The Digital Turn: Bob Stein on Media, Technology,

and the Future of Academic Publishing

Michelle Kelley


Bob Stein likes to push the limits of what’s possible. When new formats become codified, he grows bored with them. That’s why he’s frustrated with the sluggish pace of change in digital publishing, a field he helped pioneer over 35 years ago.

Stein is perhaps best known for his work with The Voyager Company, which in 1985 produced the first commercial CD-ROMs. However, as a film and television scholar, I was particularly interested in speaking with Stein about some of his other innovations in digital publishing. Prior to his work at Voyager, Stein established The Criterion Collection with his former wife, Aleen Stein, and Joe Medjuck. Criterion issued its first two titles, King Kong (1933) and Citizen Kane (1941), in 1984. In 2006, Stein’s Institute for the Future of the Book helped launch MediaCommons with the goal of promoting new modes of publishing in Media Studies. In Media Res, the longest-running MediaCommons project, facilitates semi-collaborative online scholarship around curated collections of clips.

Stein spoke candidly with me about what digital technology can and can’t do, the importance of collaborative work, resistance to change in the academy, and how scholars can fight to expand the definition of fair use. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.


I thought I’d start by asking you about The Criterion Collection. I was interested to learn that the first laser discs included chapters with supplemental materials, such as the scripts, but also the first scene-specific audio commentary. How did you conceptualize this project? Did you think of it as having an educational function?


When we started it, we wanted to make it possible for the average intelligent person to learn as much as they wanted to learn about a movie. One of my favorite stories about [Allen Hughes and Albert Hughes] is from when we put Menace II Society into The Criterion Collection. They told us that they grew up in Compton here in Los Angeles, and they didn’t go to film school. They said, “Everything we learned about movies, we learned from studying Criterion.” And when they made the movie, they kept going like this to each other [holds out an imaginary microphone], pretending they were recording the commentary track. And then they ended up doing one, which was sort of perfect.


Do you think digital technology democratizes educational opportunity?


It could. I think that the ordinary human who can at least gather the resources to have a computer has access to knowledge that people have not had before. Whether that opens doors or not is not necessarily a function of technology. That’s when cultural forces and individual talent really come into play.

To exploit what you’ve learned is not trivial, especially if you’re a poor black kid living in St. Louis, in Ferguson. I don’t think the internet will set us free. I don’t think it will necessarily enslave us either, but I don’t think it will set us free.

Before I started The Criterion Collection, I was hanging out at the research lab at Atari, and I think half of the group had come out of the first class of Media Lab. The kids were all smart, and I liked them. But they were all very much of the belief that machines were going to set us free, and they just saw life getting better and better. It’s ridiculous. [Laughs.] But I understand how they ended up there. Because they were privileged white kids, and there was no reason for them to think differently.

“My interest was always in trying to understand what these new technologies afforded.”


Do you think if you don’t come from a place of privilege, you’re more likely to be skeptical of that kind of technological utopianism?


Yeah. Yesterday I was waiting for somebody at the La Brea Expo line and an African American kid, probably in his early 20s, had a little pick and was working on a scooter. I said to him, “Are you hacking it?” [Nods.] So we started talking about the process of hacking things. He said they are all hackable, but the companies are figuring out how people are doing it. They change them, and the kids have to learn all over again. I said to him and his friend, “You know, in the ’60s we had this phrase, ‘The power of the people will always be stronger than the man’s technology.’” They laughed and said it’s still true. But I think it’s less true now than it was then. Man’s technology has gotten pretty powerful, but in terms of hacking a scooter the kids are still going to win.


What was the impetus for MediaCommons? What was its objective?


Why do you think there was resistance to making In Media Res a more collaborative platform?


I should preface this by saying I’m not a huge fan of MediaCommons. For years what it did was In Media Res, and I’m not a big fan of In Media Res. The whole origin of MediaCommons is with a guy named John Seely Brown who used to be the head of Xerox.[1] John and I were both fellows at USC at the Annenberg Center where I started the Institute for the Future of the Book. John and I really wanted to encourage new forms of scholarship, and Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Avi Santo both crossed our mental paths. I said to John, “These two are both really smart. They both want to do good stuff. Let’s put them together.”

They started In Media Res, or we did together, which was fine. But it drove me nuts because although we were working on various forms of social media consumption and In Media Res was perfect for that, I couldn’t convince them to implement anything that was really social. It’s like Criterion, which I haven’t been involved with since 1996.[2] It drives me crazy that The Criterion Collection edition that came out yesterday is indistinguishable in form from Citizen Kane and King Kong 35 years ago.

My interest was always in trying to understand what these new technologies afforded. I always wanted to push at the edges, and whenever anybody settled on something, I got bored because that wasn’t what I was in it for. Basically, I’m not very monogamous.



I think academia favors the individual and does not actually give a shit about collaborative efforts, and it’s deep. I think they couldn’t see it.


Do you think society and culture are becoming more collaborative?


No. It’s interesting; if you go to places like China or the former Soviet Union countries or Russia and you ask people who are old enough to have lived under both [the capitalist and communist systems], the most typical comment you get is, “Materially we are much better off, but the social fabric is fucked. We used to take care of each other, and we don’t anymore.” Capitalism sucks. Whether or not humanity can get beyond it…I’m not as hopeful as I was in the ’60s.


On the topic of capitalism, I want to ask you about fair use. It seems like current copyright law prevents academics from fully engaging with digital media in online publications.


That was the one bit of advice [Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Avi Santo] did take at MediaCommons, which was my position from the very beginning. It was, fuck copyright. Just put in the clips that you want to put in. You have every right to do it.

The academy is a very conservative place. And if you ask permission as a professor to do something, the answer is always no because nobody ever got fired for saying no.

At USC as part of the Institute [for the Future of the Book], I really wanted to establish that fair use extended to film. And Elizabeth Daley, who was the dean, said, “Oh my God, you can’t do that. But I’m sure if we go to Warner Bros. – because everyone will follow Warner’s lead – that we can work this out.”

So, Elizabeth and I went to see the chief council for Warner and explained the problem. He said, “I totally get it. Students have to be able to write electronic papers where they can quote films. No problem. Here’s all you have to do. When a student wants to write a paper and quote from a film, they just write a letter to Warner saying what they’re going to do, and we’ll say yes to every one of those letters.”

I walked out the room and said, “No fucking way.” The reason he wanted to do that was to establish that they have control, and the whole position we were taking was that it was not up to him or them. So, asking permission was the last thing we wanted to do.

The academy is a very conservative place. And if you ask permission as a professor to do something, the answer is always no because nobody ever got fired for saying no.


What’s the best way to tackle this problem, to fight for fair use?


There’s only one way to fight for fair use. Just do it. You have to do it; you have to go to court; and you have to win.

I looked for years for the right piece that would get me into court, and one day I found it. A writer in England [Mark Marqusee] wrote a book on [Bob] Dylan in which he quoted long excerpts from his lyrics. Now Dylan is very litigious. Basically, Dylan is an asshole when it comes to copyright, and his label Sony is just as bad. So I said, “I want to take this book and make an electronic version of it, take where there is an excerpt of a lyric and include exactly that bit of music.” I wanted to go to court and say, “If [quoting the lyrics] is fair use, why isn’t this fair use? What about the sound makes it not fair?”

So, I called up Larry Lessig and I said, “Larry, I think I found the right thing to prove fair use for [audio-visual] media work.” He looked at the book and said, “Absolutely, this is it.”

I went to the publisher, The New Press, and I said, “This is what I want to do.” They said, “Great! Wonderful!” Months went by, and we didn’t get a contract. Finally, they told us, “Our lawyers just won’t let us do this deal. They’re afraid of Dylan and Sony.” When I called Larry and told him he said, “Bring me to New York. I’ll talk to them.” I did, and we went to a meeting with The New Press. Larry said to them, “Look, I understand. You’re afraid. Write me a letter saying you’re afraid, and I’ll go to the court with that and get an injunction that protects you.” They said, “Great!” Months went by until they finally told us, “Our lawyers won’t even let us write the letter.”

The sad thing is I eventually got the rights from the author, but by that time I didn’t have the platform to publish [the book].


Lastly, what are your thoughts on open access academic publishing?


Do you know the saying, “The emphasis is on the wrong syllable”? We have all this amazing potential with technology to change the basic forms of expression. Closed versus open? It’s not that interesting to me. It’s not bad. There’s nothing wrong with open access, but so what? It’s still the same old package.


[1] John Seeley Brown was the Chief Scientist of the Xerox Corporation.
[2] The Criterion Collection was a subordinate division of The Voyager Company. Voyager was dissolved in 1997.


Michelle Kelley is a writer and editor based in St. Louis, Missouri. She holds a PhD in Cinema Studies from New York University.