Working Toward a more Global Digital Humanities

28 May

[Another long post as this is a paper I submitted to my Digital Humanities class (mentioned in my last blog) at York taught by T.V. Reed.]

Digital Humanities as a formal field of study has a number of problems when it comes to issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, disability, and globalization. The insular nature of the field as it has been established makes it difficult for outsiders to find a way in, but the digital nature of the field also creates its own barriers to inclusion. As people within the field are so fond of suggesting, ubiquitous access to technology offers wonderful opportunities for collaboration, which is a hallmark of this field of study. Unfortunately, a great deal of that collaboration occurs within specific circles. By considering funding, institutions, and issues of race, class, and physical space, I outline some of the problems with a consideration of the digital humanities as a global field of study. I then offer some suggestions for ways to improve this situation with examples of some projects that are already making this happen.

One of the issues that is regularly left out of the digital humanities discussion is the problem of global access. Digital humanities is often presented from either a technologically determined point of view, or as a given that must be critiqued. That is, digital technology is presented as something that can save the humanities or academia in general (Kolowich 2011), or it is seen as a space in which we can begin to criticize the digital world in which we live and the digital tools we take for granted. Inherent in this position is the understanding that the digital is ubiquitous when, in fact, it is not if we consider the global society to which technology claims to have connected us.

Daniel P. O’Donnell suggests that many mid- and low-income areas of the world, while increasingly digital in terms of cell phone data use in particular, are not being served by digital humanities research centres (2012). While this may seem a trivial concern, it seems inappropriate that these areas of the world, with greater or equal digital use are not being adequately served by critical digital research or tools. This issue could be, as Babalola suggests, partially due to a lack of knowledge of digital humanities (2014), but it is also due to the ways in which digital humanities as a field relies on funding to accomplish its goals. It is, in part, for this reason that the majority of the digital studies centres are based in North America and Western Europe (Terras 2012). Funding is a major issue for digital humanities researchers in many parts of the world. While North Americans have the benefit of federal granting organizations (the National Endowment for the Humanities in the United States and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council in Canada), many established research groups and universities in other parts of the world must fight for funding with scholars of the hard sciences. This need to fight for funding from science-oriented organizations can mean that projects must be adjusted to highlight the computing or science aspects. Likewise, quantitative research methods are often valued over qualitative studies. As such, the amount of money allocated to humanities-based projects will be much less in such situations.

At the same time, the lack of established digital humanities research centres can, in fact, be quite useful in ensuring that there is more diversity in research content. In North American funding structures, the focus can often fall upon the product that will result from a particular project. Additionally, the focus of such projects is often quite conservative, reinforcing canonical structures. Lothian and Phillips, for example remind us that institutions have the power to “shape what scholarly work gets done” (2013). The overarching control of such institutions can limit the content available for funded research. Also problematic, however, are the ways in which digital centres can restrict scholarship and research themselves. Neil Fraistat suggests that digital centres help to bridge the gap between the humanities and computing, but that they can become silos (2012). It is for this reason that collaboration, one of the tenets of digital humanities as a field, is particularly important within and between digital centres as well as between those centres and outside researchers or members of the community.

Titilola Babalola shows that digital access in African countries like Nigeria is limited by access to wireless, frequent power outages, and the cost of data usage (2014). In addition to this lack of access for citizens in general, Babalola states that the “unavailability of wi-fi connection access on most of the university campuses in the country affects the quality of research done in these academic communities” (2014). A number of digital projects, particularly those created by the stars of digital humanities, require a great deal of processing power and memory in order to work properly. Sometimes, the issue is not only bandwidth access, but also access to computing power.

One of the important questions that must be asked when we consider a global digital humanities is one Natalia Cecire has asked of digital humanities in general: “who can afford to be a ‘hacker’ or a ‘builder,’ with the concomitant ethos of collaboration and niceness?” (2011). This question refers not just to funding, as in the above discussion, but also to issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability. There are, as Lothian and Phillips suggest, people who choose to remain separate from the digital humanities in order to maintain their positions, but also to avoid negative reception due to their positions as non-academics or due to their social status (2013). Browner suggests that “there are exciting materials now available to anyone with Internet access, but scholars of race and ethnicity do not yet get online and find themselves in a deep, comprehensive, well-linked and indexed world of materials” (2011, 209). This is a side effect of the funding issues mentioned above. Without funding, the number of projects, let alone easily accessible and user-friendly projects, is limited. The problem of deciding who gets to say what is and is not digital humanities is entirely linked to this issue of global access. A number of projects occurring in areas not served by digital research centres can be incomplete or less extravagant due to lack of resources or experience as researchers devote only their own free time to the projects. This “focus only on completed works fails to look critically at the many realities facing so many of these digital projects, particularly financial and human resources in both the Global North and South” (Jaksch and Nieves 2014). Jaksch and Nieves further suggest that we should consider the proposed as well as partial and completed projects in order to get a more complete picture of the digital humanities landscape.

Funding for digital projects does not come from university research groups alone. We can take Africa as an example of a continent that has seen an increase in the percent of the population with access to the internet, often through mobile phones (Babalola 2014; Jaksch and Nieves 2014). This increase has drawn interest from outside investors. Jaksch and Nieves suggest that increased investment from Asian corporations could lead to “a kind of second or third wave of colonial rule over emerging knowledge systems — a rule that may be naively perceived as benign global transnationalism by many Western outsiders” (2014). Likewise, Mark Zuckerberg and his internet.org movement are looking to tap into the previously unconnected parts of the world (Russell 2015). While this movement, like the globalisation of the Asian investors, may appear to be a positive influence, it can be linked to colonialism and financialization of people. Internet.org states on its website that it wants to connect people to others around the world as well as connect people to jobs and important local information. The company wants to do this through a mobile phone app that will provide free access to specific websites as well as finding new ways to provide infrastructure. These goals seem altruistic. It would be extremely useful for people to access such information without having to pay exorbitant fees in areas where access to data is at a premium, but this desire to help is tainted by the fact that one of the available apps is Facebook, providing Zuckerberg’s company with an income stream as users upload their data to the social networking site and it is resold to others.

Internet.org’s intrusion into Africa is not specifically a digital humanities problem, except that this introduction will increase the number of mobile users online and the number of investors interested in digital projects specific to the continent. These investors will not be as interested in finding culturally appropriate ways of furthering knowledge or digitizing artifacts; they will be interested in finding ways to sell products to this new market. With every “free” click on Facebook, users are helping the company to generate advertising revenue. Mark Coté and Jennifer Pybus call this kind of work “immaterial labour 2.0” (2011). These users are poised to become mid- to low-income working class members of the global economy in order to have access to something we in the West are increasingly thinking of as a human right (Kravets 2011). Without consistent local scholarly criticism of all things digital, the extension of cognitive capitalism will continue unchecked. At the same time, digital humanities as a field can not focus solely on new technology while completely ignoring the cultural context for that technology.

While access to funding, technology, and technical knowledge are all important aspects of ensuring a truly global digital humanities, it is important to remember that these problems with project creation also occur in areas that are being served by grants and research centres. This is a problem of culture, for the most part. Amy Earhart, for example, talks about the ways in which the introduction of the World Wide Web offered a land of opportunity for scholars hoping to share research on virtually unknown peoples and works of art (literature, in particular) (2012). Earhart suggests that the hope in the early days of the internet was that it would offer the opportunity for unheard voices to be heard, but the reality is that funding opportunities have limited the voices to those of the canon. Instead of adding many new books to the canon with all of the new, available, seemingly less fragile space online, the internet actually proved to simply solidify the canon (2012). This does not mean that smaller projects were not created, nor does it mean that they continue to be created, it simply means that the larger, more stable projects have better funding and are more likely to have an influence as well as remain viable as the internet grows.

Johanna Drucker would suggest that the larger problem here is a lack of humanistic enquiry and too much of a focus on the digital. I definitely agree that much of digital humanities has become overwhelmed by the promise of technological advances, to the detriment of the field as a whole. I think, however, that Drucker’s position should be tempered with some more cultural criticism such as suggestions offered by Alan Liu, Adeline Koh, or Roopika Risam, for example. The problem is not simply a case of humanities versus sciences. Drucker suggests that “[t]he basic conclusion [with early digital projects] was that to play in a digital sandbox one had to follow the rules of computation: disambiguation and making explicit what was so often implicit in humanities work was the price of entry” (2012). While the assumption is that things have changed, this is still a requirement. The difference here is that we can recognize that the problem is not simply the difficulty in trying to fit qualitative research into a quantitative framework, it is also a problem of language. This can be seen in the fact that sustainable digital projects require knowledge and use of specific tagging and coding regulations set out by English-speaking organizations (Text Encoding Initiative and the World Wide Web Consortium) using English-based programming languages.

It is also true that online projects must be sustainable. Daniel Pitti, when speaking of how to design sustainable projects, states that “the scholar must have sufficient comprehension of available technologies, in order to judge their suitability for representing and exploiting the resources in a manner that best serves his intellectual objectives” (2004). While the context for this statement is a conversation about creating tools for researchers already within the digital humanities, I think this speaks to one of the problems for those with limited access.

As such, digital humanities needs to not only consider the socio-economic conditions under which current projects are being designed, built, and used, but also the socio-economic conditions of the growth of the field as a whole. Additionally, the history of digital humanities as a field plays an important role here. As a field with a history based in both the humanities and computer science, there is an element of exclusion inherent in such a history. Computer science requires a certain skill set that is very specific to its field. As such, outsiders have often had trouble finding a way into the field. This connection to exclusion by required skill set is easily carried over to the discussion of exclusion by socio-economic conditions.

What can we do about this problem then? One response has been to try to bring people from areas not served by digital research centres into conversations already underway. Domenico Fiormente says however, that “colonized, de-colonized, and post-colonized … people do not need to seek legitimation from the ‘center’ of the world” (comment in thread posted 12 May 2013), suggesting that bringing people who have been “othered” by colonialism and now digitization is not the solution. Like those who work on digital humanities projects but do not align themselves with the field, the need to find a direction outside the academy is exactly the right approach for some. This does not help the field of digital humanities grow in terms of global representation of content, physical space, or researcher backgrounds though. There are some projects, organizations, and individuals that are trying to make the digital humanities more global in reach, recognition, and research.

Jamie “Skye” Bianco suggests that “[i]t’s time for a discussion of the politics and particularly the ethics of the digital humanities as a set of relationships and practices within and outside of institutional structures” (2012). There is a need to look seriously at the way digital humanities has become institutionalized. We need to avoid chasing the technology just to sacrifice the work and/or ethics. If we look at digital humanities as existing beyond its own “field,” then we can begin to see ways of incorporating the global into digital humanities and vice versa. Saklofske, Clements, and Cunningham suggest that we see “digital humanities as a means of breaking down the exclusivity of disciplinary silos and encouraging exposure to technological opportunities across disciplines” (2012). This is more than just the current popularity of interdisciplinarity though; it extends beyond disciplines entirely — as a field intricately linked to the digital should in such a digital world.

There are ways to incorporate the global into the digital and the digital into the global. This can especially be done pedagogically in universities. Melanie Kill, for example, suggests that using Wikipedia can be an effective way of teaching digital knowledge and our place in the digital world: “classroom discussions of free knowledge and information open space to address with students the politics of the web as a complex generative space for negotiating social progress built on shared resources” (2012). Likewise, Wikipedia as a teaching tool allows students to make real world contributions to the world of knowledge. In this way students can share information on the course subject matter with the world. Depending on the topic, this could mean sharing information about global digital issues and/or projects. One of the biggest issues is the need to consider the “global” in everyday conversations about the digital and the digital humanities. The more we can combine elements of the global with the digital for students and scholars, the better chance we have of working toward incorporating the two in the field itself.

A push toward adapting the education of new digital humanists (whether working in the field or not), to include a discussion of the global — projects, knowledge, issues, etc. — can help to make the field of digital humanities truly global itself. If nothing else, incorporating the digital into courses on the global and bringing the global into courses on the digital will increase the likelihood that the two become linked more actively. Browner reminds us that “it is equally important for scholars to recognize the power they have to shape the questions, courses, syllabi, and research agendas that, in turn, can ensure that the digital revolution does not simply recapitulate the biases and limitations of the print world” (2011, 221). At the same time, scholars should not limit themselves to traditional course content. A focus on MOOCs could help information spread more quickly to those who may be more interested in creating their own do-it-yourself digital projects. Such online courses could feature global digital projects in an attempt to show the world what is happening and how such scholars worked to find ways around restrictive programming languages or a lack of bandwidth or new ways of incorporating culture into the digitization process.

It is important to note that, while there are few digital centres outside of Europe, North America, and Japan, there is a great deal of work happening worldwide. Likewise, there are attempts to make the rest of the world aware of that work. Alex Gil and company created Around DH in 80 Days as one such project. While the presentation of 80 digital projects either based around or on different parts of the world is an excellent resource for those interested, the accompanying spreadsheet with all of the submissions to the project makes the work even more valuable. At the same time, projects like HuNI (Humanities Networked Infrastructure) in Australia are working to connect researchers and cultural content. This platform allows for crowdsourcing of content and connections while demonstrating the work that is happening in Australia.

Essentially, these projects show that a great deal of work is happening, but the missing element is a way to connect with others and recognize the projects that are happening and that could be relevant to individual researchers. GO::DH is an organization affiliated with a number of digital humanities organizations with a mandate to connect global researchers and projects to one another. This is still a fairly loosely organized group as the intent is to crowdsource resources as needed, make connections, start conversations, and provide a base for new projects related to the global digital humanities. GO::DH links to projects like Gil et al.’s Around DH in 80 Days and Roopika Risam and Adeline Koh’s Rewriting Wikipedia. The organization has also recently started a working group that came out of the DH2014 conference on “minimal computing.” As yet, this working group has shown very little public online activity, but the promise of a working group less focused on the newest technology is visible even in the bare bones of the group.

Finally, having a central organization for discussions of the global and the digital is an excellent way to ensure people can connect and are aware of the work being done, but the digital humanities as a field needs to recognize that digital work happens in all areas, regardless of technological or bandwidth access. For this reason, digital humanists should consider the platform on which they make their research available to others. While major digital projects may require a certain level of access, information about those projects and the results gained does not. Gil et al.’s Around DH in 80 Days, for example, makes a concerted effort to present information on projects via a platform that works well even in areas with low bandwidth. The use of such a platform means that the information contained therein is more easily accessible to all. Finding ways to include such simple decisions into the process of disseminating information can help the digital humanities become more global overall.

Ultimately, working to make digital humanities more global in every respect can only help the field as a whole. The true test lies in working for that change without forcing an idea of the global on others. Essentially, digital humanities needs to work towards the global without resulting in colonialism. Change, in this case, must come from the areas least served. We must move the table to the world, rather than make the world come to the discussion table.

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