside world.

We have an opportunity, and with that opportunity comes responsibility. Our experiments, our initiatives, our attempts at forging paths through the chaotic frontier of the Internet, all have implications and significance, and will affect in ways small and large the development of the personality of this infant.

The networked environment's strength is interconnectivity--between people and ideas and resources. In encourages curiosity and communication. It holds the potential to create what I consider to be the ultimate in an educational environment: a resource limited only by our creativity and curiosity.

The one-way character of broadcast media, on the other hand, encourages passivity, receptivity, inaction. The mass media--radio, television, newspapers, magazines--are, after all, primarily enticements, to bring receptive consumers to the advertisers. This is what keeps the economic engine rolling.

I'm seeing signs that the online world is being molded in the image of the mass media--just another means of broadcasting. It may be that the intrinsic structure of interconnectedness is so fundamentally different from broadcast that that's impossible, and that the efforts of the media giants to turn the Web into an entertainment and sales medium is just wrongheaded.

To continue the "baby" metaphor, this network predisposition against the broadcast entertainment model would be the genetic component of the baby I'm describing--the intrinsic nature of the infant. I hope so. But when I see where the big money is going now that the rich guys have cast their acquisitive gaze on networked interactivity--entertainment, role-playing games, online shopping--I worry. In a nature-nurture dichotomy, there's no question that Nature can be overwhelmed by Nurture, if we can call it nurturance.

The huge consortia are building systems not to enrich people's minds, but to enrich themselves by connecting to consumers. Not citizens, not students, not even users, but consumers.

I've got four kids. What I want for them is what I use as my touchstone as I work to develop structures--and even a philosophy of access and interface--for the University of Nebraska Press's eventual online publishing endeavor. I don't want my kids to spend their time in a hyper-Nintendo environment. I don't want a medium that helps them forget, to be distracted, to learn how to be better passive recipients of whatever they're given. Instead, I want an environment that encourages active investigation, directed learning: engaged pursuit of education.

The network, with our resources--that is, the rich variety of material that is currently "owned" by the nonprofit sectors, and by us as publishers--could create that environment, and in so doing, create a nation of dilletantes, who actively seek to learn more about whatever piques their curiosity. A nation of dilletantes will mean a nation of educated, cross-disciplinary minds, who actively pursue answers to questions.

This is the war I was talking about: a war for the sensibility of the online culture.

There is no sector in the nation better positioned to make a difference than we are, as long as we don't fortify the barriers and hunker down in fear of the new, doing only what we know. We must experiment, we must leap into the unknown, but we must leap wisely, if such a thing is possible. We hold the high moral ground from which to leap, because our interests are simply less venal than the commercial publishers. Our mandate, after all, is education through publishing.

Yes, we will charge--we are not a charity. We have to survive, and have financial resources for continual expansion and enrichment of digital resources. Yes, we will worry about copyright. Yes, we will worry about how we can compete with the titans of the information industry. Those issues are what this seminar is about.

And that's why we didn't invite edutainers to speak. In this war, we will come down to philosophical differences. And if the consumer culture takes over before our culture has gotten out of the gate, we'll have lost the war before we've begun.

I want to come to next year's Electronic Publishing Seminar to find a dozen viable experiments in online publishing of quality content. I want to hear discussions at next year's meeting of how we're doing it, not whether we should.

Because it's not a question of if, but when. Electronic publishing is an inevitability. It can be done now, it is being done now, and we can do it. And we can't afford to hang back until paper-quality screens are omnipresent. They will become available, unquestionably (there's too much money involved for it not to). But our reputations, and our role in the digital environment, will be defined long before those screens become available in every home. We must be acting soon, and finding out some tentative answers to the questions the digital revolution asks: how broadly to interweave our resources, how to partner with other organizations, how best to design documents for digital publication, how best to structure our production process and our marketing process to easily have electronic-publishing results, what online pricing structure works best for what kinds of content.

But it's not time yet for too much of that sort of discussion. We don't have enough experience, or enough understanding of the issues involved to do that. That's also what this seminar is for.

The subtitle of this seminar is Policy, Strategy, Possibilities. The Federal government is getting involved; granting agencies are beginning to recognize the significance of electronic publications; universities and schools are getting online at an astonishing pace. Policy is changing, and we need to know the issues. Strategy is vital--and without a reasonable understanding of what's going on, of the possibilities open to us, there can be no quality strategy. We will also need a coherent philosophy underlying our actions, which is of course harder to develop.

For many of us here in this room, all I've said is nothing surprising. For others, who have heard me rant like this before, it may actually be irritating. For others, this may be new--having someone say that we have nearly a moral responsibility to undertake a leap into the unknown.

But try throughout these next two days to remember the "baby" image. Try to have a long view. We have a long way to go before adolescence, and what we do to this baby will affect how this child of infinite possibility grows. We must nurture this child with the right sorts of nourishment, or it may grow to be a crass, ugly, dissatisfied, impatient brat who demands immediate gratification. And that brat may then infect our own human children with those intellectual qualities. I see that as dangerous on many levels, including making quality publishing largely irrelevant and ignored.

We can keep that from happening. We can use these digital tools to establish a reputation for high quality in a new medium. We can use these tools to make education entertaining in itself, without the artifice of edu- or infotainment. The thrill of discovery and understanding can be its own reward, if the resources are there. And we have those resources, and access to much more.

The practicalities of charging for, protecting, and presenting these resources digitally must come first, of course--but it's important to be sure that we're consciously addressing the larger issues: of what it is we do, why we do it, and what we want to do. And finally, we must address what it is we want to look back on, ten years from now, and say that we did.

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