In March, I am presenting on a panel at the annual meeting of the Association of Asian Studies. A few weeks ago, we co-panelists thought about ways in which we could enhance the process of writing and discussion on the papers before the conference happens. We are convinced that our idea for the panel could be turned into a neat little book and so, we wanted to invest far more longitudinal conversations than is common in panels [my advisor Ron Inden famously quipped: "A panel compromises of 4 people who never have to speak to each other."].
Since all the panelists were scattered around the country and could not meet in person [which would make life SO much easier], I felt that what we needed were 4 sets of networked documents - annotatable, referenceable. That is, we would want to comment on an individual paper, comment on that comment, and refer to some section on a similarly marked up different paper. Perhaps, a pdf or Word document with tracking enabled and a template, being mailed back and forth, continuously. Um, no.
My working notion, then, was to create a private wiki where the co-panelists will post our papers and get those conversations started: post our primary materials, notate the main trajectories of our arguments, etc. I think it would have worked reasonably well.
Today, however, Ben Vershbow and the amazing people at Institute for the Future of the Book introduced me to their notion of a networked working paper: Mitchell Stephens's The Holy of Holies: On the Constituents of Emptiness. Taking off of their earlier work on McKenzie Wark's Gamer Theory, this newly imagined paper provides each section with a dynamic margin to the right of the text where one can post comments on individual paragraphs, and also annotate the text with links and refereneces to related materials. One thing I can think of adding is a space for the meta-discussion - that is, the discussion of the paper as a whole. Also, a space for primary materials/evidentiary stuff would be great, etc.
One can easily see the immense potential of this - especially in the many-to-one discussion model. That is, a number of people commenting/parsing one basic text. I can easily see dissertation committees all over the land jumping up and spilling their coffees in excitement. Oh wait, they never read those things. I think the key part of this experiment is to mould technologies to get their benefits without necessarily rupturing the ways in which academia functions. This is a positive and welcome step in that direction.
As Ben mentioned, "I think the history community should pay attention... this is something they could really use." I couldn't agree more. So, how about it, Ben? How does your prototype scale to a panel?
One of the neatest benefits of archival research is reading the marginalia left in a book or manuscript by hundreds of years' worth of owners. It's nice to think that technology might accelerate this process a little. How might you publish the product of this sort of collaboration? A pdf of the final result wouldn't be sufficient. An online document, with time-tagged layers, to permit a reader to step through the accretion of commentary? We'll have to convince the academy to take online publishing seriously.
Generally speaking I'm a rather tech-illiterate person, but this sounds like a fascinating idea, a Derridream for philosophical bedwetters like me... however you go about it, do keep the rest of us posted via chapatimystery bro...