[The following is a brief talk I gave at the opening plenary of RBMS 2019, a meeting of the Rare Books and Manuscripts section of the ACRL/ALA. This year’s theme was “Response and Responsibility: Special Collections and Climate Change,” and my co-panelists were Frances Beinecke of the National Resources Defense Council and Brenda Ekwurzel of the Union of Concerned Scientists. Many thanks to 2019 conference chairs Ben Goldman and Kate Hutchens, session chair Melissa Hubbard, and outgoing RBMS chair Shannon Supple. The talk draws together some of my past writings, all of which are linked to and freely available. Images in my slide deck, as here, were by Catherine Nelson.]
Six years ago, I began writing about cultural heritage and cultural memory in the context of our ongoing climate disaster. Starting to write and talk publicly was a frank attempt to assuage my terror and my grief—my personal grief at past and coming losses in the natural world, and the sense of terror growing inside me, both at the long-term future of the digital and physical collections in my charge, and at the unplanned-for environmental hardships and accelerating social unrest my two young children, then six and nine years old, would one day face.
I latched, as people trained as scholars sometimes do, onto a set of rich and varied theoretical frameworks. These were developed by others grappling with the exact same existential dread: some quite recent, some going back to the 1960s, the 1920s, even the 1870s—demonstrating, for me, not just the continuity of scientific agreement on the facts of climate change and the need for collective action (as my co-panelists have demonstrated), but scholarly and artistic agreement on the generative value of responses from what would become the environmental humanities and from practices I might call green speculative design. The concepts and theories I lighted on, however, served another function. They allowed me simultaneously to elevate and to sublimate many of my hardest-hitting feelings. In other words, I put my fears into a linguistic machine labeled “the Anthropocene”—engineered to extract angst and allow me to crank out historicized, lyrical melancholy on the other end.
Since then I’ve also become concerned that, alongside and through the explicit, theoretical frameworks I found in the literature, I leaned unconsciously—as cis-gender white women and other members of dominant groups almost inevitably do—on implicit frameworks of white supremacy, on my gender privilege, and on the settler ideologies that got us here in the first place, all of which uphold and support the kind of emotional and fundamentally self-centered response I was first disposed to make. I see more clearly now that none of this is about my own relatively vastly privileged children and well-tended collections—except insofar as both of them exist within broader networks and collectives of care, as one achingly beloved and all-too-transitory part.
Please don’t misunderstand me: it remains absolutely vital that we honor our attachments, and acknowledge the complexity and deep reality of our emotional responses to living through the sixth great mass extinction of life on this planet—vital to compassionate teaching and leadership, to responsible stewardship, and to defining value systems that help us become more humane in the face of problems of inhuman scale. Grappling with our emotions as librarians and archivists (and as curators, conservators, collectors, community organizers, scholars, and scientists) will be a major part of the work of this conference. It is also vital to doing work that appreciates its own inner standing point, and uses its positionality to promote understanding and effect change.
But I’ve felt my own orientation changing. For me, all of this is, every day, less and less about my feelings on special collections and climate change—except to the degree that those feelings drive me toward actions that have systemic impact and are consonant with a set of values we may share. So this is a brief talk that will try to walk you (for what it’s worth) along the intellectual path I’ve taken over the past six years—in the space of about sixteen minutes.
I started thinking out loud in this area by speaking to my most immediate, interdisciplinary community of practice: people laboring across fields in the digital humanities—that is, to scholarly editors, software developers and systems engineers, archaeologists, linguists and paleographers, text-miners, data scientists, and librarians, curators, archivists, and others engaged in DH. I asked them to “take to heart the notion that, alongside our more joyful motivating scholarly and intellectual concerns—or, rather, resting beneath them all, as a kind of substrate—there lies one core, shared problem.” The problem, I wrote in 2014, is that of extinction: “of multiple extinctions; heart-breaking extinctions; boring, quotidian, barely-noticed extinctions—both the absences that echo through centuries, and the disposable erosions of our lossy everyday.” And the questions that unfolded from that shared understanding were as follows—applicable, I think, to our concerns at RBMS this week and still worth asking: “What is a professional practice that grapples constantly with little extinctions and can look clear-eyed on a Big One? Is it socially conscious and activist in tone? Does it reflect the managerial and problem-solving character of our 21st-century institutions? Is it about preservation, conservation, and recovery—or about understanding ephemerality and embracing change? Does our work help us to appreciate, memorialize, and mourn the things we’ve lost? Does it alter, for us and for our audiences, our global frameworks and our sense of scale? Is it about teaching ourselves to live differently?” Or—as a soldier of a desert war had recently written in the New York Times—is our central task the task of learning how to die?—not (as Roy Scranton put it) “how to die as individuals, but as a civilization in the Anthropocene?”
From these questions, I moved through some of the concepts and theories they led to: chiefly ideas from biology and poetry about making space for mourning and about dwelling with extinction, and a survey of vain, irresistible experiments in communication across truly deep time, from modern nuclear semiotics to 19th and early 20th-century architecture designed to ruin picturesquely. And from there, I began thinking more about the organization and presentation of historical collections.
I focused in a series of talks and workshops on how the physical and digital interfaces we design for rare and unique materials delimit our own engagements with futurity; how they re-enact, in some cases, the violence against people, creatures, and landscapes of their acquisition; and how they interdict the liberty and autonomy of present-day and near-future users—particularly those from already-marginalized communities, who face the worst impacts of the climate crisis.
I wanted to know if we were designing libraries that “activate imaginations—both their users’ imaginations and those of the expert practitioners who craft and maintain them.” Are we building libraries free from what indigenous information scholars Marisa Duarte and Miranda Belarde-Lewis demonstrate are colonially-imposed classification structures, or from what Rasheedah Phillips, a community activist and Black Quantum Futurist artist, shows are fatalistic and frankly deadly Western conceptions of linear time? Are we open (with scholar Deborah Thomas) to the alternate temporalities of “the Caribbean otherwise”—and with speculative fiction writer Sofia Samatar to an Afropolitanism that asserts “black people belong in all spaces?” Are we open to what Michelle Caswell and Anne Gilliland call “impossible archival imaginaries?” To the usable pasts articulated in Kodwo Eshun’s remarkable works of music and media criticism? Are we open, with designer Tom Schofield and collaborators, to a sense of “archival liveness” in the co-creation of library finding aids with those making active use of unprocessed collections? Are we open to Mitchell Whitelaw’s remarkable ecological and so-called “generous interfaces” for library collections? And are we in any way designing libraries and archives that grapple with what I came, through Dipesh Chakrabarty and others, to see as the fundamental paradox of the Anthropocene—that it is a moment asking us to hold both unpredictability and planetary-scale inevitability simultaneously in mind?
The answer is, on the whole, that we are not. So the question then became, for me: how can we work to admit alternate futures and ways of knowing not-our-own—to cede power, so that communities can use collections—theirs, not ours, in the first place—to build the independently constructed philosophical infrastructure that musician Shabaka Hutchings, through Eshun and John Akomfrah, identifies as the fundamental marker of a people’s agency and liberty. And can we do this in the awareness, as Chakrabarty teaches, that liberty itself (however sorely uneven in its distribution) has been a framework with unanticipated environmental costs? Could changing balances of power in the archival fuel for imagination change that calculus, too?
I further wanted to know, with Eshun, how cultural heritage might be activated in the world to come—not just for simply playback like a vinyl record, nor for emulation, in a digital preservation-and-access sense, but for transformative and even salvific use: archives scratched into instruments, libraries becoming motherships, herbaria becoming ecologies again.
I was struggling toward special collections as speculative ones, collections that (as C.P. Snow wrote of the community of scientists) hold the future in their bones. And I was looking for libraries and archives that might prove fundamentally necessary to our survival in a changing world—even as we fight (newly informed by comprehensive location data prepared by Tansey, Goldman, and Ray and released just this week) to ensure the survival of our charges in floodplains and fire-fields.
And that is how I washed up, lost and late, on the shores of Afrofuturism.
More recently, I have come to two other realizations that feel, for me, fundamental to the future of special collections in the digital age. The first is that we in cultural heritage institutions can now understand our collective holdings, across institutional and national lines, as one vast archive of extinction: a story of diminishment, from variety to monocultures. I’m not just speaking of materials that we’ve interpreted and catalogued as relating to natural history. Together, over the past several centuries and in every box and shelf, the world’s libraries, museums, and archives have amassed a record of cause and consequence and life at the cusp of a new geological era: of the loss of species, habitats, traces of innocent and culpable people, and intricately co-evolved autochthonous understandings of the world. What if we could more adequately network and mine those collections? (What if we could root that work in a more respectful and less extractive metaphor than mining?)
My second realization is that we no longer steward our collections for human readers alone. In the same way that human beings are shaped by what we read, hear, and see, the machine readers that follow us into—and perhaps beyond—the Anthropocene have begun to be molded by independent reading, increasingly in so-called “unsupervised” encounters with our digital libraries. Advances in artificial intelligence have been swift, are unregulated, often more discomfiting than delightful (though delight is there, too), and are predicated—it must be said—on massively unsustainable draws on fossil fuel. (A recent study shows that the carbon costs of training a single AI model are equivalent to the energy expenditures of the usable lifespan of five automobiles, including the costs of those cars’ manufacture. It is something we in cultural heritage must reckon with.) But the machines are here, and they seem limited only by their available training data—in other words, by the collections we choose to digitize and give our algorithmic progeny to read.
This should prompt us to ask some questions of our process of digitization and our decision-making around digital access. Questions like those I asked Rare Book School and DHSI audiences last summer: “what kinds of indigenous and community-developed knowledge do we neglect to represent in our (digitized) libraries? What tacit and embodied (rather than purely informational) understandings? What animal and other nonhuman perspectives? What do we in fact choose, through those failures, to extinguish from history—and what does that mean at this precise cultural, technological, and ecological moment? On the other hand, what sorts of records and recordable things should responsible librarians and scholars shield from digitization—should we be working as hard as possible to protect from machine learning for the good of vulnerable communities and creatures—knowing, as we do, that technologies of collection and analysis are by nature tools of surveillance and structures of extractive power?” And, from what I’ve called “an elegiac archive, a library of endings,” with what poetic power—what power of making, and of making anew in an altered and diminished world—do we want to imbue them?
As the poet Adrienne Rich suggests, the most ordinary (and still extraordinary) power we mortal beings possess is the power to make art from fragments of the past. In a 1977 poem called “Natural Resources,” she writes:
My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,
with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.
We’ve begun to extend our ordinary powers through machine learning, in highly uncharted ways. In the context of our current digital cultural heritage transformations and environmental emergencies, I’ve come to wonder whether this kind of poeisis might be called on, one day, to reconstitute the world.
All this brings me to a new collaboration, hearkening back to some earlier work, and to an invitation being issued in the form of a white paper this very day. It’s work happening under the banner of “The Maintainers,” an interdisciplinary scholarly and practitioner community challenging the dominant innovation rhetoric of our time and focusing instead on restorative and respectful cultures of maintenance and repair—what Steve Jackson articulated as “broken world thinking,” something perhaps necessary to us all in the days to come.
A small sub-group of us, mostly from the library and archives world, began meeting last year to talk about the intersection of information maintenance with feminist ethics of care. Two of the four core values we established for our ongoing work speak especially to the themes of this conference and to the ideas I’ve raised today. They are: “Embodiment: We seek to embody our values in information practices and structures. We further acknowledge that all information is embodied information, and that our information practices have an impact on real, vulnerable human bodies and natural and created environments;” and “Inter-generationality:Information maintenance, like other forms of maintenance, calls for long-term thinking beyond our lived cultural context. We value inter-generational knowledge sharing as it is practiced in communities and institutions.”
Today’s white paper, “Information Maintenance as a Practice of Care,” delineates the concept of “care” along similar lines. We think of care as something that is active and enacted, collective and networked, organized, scalable, interdisciplinary, and sustained across time, even or maybe especially in times of great uncertainty: “Acts of care (we write) preserve the knowledge of one generation so that it can be engaged with, interrogated, and built upon by the next. Likewise acts of care help us to extend and prepare that knowledge for present application and for future uses and users yet unclear.” The paper is really just an invitation to others who may want to join the metaphorical potluck dinner we’re throwing, to share their gifts and ideas, maybe find some sustenance in ours, and collectively help figure out what’s next. So if this resonates with you, please join.
The very idea of the Anthropocene as a new stratigraphic era throws much into relief: our deep interconnectedness (as individuals, cultures, and species) with all things; the fragility and necessity of memory; the impulse to capture, fix, define, and know—and our basic lack of agreement across human cultures on the best way to do that. It also highlights the uncanny nature of the knowledge we now have: that we hold great, world-changing, destructive and creative power as a species, and must simultaneously recognize our utter insignificance in the face of truly deep time: an eyelash on the sliver of a nail in the extended geological sweep of planetary history. (A colored band in the rock. Some pigments, one day, to grind.)
I hope this conference will be remembered. I hope it will be remembered as a catalyzing moment for the special collections community. The twinned concepts of this opening plenary—responsibility and response—frame our coming together, for a precious few days of professional stock-taking around the most urgent problem of our time. And better than seeing it a soluble “problem,” perhaps, is to take on board the idea of ecosystem collapse as a wicked one, and as a state of being: the sustained predicament in which we will dwell together, personally and professionally, for the rest of our lives.
We’ll make good use of these few days if we can leave with some clarity of purpose, resolved to change our ways of working and the lenses through which we view our institutions, consortia, associations, and personal and professional responsibilities as cultural heritage workers. I’ve tried to suggest some possible lenses to look through this morning. The program ahead of us offers so many more.
I will be attending sessions with action-oriented questions in mind. They are the ones I now want to work past my emotions to address. First: can we articulate shared values for the RBMS community in the climate crisis? If so, what will they drive us to do? How can we work in ways that are positive, reparative, and with impact that is systems-wide? And how best can we center still-living ecosystems and struggling, future-oriented people in a field that has mostly focused on their material, documentary traces?
We don’t know how all this will turn out. Maybe our task is to lay away the tools survivors will need to curse us or to forgive us, and to celebrate, rebuild, and mourn. Maybe we can use our great human capacity for imagination and the tools past librarians and archivists have protected for us to unfold alternate, brighter timelines to the one that seems to confront us now. But I’ve asked all my questions today in the stark acknowledgment that we’ve already changed the world in which we work and love and try to make our way.
That has to change us, too.
[This is a cleaned-up version of the text from which I spoke at the 2019 conference of Research Libraries UK, held at the Wellcome Collection in London last week. I’d like to thank my wonderful hosts for an opportunity to reflect on my time at DLF. As I said to the crowd, I hope the talk offers some useful—or at least productively vexing—ideas.]
At a meeting in which the status of libraries as “neutral spaces” has been asserted and lauded, I feel obligated to confess: I’m not a believer in dispassionate and disinterested neutrality—not for human beings nor for the institutions that we continually reinforce or reinvent, based on our interactions in and through them. My training as a humanities scholar has shown me all the ways that it is in fact impossible for us to step wholly out of our multiple, layered, subjective positions, interpretive frameworks, and embodied existence. It has also taught me the dangers of assuming—no matter how noble our intentions—that socially constructed institutions might likewise escape their historical and contemporary positioning, and somehow operate as neutral actors in neutral space.
Happily, we don’t need neutrality to move constructively from independent points of view to shared understandings and collective action. There are models for this. The ones I will focus on today are broadly “DH-adjacent,” and they depend, sometimes uncomfortably, on the vulnerability, subjectivity, and autonomy of the people who engage with them—foregrounding the ways that individual professional roles intersect with personal lives as they come together around shared missions and goals. And as I discuss them, please note that I’ll be referring to the digital humanities and to digital librarianship somewhat loosely—in their cultural lineaments—speaking to the diffuse and socially constructed way both are practiced on the ground. In particular, I’ll reference a DH that is (for my purposes today) relatively unconcerned with technologies, methods, and objects of study. It’s my hope that shifting our focus—after much fruitful discussion, this week, of concrete research support—to a digital humanities that can also be understood as organizational, positional, and intersubjective might prompt some structural attunement to new ways of working in libraries.
And I do this here, at a consortial gathering of “the most significant research libraries in the UK and Ireland,” because I think that self-consciously expanding our attention in library leadership from the pragmatic provision of data, platforms, skills-teaching, and research support for DH, outward to its larger organizational frame is one way of cracking open serious and opportune contributions by people who would not consider themselves digital humanists at all. This likely includes many of you, your colleagues in university administration across areas and functions, and most members of your libraries’ personnel. Such a change in focus invites all of us to be attentive to the deeper and fundamentally different kinds of engagement and transformation we might foster through DH as a vector and perhaps with only simple re-inflections of the resources we already devote to the field. It could also open our organizations up to illuminating partnerships with communities of practice who frankly don’t give a fig about academic disciplinary labels or whether they are or are not “doing DH.”
I also speak to library leaders because my call is not for work to be done by individual scholars as researchers and teachers alone, nor even by small teams of librarians laboring in support of the research and cultural heritage enterprise—but rather by our fully-engaged institutions as altered structures of power.
In the brief time I have with you, I’ll walk through some grassroots practices I see as guiding us to new organizational modes: ways of working and building collective strength, knowledge, and—dare I say—institutional and professional compassion that are coming to the academy not from academic DH, but increasingly through it, as a conduit, from various communities of inspiration that function outside of or alongside the research library. The collectives I look to with deepest admiration in this sphere are focused on liberation, resilience, shared history, and restorative justice for marginalized people, and they are organized so that participants can bolster and support each other through frameworks of mutual aid—a philosophy I’ll define later on.
But first, I want to acknowledge that some of the groups and impulses I’ll describe function not just beyond and without the traditional structures of the academy, but actively in spite of us. So even as I look to them for inspiration, I want to speak strongly against doing so in the extractive context that has too frequently governed academic labor, so-called town/gown partnerships, and other interactions where marked power differentials exist.
If we can use our common ground, common needs, and common humanity to foster more authentic and truly equitable partnerships with people doing the work I’ll gesture toward—partnerships based on honesty, reciprocity, acknowledgment of positionality, and an ethic of care—we may yet realize the transformative potential of digital librarianship and DH. And that is to bring fresh understandings, renewed passion, and (crucially, and to my point in this talk) new working structures to our libraries and scholarly disciplines: structures I see as necessary to the health of heritage institutions in a changing world. But that means we must constantly be asking ourselves questions—questions like: what is possible and appropriate for us to give in return, if we mean to learn 21st century problem-solving from people who have, historically, found us to be a problem? And: how can we repair what’s wounded in our (often settler) colonialist libraries—when we’re the ones who owe reparations?
Until quite recently, I had the honor of directing the Digital Library Federation, a consortium of college, university, and public libraries, museums and galleries, labs and archives, state and federal cultural heritage agencies, and likeminded non-profit organizations. DLF grew rapidly during my four-year tenure to include nearly 200 institutions, largely though not exclusively from North America. They come together through a shared dedication (as our mission statement now has it) to advancing research, learning, social justice, and the public good through the creative design and wise application of digital library technologies.
My first goal as director was to expand the organization’s scope, to ready it for engagement with the kinds of projects and ideas I’ll talk about today. This meant expanding our mission, which had, over DLF’s first two decades, strongly emphasized digital library R&D: technology innovations. In a new phase, I hoped to see DLF focus equally on the hoped-for consequences and shared motives of our work—explicitly prioritizing social justice and the common good. The redrafting of our mission statement therefore urged the DLF community to address not just the creation of diglib tools and platforms but their thoughtful application in the world. (We actually went so far as to challenge ourselves to “wisdom.”)
This change in focus both codified and accelerated an expansion that was already starting within DLF’s membership. (And I’m pausing here to tell a little story about our recent evolution, because I think it helps to get at the ways in which a new generation of librarians, archivists, technologists, and scholars is applying community organizing methods adopted from other aspects of their lived experience, to the professional environment of the DH-inflected library—and also to show how one organization adapted itself to suit their preferred working patterns, their goals, and their strong collectivist assumptions.)
Within a very short amount of time, the Digital Library Federation went from a small organization dominated by major research libraries to a large one with a much more diverse membership. The seeds for transformation were already in place when I joined DLF, thanks to a partnership with the Oberlin Group fostered in thoughtful work by Louisa Kwasigroch and my predecessor, Rachel Frick—through which liberal arts colleges began to join DLF. The closeness among librarians, faculty, and students at smaller institutions (particularly, I noticed, among those engaging in approaches to digital scholarship informed by critical race theory) rapidly changed the conversations that were even possible to have at our annual conference—which, like our membership, shortly doubled in size.
DLF soon invested heavily in fellowship programs, ably supported by Oliver Bendorf and then Becca Quon, to bring new voices to our shared work. I was honored to invite amazing women of color as keynote speakers—Safiya Noble, Stacie Williams, Rasheedah Phillips, and Anasuya Sengupta—to bring their crucial perspectives to our annual conference (an event now beautifully managed by Aliya Reich). We likewise expanded our advisory board and worked to attract a more diverse set of perspectives to it. Thanks to a collaboration with the Kress Foundation, many more museums and arts institutions joined the DLF. We became the low-red-tape organizational home for self-governing, external groups like the National Digital Stewardship Alliance and Code4Lib; and most importantly, DLF began a partnership—grounded self-consciously in principles of equity and authenticity—with the HBCU Library Alliance. The Alliance is a vital organization representing the libraries of historically black colleges and universities in the United States, largely established between the US Civil War and the Civil Rights era as a bulwark of learning, mutual uplift, and African American intellectual power and community.
The growth and change and influx of ideas I describe at DLF also happened in the context of a major outward shift in American politics. Our 2016 DLF Forum, our largest and most diverse conference to date and the first to be shaped by a newly-commissioned committee on inclusivity, was held during the week of the US Presidential election. I had the daunting task—and, in retrospect, the privilege—of addressing a considerably shell-shocked crowd at our closing plenary the morning those surprise election results were announced. (And thanks to Monday’s keynoter, Charles Kriel, among others, we now understand better why so many—though not all of us—were surprised.)
My primary urging to the DLF “village” in that moment was simply that they use us, and use the strong and caring connections with each other they were so plainly creating through us: that they use the Digital Library Federation as a platform for organizing, for imagining and co-creating the world they wanted to live in, and—straightforwardly—for resisting any forces that worked against their shared, developing vision. One result of the DLF-as-platform offer was our Organizers’ Toolkit. This was in fact something we were edging toward already, as an overarching way of working for the Digital Library Federation, simply based on the reality of how incredibly lightly staffed we were, in comparison with the tremendous grassroots energy we were attempting to channel and support.
The Organizers’ Toolkit outlined some basic principles of group formation and gave light and nonrestrictive guidance for working together through DLF. It was basically a guide to starting new cross-institutional projects and thematic collaborations or discussions with the least amount of bureaucratic friction and the maximum amount of community ownership and control possible. Some of its sections were quite pedestrian—like the administrivia of available communications and publication platforms—but we also included resources for building momentum, fostering leadership, and undertaking consensus-building in newly-formed and geographically distributed communities. Throughout, we placed a strong emphasis on care for the self and for each other. We not only acknowledged but foregrounded the volunteer nature of the activities that participants were undertaking, above and beyond their day jobs—and sometimes outside their cultural comfort zones—with sections on “facilitating for diversity and inclusion” and “preventing and managing burnout.”
Our offer of DLF as platform seemed to catch fire in that particular social and political moment, provoking the creation of new working and interest groupsand a deepening of work already being done by existing teams. For instance, some members of our digital library assessment interest group (the DLF-AIG) worked to devise more humanistic measures of the use and re-use of digital objects, and others turned to thoughtful ways of undertaking what they called “cultural assessment”—diversity measures for the content of digital collections and measures of inclusion for personnel. The Organizers’ Toolkit also sparked the creation of new groups: among others, one emerged to consider transparency and accountability problems in government records, another focused on protecting library users from “Technologies of Surveillance,” and a third worked to better articulate and address pressing labor issues in libraries, museums, and archives.
Soon people were not just doing community-building and learning through these groups, but also undertaking active, inter-institutional projects: establishing digital library workflows based on shared ethics and principles, convening focus groups and writing whitepapers; undertaking data-gathering efforts and building tools and widgets; publishing “explainer” documents and fully articulated research agendas; and hosting national meetings—all self-motivated and with only light facilitation by the brilliant Katherine Kim. Just as one example,principled and dedicated members of our Labor group recently received IMLS funding for a National Forum called “Collective Responsibility,” on how funding agencies, library and museum administrators, and workers all need to band together to address the rise of contingent and precarious labor, or short-term, soft money jobs in our fields. (As a side note, I’ll mention that some of the workers fighting hardest against the adjunctification of GLAM labor are also those who put themselves most on the line in protecting intellectual freedom for librarians. In both cases, these are causes that connect the micro to the macro: lived experience and personal working conditions to broad, systemic issues in the academy.)
Some of the strongest work I noted after we made our open invitation happened when members of DLF groups collaborated with or drew direct inspiration—in terms of structures and practices—from their own distributed networks. This allowed them to activate in turn the networks of those networks. We watched the resulting Networkpalooza with admiration and not a little bit of awe. And in truth, the Zeitgeist had DLF and digital humanities community members working in very similar rapid-response modes everywhere. Just a few among many possible examples were the Data Refuge project, which began at the University of Pennsylvania’s Environmental Humanities Lab and undertook “guerilla archiving,” largely of climate change records thought to be newly or especially imperiled under the current administration. (They have since shifted focus to data storytelling.) There was the similar educational and awareness-raising work of Endangered Data Week, a grassroots effort that soon connected with our Records Transparency group and was bolstered by the Open Leaders program at the Mozilla Foundation—itself a program full of stellar examples of grassroots action. And, more recently, the DLF community has been inspired by Torn Apart/Separados, a powerful project based at Columbia University’s experimental methods lab, applying investigative data journalism techniques to the current administration’s policy of separating asylum-seeking children from their parents at our southern border. Separados itself was built on lessons learned by DH scholars who scrambled to apply their technical skills to disaster relief, in self-organized community mapping projects after hurricanes and earthquakes—now documented in the organizational how-to of “Nimble Tents.”
Groups like these, and most of our DLF teams, seem to gravitate less toward ways of working that they’ve been disciplined to practice in school and in the academic workplace, and more to methods learned in non-academic contexts and in their private lives—from participation in industry and government watchdog groups to direct action, protests, hackathons, volunteer community service projects, and labor organizing. Their collaborations didn’t feel much like sober committee and task force work, the well-trodden paths of professional associations and technical standards bodies that were the digital library community’s prior, basic points of reference. One of the highest compliments the DLF received in that brief era of group formation came from Dr. Buhle Mbambo-Thata, distinguished former university librarian of the universities of Zimbabwe and of South Africa, now with AfLIA, the African Library and Information Association. In explaining to fellow advisory committee members what drew her to join our parent organization’s board, she shared that DLF reminded her of the activist librarians of her youth.
And the taking of stances—at least active ones, if activism itself is thought to go too far—seems to resonate with a growing understanding in American libraries.The understanding is that to claim neutrality—even with the best of intentions—is far too often to side tacitly with whatever systems and forces are historically dominant, that is, to side with the oppressor. (This is a topic that has been thoughtfully considered and contested at RLUK this week.) From where I sit, I see an increasingly widespread recognition that any DH or digital library practice divorced from deeply motivated work—from protecting the vulnerable while creating brave spaces, and from collectively defining an ethics of care that works against cold neutrality—has lost the horizon. It’s become a cluster of methods without purchase on the most crucial structures and challenges of our day.
My own learning on such matters has been greatly supported by contact with generous souls working in two (extremely heterogenous) groups: community archives and HBCUs, and with the ways they are using digital humanities platforms and critical theory and principles of action to advance their work. HBCUs, again, are historically black colleges and universities in the United States, and community archives, if you’re not familiar with the term, are run by people who independently—often on a shoestring budget, at great personal sacrifice, and with deep cultural and content expertise but sometimes limited digital and archival training—undertake the work of archiving and exhibiting materials of value to communities that have been neglected or misinterpreted by established collecting institutions and dominant groups. There has been an explosion of this work in North America in recent decades, and it is increasingly coming to the attention of academic libraries hungry to make up for lost time and demonstrate relevance to their cities and towns. Among the many community archives I admire, let me mention just a few: SAADA, Interference Archive, the Lesbian Herstory Archives, the Southern California Library, a People’s Archive of Police Violence in Cleveland, Densho, the Shorefront Legacy Center, and the Community Futures Lab. (And here is a syllabus for a Rare Book School course I’m teaching this summer on community archives and digital cultural memory, if you are interested in exploring the scene further.)
As my time is limited, I’ll speak to just two common ways of being that seem to emerge—either in action or as an aspiration—in successful community archives, library labor advocacy groups, grassroots DH and digital library collectives, and HBCU-PWI (“predominantly white institution”) partnerships, and which I think need to be accounted for in any organizational transformation that would poise a library to work more fruitfully with grassroots energy. These two factors are authenticity and mutual aid.
Authenticity has been the chief theme of a growing collaboration between the HBCU Library Alliance and the DLF. Through a joint conference and now IMLS support for a 3-year, co-hosted fellowship program for HBCU librarians, we have emphasized getting real with each other, interpersonally, inter-institutionally, and as two library associations working together. Executive director Sandra Phoenix and I came to see the kind of honest and authentic engagement that individual participants in our programs were calling for from each other, as they worked to overcome structures that kept them apart, as the basis from which all the organizational work we might do together could extend. In other words, we felt that starting from authenticity rather than from assumed or even aspirational neutrality would ultimately get us to a better, more meaningful place. “Authenticity” is a term we’ve left deliberately under-theorized, so that it can continue to evolve for DLF and the Alliance in the organic way that it emerged in our partnership. Voicing it mostly serves as a shared reminder.
Similarly, mutual aid is a philosophy of sharing and co-creation, designed for getting much farther from the grassroots than may be possible through top-down resourcing frameworks. It’s based on collaborative principles for social and material support, in which people try to help each other while resisting (as the Big Door Brigade puts it) “the control dynamics, hierarchies and system-affirming, oppressive arrangements of charity and social services.” In a nutshell, top-down approaches to social problem-solving through philanthropy have been increasingly codified, “privatized, and contracted out to what critics call the Non-Profit Industrial Complex,”—which means that decision-making and autonomy is kept pretty far from the people who are meant to benefit from programs. (And on this subject, I commend to you a book recently re-published by Duke University Press: The Revolution Will Not Be Funded. Its essays describe—in devastating terms to many of us who have devoted ourselves to the model—the many ways in which the nonprofit industrial complex has functioned to manage dissent. It’s a deeply illuminating and uncomfortable read.)
By way of example, my former colleague Nikki Ferriaolo describes a recent meeting of community archivists I was also privileged to attend, at which funders were shocked to hear how often the large museums and libraries who approach struggling, independent archives to “collaborate” on prestigious digitization projects never even allow their partners to view their own grant budgets:
“What I don’t understand is where did all the money go? We were partners on a grant of more than a million dollars and we saw none of it.” Many of the community-based archivists present nodded in understanding. I turned to the group and asked, “How many of you have actually seen a budget for a grant you partnered on?” I didn’t register a single affirmative response.
Transparency, shared governance, solidarity, consensus, and dignity are the basic tenets of the alternative, community-based ways of working put forth in frameworks of mutual aid. And here I’m particularly excited about efforts coming out of the American office of the UK design firm Shift.—hosts of the aforementioned meeting, “Architecting Sustainable Futures”—and specifically by work being done by their new director of equity initiatives, Bergis Jules, to draw community archives together to explore a potential mutual aid framework he’s calling the Cultural Heritage Collective. Bergis describes the background to this in the report from a transformative meeting held in New Orleans last year. I’ve felt honored to be included in some Cultural Heritage Collective conversations, to help think through ways we might connect academic library staff with community archives leaders and volunteers in wholly equitable frameworks for respectful and reciprocal learning—including about the vital ways that DH and the work of digital cultural memory is practiced in non-academic communities.
Before I make some concluding remarks, I want to offer a few more little signposts from the grass roots that we might look to:
The first is the InfoMaintainers. This is a quiet expansion of the “Maintainers” research collective—a group that works against the overwhelming privileging of tech innovation, to bring attention to infrastructure, repair, and the forms of labor and expertise in maintenance that sustain so many human systems. I’ve been part of a little group of librarians, archivists, and data scientists digging into feminist ethics of care as a structuring mechanism for understanding how and why we work in information maintenance, and its vital role in the here-and-now. Look for a framing paper later this spring, which will invite a wider community to join us, as well as a dedicated track at the third annual Maintainers conference this October, in Washington, DC.
I think library leaders should take note of the uncanny super-power exhibited by archivists, who are at the forefront of so many of these issues, to ask really concrete, practical questions with huge theoretical and organizational implications—like this one, by Jessica Farrell. She’s musing on “what collective action/distributed appraisal workflows [for special collections] might look like. So… power is distributed” and decision-making about what is worthy of acquisition and preservation can rest less in the hands of any one appraiser. (I cite it because it shows just one little way that acknowledging positionality and thinking collectively can provoke us to re-examine organizational practice.)
And we should seek insights gained through the moves and personal investments being made by individual scholars in these latter days of the alt-ac diaspora—like Umi Hsu, a PhD-trained digital ethnomusicologist who stepped away from the academy to become a public servant in the City of Los Angeles’ municipal arts agency. They write, “I made a decision to take 5 years to explore professional practices outside of academia. This journey of going from academic ethnomusicology to public sector research and design strategy has taught me to be a humbler listener, to be listening compassionately and reflexively to bodies of people in various positions of power.”
Just as one last example, I’d like to point to observations from researchers like Sarah Taber—people doing the work of digital culture and digital systems/labor analysis outside the academy and sharing it in social media. Taber is in fact an agricultural scientist. Here, she’s looking at technology and its pragmatic applications (specifically, the takeover of American agriculture and food-safety systems by Silicon Valley software companies) from a highly positional, working-class perspective. She observes that “a lot of the knowledge that it takes to run a company safely is working-class knowledge. And ‘tech does real things’ companies [like those promoting new food-delivery networks and apps] tend to operate on a really strong class system,” such that working-class folks are unlikely to rise through the ranks to positions of power. (I recommend reading the whole thread.)
So, what’s the upshot of all this messy, grassroots activity and public intellectual chatter? Well, it’s made me feel hopeful. Despite the daunting challenges that lie before us, and perhaps because of the hopeless ones, it feels as if librarians and DH scholars and students are entering a new era of power-building—a scene of collective, creative flourishing and deep civic and interpersonal engagement. Is it possible that the models for mutual aid and frameworks for community organizing they’re fashioning together can challenge established relationships, economies, and organizational understandings in the research library?
Much will depend on the willingness of library leadership to listen and respond. We should take seriously the inclination our students, faculty, staff, and community members show to gravitate toward engaged approaches, and we should resource them appropriately. We should do this despite their riskiness, the fact that they’re rough around the edges, and the ways in which they break our existing disciplinary and service molds—and even (or maybe especially) when their political pointedness scares us. We should do this because we want to create organizations that work—from the individual and interpersonal to the systemic and strategic level—with new attention to those for whom they have not worked before. And we should do this, lest our institutions succumb to the illusion that they can be simultaneously effective and apolitical, shining from no-where and everywhere like some kind of ambient light—without simply illuminating more paths out of dark corners for the forces of white supremacy, or failing to highlight what’s already everywhere and yet will be suffered differentially, like ecocide.
I therefore urge you to take these examples of new collectives and governing principles for grassroots work as an opportunity for honest reflection—reflection on the suitability of our current library and association structures to the grand challenges and wicked problems of our day. Let’s reflect most of all, perhaps, on whose voices may be heard least in decision-making and whose material conditions may be most affected by the way in which our libraries presently do their business. Reflect on what constitutes authenticity and equity, both with and within your own staff and among the communities they represent and serve. Reflect on what’s possible now in communication and investigation that our digital tools and methods did not support even a decade ago, and how libraries can work to protect those who want to use DH platforms to make meaningful change. Reflect on what your own identity and experience well equips you to understand, and what it obscures from you. Reflect on what you as a library leader might be willing to lose.
I took a chance on a hackberry bowl at a farmer’s market—blue-stained and turned like a drop of water. It’s a good name for it. He had hacked it down at the bottom of his garden. (They’re filling in the timber where the oaks aren’t coming back.)
But the craftsman had never worked that kind of wood before, kiln-dried at steamy summer’s height. “Will it split?”
It did. Now it’s winter, and I make kintsukuroi, a golden repair. I found the wax conservators use on gilded picture-frames, and had some mailed from London. It softens in the heat of hands.
Go on. Let the dry air crack you open. You can break and be mended again.
[What follows is the text of a talk I gave in two different contexts last week, as “Reconstitute the World: Machine-Reading Archives of Mass Extinction.” First, I opened the summer lecture series at the University of Virginia’s Rare Book School, where I’m privileged to be a faculty member and supporter. Next, I closed the first week of the 2018 Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI) at the University of Victoria and opened a Digital Library Federation (DLF) unconference on social justice and digital libraries, DLFxDHSI. I started my UVic talk by noting that we met on the unceded, traditional territory of the Lkwungen-speaking peoples of that part of the Pacific Northwest, and I therefore acknowledged the Songhees and Esquimalt, and also the WSÁNE? peoples who are among the First Nations with historical and enduring relationships to that land. I note this here, because the talk I gave is relevant, I think, to the need for humility, respect, and reparation and to the celebration of endurance and renewal (or, better, reclamation) that such statements, still uncommon in the United States, suggest.]
This is a talk on digital stewardship and heritage futures at a strange confluence. I’m more used to saying “cultural heritage”—cultural heritage futures—and I will certainly be addressing those today: possibilities for the strongly future-oriented digital stewardship of human expression as we encounter it in transitory, embodied performances, as intangible culture, and of course in ways that leave more lasting, material traces. But I use the broader phrase “heritage futures” deliberately, because this is also a talk that moves me beyond my training and my various cultural comfort zones in two big ways.
First, I’ll step out of the humanities to gesture at projects in preservation, access, and scientific analysis that address our broader, global heritage of biodiversity. That’s a heritage we share with all living things. And where we’ve failed in stewarding living environments, I think it’s fair to say that we’ve only moderately well succeeded in documenting them—which in this case are two radically different things. Our success is particularly mixed—though improving—in documenting them with an eye toward the activist, artistic, or reflective work we may soon wish to do in radically changed ecosystems.
Next, I’m here to speak, frankly, far beyond my own expertise, but I hope with some imagination, about how we might connect these concerns to our present revolution in machine learning and artificial intelligence. I particularly want to think about how to do so in a way that leverages the skills and deep-seated understandings that a background in the humanities, librarianship, or in post-custodial and community archives almost uniquely provides. It’s important for me to say, though, that that there are some lenses or comfort zones that it is difficult for person coming from a settler background to drop and exit, particularly when talking about library and museum collections “acquired” and maintained in colonialist contexts. I’m trying.
I draw the title for this talk from Adrienne Rich—from part of a 1977 poem she called “Natural Resources.”
My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,
with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.
Sounding through today’s talk—alongside a bit of ecological despair that is still echoing, for me, from my last attempt to address these issues in front of a DH audience—you may hear the undertone of a feminist ethic of care, and also of that utterly commonplace and yet counter-acting power of reconstitution or repair that Rich evokes in these lines on the screen.
But my basic argument is simple, and it has to do with stuff. What I want you to take away from this talk is an understanding that the constitution—the very make-up and organization—of our natural history and cultural heritage collections becomes vastly more important when we accept two truths. The first is that we assemble them at the end of things. All “archives” of the Holocene (and therefore not just of print and manuscript culture and their digital sequelae, but indeed our archaeological and more recent paleontological records, and the stories we read in landscapes and ice cores)—all are archives of diminishment: of a shift to plant, animal, and human monocultures. They are archives, in fact, of the 6th great mass extinction of life on our planet. And accompanying that sobering thought is a second necessary understanding. The very make-up (again, the contents, the structure) of our heritage collections likewise becomes a matter of critical concern, when we realize that we no longer steward them for human readers alone. This is the strange confluence of our present moment.
In the same way that human beings are shaped by what we read, hear, and see, the machine readers that follow us into—and perhaps beyond—the Anthropocene have begun to be molded by increasingly “unsupervised” encounters with our digital libraries. I’ll describe these encounters in more detail in a moment, as I ask you to consider what we offer up for study in our heritage collections now, and how we might better conceptualize archives of mass extinction for the living generations and artificial intelligences to come.
As I talk, I’ll invite you to dwell on some further questions. Some of them will be posed in a more implicit way, rather than explicitly in the talk, so I’m going to lay them out now. What kinds of indigenous knowledge do we neglect to represent—or fail to understand—in our digital libraries? What tacit and embodied understandings? What animal perspectives? What do we in fact choose, through those failures, to extinguish from history—and what does that mean at this precise cultural and technological moment? On the other hand, what sorts of records and recordable things should we let go—should we be working as hard as possible to protect from machine learning for the good of vulnerable communities and creatures—knowing, as we do, that technologies of collection and analysis are by nature tools of surveillance and structures of extractive power? And, finally—from an elegiac archive, a library of endings, can we foster new kinds of human—or at the very least, humane—agency? This is a concept I’ve formerly called “speculative collections,” which I’ll ask you to think of in the current context as digital archives from which to deep-dream new futures.
As Adrienne Rich suggests, the most ordinary (and still extraordinary) power we mortal beings possess is the power to make poetry from fragments of the past. We’ve begun to extend it, through machine learning, in uncharted ways. Might it be called on, one day, to reconstitute the world?
That was heavy. I’m going to start with a lighter overview of some relevant projects.
The Biodiversity Heritage Library is a Smithsonian-based international consortium and digitization collective of botanical and natural history libraries. It was the winner of DLF’s inaugural Community/Capacity Award in 2016 and leads the development of a lovely and effective “biodiversity commons,” complete with APIs for computational access of various kinds, harvesting and delivery through partnering nodes worldwide, full text search and faceted browsing, and important contributions both to taxonomic data exchanges such as the Encyclopedia of Life, and to research in the history of science. That’s because its collections include things of interest to humanities scholars, like antiquarian books, annotated herbarium specimens, and naturalists’ field records, some 460 thousand items of which were digitized recently, across multiple institutions and dating back to 1815, through a CLIR Hidden Collections grant. BHL itself has offered digitization training around the world and works with libraries and publishers not only to share open access works, but to make materials within copyright available as part of its federated corpus for research and learning.
Even when our globally dispersed inheritance of biodiversity literature is so thoughtfully drawn together (54 million pages’ worth in BHL alone; 160 million taxonomic names), the resulting records are not necessarily easy for researchers to use. “Mining Biodiversity” was the theme of a productive 2015 NEH Digging into Data grant, which coupled novel text-mining and visualization techniques with crowdsourcing and outreach. And projects like PaleoDeepDive and GeoDeepDive represent AI-assisted efforts to pull out so-called “dark data” from its bibliographic tar pits: those idiosyncratic features in scientific journal literature like tables and figures, that have not easily leant themselves to structured searching and the assembly of comparative datasets. Those who study the fossil record have remained, as the creators of PaleoDeepDive put it, “data limited, both in terms of the pace of discovery and description of new fossils and in terms of their ability to synthesize existing published… Many other sciences, particularly those for which physical samples and specimens are the source of data, face similar challenges.”
To address issues like these, the Biodiversity Heritage Library was the beneficiary of an IMLS-funded National Digital Stewardship Residency program, which placed several NDSR residents at partnering sites, where they worked on machine learning approaches to named entity recognition and the overall computer-assisted metadata enhancement of biodiversity collections. These included projects taking up the bibliographical challenges of 18th and 19th-century field notes.
Meanwhile projects like Digital Life, out of the University of Massachusetts, “aim to preserve the heritage of life on Earth through creating and sharing high-quality… 3D models of living organisms.” They do this through photogrammetry, circling living creatures with their awesomely-named BeastcamTM, and converting the resulting, overlapping 2d images to highly-accurate 3d representations. And thus the field of biodiversity informatics continues to grow and pose data curation challenges of various sorts, ranging from the preservation and analysis of 3d models to large-scale environmental data generated through remote sensing, to the collection and analysis of, for instance, audio data relating to deforestation of the Brazilian rainforest. Here is a project in which the Tembé people of Brazil are installing and maintaining what they call “guardian devices,” old cell phones, hooked to solar adapters and microphones, high up in trees. These record rainforest audio and (through a machine-learning technique) increasingly accurately recognize the sounds of trucks and chainsaws up to a kilometer away, sending “a real-time alert… to the Tembé rangers, a select security force” of people from local villages who can intervene at their discretion.
The use of machine learning in monitoring contexts of various sorts is rapidly becoming the norm, and it is big business more often than community-led conservation. Microsoft has recently announced an “AI for Earth” initiative which commits $50 million dollars in grant funds over the next 5 years for “artificial intelligence projects that support clean water, agriculture, climate, and biodiversity” and build on various APIs and shared (ahem Microsoft) services in the field. (Meanwhile, they invest and grow in a more sinister mode.) And in the nonprofit sphere, the Mozilla Foundation just this week announced a competition to award several $50k prizes to prototype projects illuminating the effect of artificial intelligence on society and the Web. Surely at least some submissions will address the ways that a healthy Internet and a healthy planet must go forevermore hand in hand.
And there continue to be efforts of a different sort, to grapple with climate change and its effects on institutional and individual cultural memory: I think here of community organizing work like Project ARCC, through which Eira Tansey and colleagues have begun drawing together “archivists responding to climate change.” And I think of Dark Mountain, a collective of artists and writers “who have stopped believing the stories our civilisation tells itself. We see,” they say, “that the world is entering an age of ecological collapse… and we want our cultural responses to reflect this reality rather than deny it.” (If you’re interested, co-founder Dougald Hine will have a note on Dark Mountain in the context of “endangered knowledge,” in a special issue of the journal KULA, published right here out of UVic, which I am co-editing with the brilliant Sam MacFarlane and Rachel Mattson.)
On an even smaller emotional scale, there’s work like that of Kate Schapira, who is a poet and lecturer in English at Brown University. Her Climate Anxiety Counseling project is a Lucy-from-Peanuts-style booth she sets up in parks: “I’m scared for the effects of climate change on the world I love,” Schapira writes. “Rather than try to think about, save, or mourn for the whole world, I decided to think about my city and state, and the living creatures—including other humans—who share it with me.” Lately, she’s been documenting the conversations she has at her counseling booth (including in a new essay on Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy), drawing local, Rhode Island organisms (#RIorganisms) on little cards to give away, and writing alternative histories of our ecological past and future. They all start with a simple phrase: “The next day…”
Is everyone still with me? Now let’s talk in a bare-bones way about the AI techniques that are making computationally exciting conservationist and historical projects happen—and which hold future-oriented poetic possibilities that explain why I set small, heartfelt and community organizing projects efforts like Project ARCC, Climate Anxiety Counseling, and Dark Mountain next to “at-scale” scientific endeavors like Digital Life and the Biodiversity Heritage Library. (And here’s where, if you’re a machine learning expert, you’re going to feel simultaneously bored and annoyed at my reductivism for a few minutes—but when I’m finished, I hope we’ll all be on the same page.)
For the past several decades, major strands of practice in cognitive and computer science worked on AI in what you might think of as a top-down or didactic mode, creating “expert systems.” Think of these as hierarchical decision-making pathways, carefully designed to reflect Enlightenment principles of logic and rule-based reasoning—and then applied either to content that that had been highly pre-processed to meet the machine’s expectations, or on a set of thoroughly anticipated real-world conditions. These methods, slow to advance, were based on rather clinical and inflexible models of (if-then) understanding. The machine “knew” what it had explicitly been told to know, and it acted in the way it was programmed.
Recent, startling leaps forward in machine learning more neatly evoke organic neural networks, or the ways perception and judgment arise organically, between the senses and the brain. And they advance not through traditional methods of computer programming, but in a kind of Darwinian evolutionary mode. Imagine a profligate process in which many little hermeneutic bots are spawned, at first almost at random, and at a shocking speed and scale: a kind of speculative computing. These critters are not carefully crafted, and they are not smart. But before they are permitted to breed or evolve, their ability to accurately answer a small question—for instance, to tell a typographical f from a long ƒ, or a daisy from a rose—is tested against something called a truth set. This is a quantity of data, sometimes surprisingly small, which is brought into the system with the assumption that it has been accurately described, or classified, or transcribed. It’s all a little more complicated than this, but not very much. The bots that give correct answers to simple questions are allowed to live and propagate their accidentally good qualities of judgement into future generations—while those that miss the mark, that fail to pass their tests, are tossed out, switched off, axed.
And because we no longer design these little agents to understand things—we simply filter them based on their ability to pass tests—we don’t really understand, ourselves, how they work. Mostly we just understand those tests. And, generally but certainly not always, we grok the basic lineaments of the digital collection: that corpus of material the machines are being tested on. Our deep ignorance about the AI’s functioning is continually compounded, as new generations of test-passing bots build on their ancestors’ successes and train each other up to fresh challenges and ever-greater layers of complexity.
In other words, in machine learning, complex, artificial brains are self-assembling bottom-up understandings through increasingly “unsupervised” encounters with the contents of digital repositories. Some test data are drawn from assiduously curated, historical or scientific collections. Many others come from our vast and expanding digital detritus: the traces of contemporary life—micro-transactions of various sorts—every click, every “like”—all our interactions with corporations, governments, and each other online. This is not a process that fully dispenses with human labor; in contrast, it often simply obscures it, and not to the benefit of the laborers themselves, who are marginalized in many, intersecting ways. Often, we consumers are being tested, too: machine-learning algorithms are rewarded and replicated for successfully manipulating audiences—influencing us to buy a product, or watch a video, share a meme, or develop a political opinion.
For a machine to tell a daisy from a rose might require a thousand accurately-identified images of each, in a human-provided initial training set. (If you’ve never tinkered with such things, you can play with this exact idea very easily and even ultimately embed it in your phone, by following a tutorial written by Pete Warden, a machine learning expert at Google. It’s called “Tensorflow for Poets.”) Once trained on roses and daisies, it might only take another ten carefully labelled pictures of a sunflower or a violet for your smart phone to begin accurately identifying those flowers as well. Ashok Popat, another Google research scientist who is working on handwriting and optical character recognition, recently told a group of us who had gathered at Northeastern University to discuss multilingual and historical OCR that a successful machine learning algorithm, once properly trained and working well in one language or on a set of like documents, might require only an additional one thousand lines of accurately transcribed text in order to retrain for a new typeface, script, or complex print or manuscript page design.
Techniques like these make evident the value of a “collections as data” approach: that is, an approach to the machine-reading readiness and the iterative, human-in-the-loop technological advancement of digital libraries for which a group of smart, IMLS-funded practitioners in the DLF community advocates. This project is led by librarians Thomas Padilla and Laurie Allen, among others. The possibilities here are stunning enough to realize. But more unsettling and exciting—or perhaps at least animating—to digital collections stewards should be the knowledge that, once set along a fruitful path, a truly successful set of machine learning algorithms can begin to produce its own training data to advance in understanding and pass more real-world tests. This is the generation of completely imagined, fictional and truly speculative collections: manufactured botany, or book pages—leaves that never were. It’s information that the machine has dreamt up from its past encounters with real-world data, has created itself—constituted, reconstituted—in order to play the testing game in what is called a “deep learning” framework.
What’s happening in these contexts is hard to see. And that opaqueness provokes a set of twinned anxieties among machine learning practitioners. These are closely aligned with calls in the broader community for greater transparency and accountability in machine learning and online representation—calls that come from folks like Frank Pasquale (author of The Black Box Society) and the brilliant Safiya Noble, author of the new and essential NYU Press book Algorithms of Oppression, on how supposedly neutral search engines reinforce and reflect deep-seated structural racism:
We have to ask what is lost, who is harmed, and what should be forgotten with the embrace of artificial intelligence in decision making. It is of no collective social benefit to organize information resources on the web through processes that solidify inequality and marginalization.—Safiya Noble, Algorithms of Oppression
Noble takes a clear-eyed look at the implicit biases that permeate our digital collections and systems of cataloguing and verification, “unveiling the many ways that African American people have been contained and constrained in classification systems, from Google’s commercial search engine to library databases.” She has recently called for the regulation of search engines in the public interest, and this summer’s implementation of a new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) by the European Union gets us closer to that on a worldwide scale than many thought possible. In fact, Cliff Kuang calls this “a rare case in which a law has managed to leap into a future that academics and tech companies are just beginning to devote concentrated effort to understanding.” Part of the GDPR demands a kind of algorithmic and machine learning accountability. Companies and other entities that hold any data on EU citizens face billions of dollars in penalties if—among other things—they do not (or cannot) share on request exactly what information they hold and how it is being processed and used.
Our “Collections as Data” colleagues are thinking along these lines as well, in the cultural heritage sphere.
Ethical concerns are integral to collections as data. Collections as data should make a commitment to openness. At the same time, care must be taken to comply with legal requirements, cultural norms, and the values of vulnerable groups. The scale of some collections may also obfuscate what is hidden or missing in the histories they are perceived to represent. Cultural heritage institutions must be mindful of these absences and plan to work against their repetition. Documentation should be informed by archival principles and emergent reproducibility practice to ensure that users have the information they need to work with collections responsibly. —Santa Barbara Statement on Collections as Data (my emphases)
Now, I said I see two big machine learning anxieties that stem from and are aligned with concerns about data exploitation and structural bias. They fall under the categories, broadly speaking, of reproducibility and reproduction, or deep fakes.
Deep fakes exploit machine learning techniques running on large audiovisual collections to produce reasonably convincing, false videos in which, for instance, a celebrity’s head might be superimposed on a porn star’s body, or a politician might be made to look squarely at the camera and say things he or she would never say. A simple piece of desktop software that was released in January of this year puts the technology within almost anyone’s reach, and the obvious dangers of that—not just for personal reputations but to geopolitical stability and the future of our democracies—are so great that comedian and writer/director Jordan Peele recently collaborated with Buzzfeed on a prolonged and convincing video of Barack Obama, meant to raise awareness and promote greater media literacy around deep fakes. (Deep Fake Obama signs off by saying, “Stay woke, bitches.”)
And then there’s Lyrebird—a new, Canadian company named after an Australian avian that’s a splendid and almost uncontrollable mimic. A lyrebird will replicate both natural and decidedly unnatural sounds in its environment (chainsaws, camera shutters, car alarms), becoming a living broadcast system for human incursion. The Lyrebird.ai system promises to create “vocal avatars” for any English speaker with as little as one minute of recorded audio—after which, a real person’s voice may be applied to any text-to-speech conversion. The company rightly touts the possibility for people with ALS or other degenerative diseases, to record and in future use copies of their own voices in machine-assisted communications devices, keeping up important emotional connections with their interlocutors even when they can no longer physically speak. Once the system advances beyond English language processing, further exciting options will open up for the preservation and transmission of endangered languages. But we well know how technologies like these are wielded by those in power against marginalized groups, and how the possibilities of fraud, harassment, and police misconduct abound when anyone can use machine learning tools and one minute of recorded sound to produce convincing vocal simulacra. Lyrebird’s ethics statement boils down to, “somebody was going to do it; why not a group sincere in their intentions, like us?”
So that’s an anxiety of reproduction. The other machine learning anxiety I wish to discuss is that of reproducibility.
Most of you will have seen or perhaps even played with “deep dream” images and generators that hit the scene in 2015—those psychedelic pictures that swept your social media feeds, in which pagodas emerged from clouds and everything that possibly could look like a dog did, in a kind of canine apotheosis of pareidolia. Chris Rodley’s blossoming and burgeoning dinosaurs show a further application of that same deep-dreaming technique. Rodley trained a neural network on fruits and flowers, by giving it nothing to look at but historical botanical prints—and then asked it to gaze upon some dinosaurs and show us what it saw.
What took me a while to internalize about such images is why they exist at all. They are in essence the byproducts of desperate attempts by developers of machine learning technologies to understand how their own systems work. The nature of the attempt is to run the image recognition algorithms built up independently, by all those little Darwinian bots I described—in reverse. Here’s Pete Warden on why this matters: “It’s hard to explain to people who haven’t worked with machine learning,” he says, “but we’re still back in the dark ages when it comes to tracking changes and rebuilding models from scratch. It’s so bad it sometimes feels like stepping back in time to when we coded without source control.”
Neural network interpretability is becoming a field of research in its own right. Chris Olah and colleagues write that by itself, the feature visualization pictured in deep-dream images “will never give a completely satisfactory understanding,” but they see it as “one of the fundamental building blocks that, combined with additional tools, can empower humans to understand these systems.” Cliff Kuang says of the field of “explainable AI,” or XAI, that “its goal is to make machines able to account for the things they learn, in ways that we can understand. But that goal, of course, raises the fundamental question of whether the world a machine sees can be made to match our own.”
This lack of understanding is something Will Knight—or, at least, his headline writer—in MIT Technology Review, calls “the dark secret at the heart of AI.” Knight ultimately concludes that, “just as many aspects of human behavior are impossible to explain in detail, perhaps it won’t be possible for AI to explain everything it does,” and quotes Jeff Clune of the University of Wyoming’s Evolving AI Lab, who shrugs and says: “Even if [human beings] can give you a reasonable-sounding explanation [for their actions], it probably is incomplete, and the same could very well be true for AI. It might just be part of the nature of intelligence that only part of it is exposed to rational explanation. Some of it is instinctual, or subconscious, or inscrutable.”
So, obviously there’s some concerning stuff here—and perhaps a reason for us, at the present juncture, to create a kind of London Charter for academic and archival work in machine learning (to promote credibility and foster professional ethics or best practices, just as the scholarly 3d visualization community did about a decade ago). Maybe next week’s DHSI machine learning class should propose a Victoria Charter? But I want to be quick to say that I also find creativity and possibility and delight in these technologies, especially vis-à-vis generative and artistic approaches to historical collections. As I attempt to pick up the pace again, let’s quickly survey a few applications of the poetic power of machine learning.
Here is an MIT CSAIL project called “Videos of the Future,” in which—after watching about two years’ worth of unlabeled YouTube videos (an experiment I think my children have also conducted)—a deep learning algorithm can look at a still image and not only predict but actually try to create 1-2 second clips of the next thing that will happen. Waves crash, a train rolls further down the tracks, golfers swing, babies do what babies do.
Abelardo Gil-Fournier is applying this technology to his artistic work on predictive landscapes, presented a couple of weeks ago as a workshop in Linz, called Machine Learning: An Earthology of Moving Landforms. This is (I quote) “ongoing research on the image character and temporality of planetary surfaces.” As his collaborator Jussi Parikka puts it, “we can experiment with the correlation of an “imaged” past (the satellite time-lapses) with a machine generated “imaged” future and test how futures work; how do predicted images compare against historical datasets and time-lapses and present their own … temporal landscapes meant to run just a bit ahead of [their] time.”
Here we have Nao Tokui’s “Imaginary Soundscapes,” a “web-based sound installation, where viewers can freely walk around Google Street View and immerse themselves in an artificial soundscape [that is based on the visual qualities of real-world spaces, but has been wholly] “imagined” by… deep learning models.”
And here’s my favorite, as a lapsed Victorianist. These are Peter Leonard’s speculative 19th-century faces—a purely creative twist on equally exciting but more straightforward work he’s been doing at Yale, on projects called Neural Neighbors and PixPlot. All three efforts represent machine learning analyses of about 27,000 photographs from the Meserve-Kunhardt Collection at the Beinecke. This one represents a weekend’s work in training a Generative Adversarial Network. “Results seem good,” Leonard says. “These people have never existed.”
When I look at rough experiments like these—or at Rodley’s blossoming dinosaurs—alongside beautiful, sophisticated, and generous (but not yet, to my knowledge, machine learning-assisted) ecological design projects like Mitchell Whitelaw’s biodiversity data browser, Local Kin—or the landscape concretions he describes in an important new Open Library of Humanities article called “Mashups and Matters of Concern: Generative Approaches to Digital Collections,” I’m prompted to wonder what more we might do at the intersection of artificial intelligence with environmental data and natural history collections.
I’d love to see, for instance, an artistic or analytical machine learning experiment using BHL collections and Scottish flower painter Patrick Syme’s 1821 update to Werner’s Nomenclature of Colors. This book has been recently digitized and republished by the Smithsonian. It contains “the color names used by naturalists, zoologists and archaeologists through the 19th century,” and it shaped Charles Darwin’s formal chromatic vocabulary on the voyage of the Beagle. How might we use machine learning to identify references to these standardized colors in images and texts throughout Western library collections, and put them into conversation with indigenous color-names and perspectives on creatures living and lost?
Or perhaps we could launch an AI-assisted approach to identifying and reuniting fragmented, colonially-dispersed recordings of now-extinct birdsong with their material and immaterial or cultural traces.
This is the call of the Kaua’i ‘?’?—as recorded in 1987, likely the year this Hawaiian bird went extinct. It was later further fragmented from its natural context: digitized and made available by Cornell’s department of ornithology, replicated online, remixed, shared, visualized, and commented on. “Events unfold themselves across centuries in random, unpredictable ways,” says commissioning artist Jakob K. Steensen. “Past actions and organic occurrences become foundations for the physical realities we experience today. We live in a condition where things that happened hundreds of years ago are inherited as global extinctions, crises, and ecological catastrophes… Now, animals are being converted into digital, archival material at exponential rates.” Can we imagine new interfaces to this kind of material—affective or scientific and pragmatic—that do not replicate violence on extinct species and on the human cultures for which they may remain in living memory?
Experiments and artistic interventions like the ones I’ve just zoomed through position our inherited digital heritage collections, with all their flaws and hubrises (as William James said of words and theories under a philosophy of pragmatism) “as instruments—not as answers to enigmas in which we can rest. We don’t lie back upon them,” he wrote, “we move forward, and on occasion, make nature over again by their aid.” It’s an odd thing, I suppose, to ask the James of 1909 to speak to contemporary Afrofuturist music critic Kodwo Eshun, but I’ll do it. The most startling concept I’ve gleaned from Eshun’s mindblowing late ‘90s monograph, More Brilliant Than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction (which I think you can also get in a nutshell, in John Akomfrah’s amazing documentary of Afrofuturism, The Last Angel of History) is Eshun’s understanding of the objects of African American cultural heritage not as things that are fixed, to be looked upon and appreciated, but as living, usable, play-able, and filled with the potential for transformation and creative re-use. In his film, Akomfrah imagines a “data thief,” an archaeologist who might dig up usable code. For Eshun, the perfect example of this was a vinyl record on a turntable. By any measure, it’s a recording of the past, meant for simple playback. But in the hands of a scratch artist, it becomes both an instrument and a highly accessible platform. That’s the spirit in which I imagine AI might help us activate our digital collections.
Although I’ve described it in layman’s terms (which is about all I’m capable of), I’ve gone into some detail today on how machine learning works because—for one thing—it constitutes, as Pete Warden says, “a radical change in how we build software. Instead of writing and maintaining intricate, layered tangles of logic, the developer has to become a teacher, a curator of training data and an analyst of results.” For Warden, this means the fundamental “replacement of traditional software with deep learning. There will be a long ramp-up as knowledge diffuses through the developer community, but in ten years,” he predicts, “most software jobs won’t involve programming.”
Instead, they’ll involve a kind of pedagogy, and deep expertise not only in some problem set, area of scholarship, or subject domain but in data curation—in assembling and arranging collections of our digital cultural heritage. This is skilled archival labor, not magic. If you ever needed an argument for the value and relevancy of librarianship and museum and archival studies, here it is.
Another reason I laid out the basic mechanism of machine learning is to make the point that, for all its novelty, it’s not an alien process. It’s in many ways deeply human and deeply connected to our bibliographical and media inheritance, and to the ways we act as living creatures in a complex world. I’d like to transition now to a quick discussion of two things I think we hold in common with machine learning.
One: artificial intelligence, like us mere mortals, only recognizes what in some way it already knows. For instance, this deep neural network, now making predictions based on input from a camera, has only ever looked at ocean waves and rocks. Watch it see the sea. Later, Memo Akten, the artist, shows us the same system trained on fire and flowers. It’s “trying to make sense of what it sees, in context of what it’s seen before,” he writes. Again, “it can see only what it already knows, just like us.”
And, two: sometimes, a neural network has to “go too far” to center itself. This is a profound insight I got from Twitter-eavesdropping on two people named Dr. Beef and The Wise Turtle. I’m not kidding. Dr. Beef is a very young Stanford machine learning researcher named Robbie Barrat, whose AI-generated paintings have wound up on the front page of magazines. He was recently marveling online at the way his neural network vacillated back and forth from landscapes that were dark and gloomy, or wild and bright. Turil Cronberg responded: “The organic process of learning is what I call “loopy” as it moves in a sort of corkscrew spiral, like a particle in an ocean wave. Or,” she goes on, “like a toddler learning to walk. It has to go too far in all directions to learn how to center itself.”
* * *
“For a long time,” writes the inimitable Rebecca Solnit, “we thought the work of climate change was imagining the future, until we realized that all our estimates were too optimistic and that the trouble was not an issue for our grandchildren but was in the present, with us, now. Even to imagine the present means summoning up the reality and the necessity of systems too vast and complex to appear before the eye. We in the safer center had to imagine the edges.”
I’ve taxed your patience enough already, but if I had more time this evening, I would tell you about digital work I see that is trying peacefully to center itself and its users (very often by dwelling in material culture and human embodiment at a moment when life seems most precarious), and about some other projects that either fail or succeed at imagining the edges from that “safer center.” These range from the amusingly-named SkyKnit, a machine-learning algorithm producing knitting patterns that can be realized in yarn; to Nettrice Gaskins’ experiments with woodcut and linoleum prints of deep-dreamed images; to a Snow and Ice Research Center project that attempts to learn endangered northern Arctic languages by reviewing recordings that are themselves fixed in obsolete a/v formats; to a group of MIT researchers who are terrifying me by creating a machine learning system that picks up and understands subvocalizations—the tiny, involuntary movements and neuromuscular signals inside our faces and jaws that happen silently, when we think or read words. As with the Lyrebird technology, this tool opens up at least as many avenues of oppression and abuse as it does pathways to new and better futures.
So, once again, the scary stuff is right next to the funny stuff and the heartbreakingly beautiful stuff. It’s just like… a nature documentary.
All in all, when I look around at who is best poised to take up the ideas I’ve shared here today in a responsible way, counter-acting cultures of extraction and endangerment that (just as in the natural world) often characterize the interaction of our settler colonialist institutions with the objects and lives they touch—it’s committed conservationists, it’s creative artists and designers, it’s indigenous thinkers and holders of traditional wisdom, and it’s the people working in deeply collaborative ways in living, community archives or who are informed by archival ethics being developed in those sites. These are the folks I want to see advising on future-oriented approaches to machine learning in libraries and archives of the Anthropocene.
My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,
with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.
Poets have long shown us how to use our most ordinary powers to reconstitute the world. Because I think we’re just at the beginning of a conversation and a process despite my strong sense that it’s a process of assembling fragments at the end of things, I’ll close not with some final pronouncement, but with Derek Walcott—some lines from his 1992 Nobel Prize lecture. These hopeful words, like those of Rich, helped to focus my thinking on the problem sets and fundamental fragilities I’ve tried to lay before you today. Walcott writes:
Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole. The glue that fits the pieces is the sealing of its original shape…
And this is the exact process of the making of poetry, or what should be called not its “making” but its remaking, the fragmented memory, the armature that frames the god, even the rite that surrenders it to a final pyre; the god assembled cane by cane, reed by weaving reed, line by plaited line, as the artisans of Felicity would erect his holy echo.
[Last weekend, I joined the inspiring, interdisciplinary Ecotopian Toolkit gathering hosted by Penn’s Program in Environmental Humanities. (How lucky was I? We even got a sneak peek at the Pig Iron Theatre Company’s stunning symphonic meditation on the Anthropocene, A Period of Animate Existence, which will premiere in Philadelphia later this year.) What follows is a short talk I gave on the last day of the conference. The beginning of it is stuff you may have heard from me before. An augmented, footnoted, slightly more sober version is bound for an edited collection by Martin Eve and Jonathan Gray, on the “past, present, and future of open access.”]
Today, I want to ask how we might realize digital libraries, archives, and museums as more socially just and hopeful (maybe even “Ecotopian”) knowledge infrastructure. Three threads from Afrofuturism are woven through this talk. They take form of a question and a set of twinned assertions. The geopolitical and environmental inflection-points that have been the subject of this conference demand that we answer the question in the affirmative, and that we actively encode the assertions—these two key Afrofuturist assertions I’ll share—into the very weft and the weave of our digital libraries: from the deep structures in which we store, deliver, protect, and preserve cultural and scientific data; to the ontologies and metadata systems through which we produce information and organize, rationalize, and make it interoperable; to those surface platforms and interfaces for discovery, contemplation, analysis, and storytelling that must be forevermore inextricably algorithmic and humane. What do I mean, humane? I mean predicated on decisions, understandings, and ethical, empathetic engagement with communities understood both locally and (as they say) “at scale.”
So first you’ll get the question from me, and then the assertions. And it’ll be in their light that I want to present five spectra along which I think digital cultural heritage and open science platform-designers must more self-consciously work, if we mean to do our part in the project that has brought us together this week—that is, if we want to contribute basic knowledge infrastructure for toolkits to meet present challenges and far-future, global and interpersonal responsibilities.
Mark Dery, then styled a “cyberculture” critic, both coined the term Afrofuturism in 1994 and posed the question that remains at its heart—at the heart of the speculative art, music, fiction, poetry, fashion, and design that meet in this rich and longstanding nexus of Black diasporic aesthetics and inquiry. The question is this: “Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for legible traces of its history, imagine possible futures?” Afrofuturism’s answer has been an unequivocal yes, and that clarity inspires me, particularly in our fraught American context. But, as we know, descendants of the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade are only one of many communities marginalized by archival absence and subject to… well, “library problems”—problems of misrepresentation, thwarted agency, and structural neglect.
My professional community includes stewards of primary sources, research data, and scholarship—and designers of cultural heritage systems meant to serve the broadest cause of social justice and the public good. Our responsibility is therefore twofold: not merely to address that first, daunting task—the provision of “legible traces” of the past through more broadly accessible special collections, archives, and archaeological, environmental, and aggregated genetic datasets. We also need to enable the independent production, by our varied and often marginalized constituencies, of community-driven, future-oriented speculative collections. This means visions for change and social uplift that originate in archival material, yes, but also the introduction of novel ontologies and epistemologies for those libraries and archives: inventive assemblages, recovered cultural structures, and new knowledge representation. Can—for instance—digital knowledge infrastructures challenge Western, progressive notions of time as a forward-moving arrow and a regularly-ticking clock? Can they counter the limiting sense our library and museum interfaces too often give, of archives as incontrovertible evidence—the suggestion, reinforced by design, that the present state of human affairs is the inevitable and singularly logical result of the accumulated data of the past; that our repositories primarily look backward to flat facts, not forward to imaginative, generative, alternate futures or slantwise through branching, looping time? These questions build on the core problem Dery articulated, of whether speculative futures are even possible to generate from obliterated or co-opted pasts.
Now, the assertions. Two of them. The first comes from jazz saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings as a distillation of the message of musician and performer Sun Ra. As Hutchings puts it, “communities that have agency [are] able to form their own philosophical structures”—in other words, they don’t just receive and use information within epistemological bounds defined by those in authority (scholars and teachers, legislators and corporate overlords, librarians and technologists), but instead actively shape knowledge in ways reflected in the very design of storage and delivery mechanisms over which marginalized people typically have little control. This is the deceptively simple idea that the fundamental marker of liberty lies in a people’s ability to build independent knowledge infrastructure. (And in truth, this idea motivates everything I do at the Digital Library Federation, lately.)
The second assertion comes from theorist and artist Kodwo Eshun. Eshun conceives of historical, archival and archaeological sources—including intangible kinds of cultural heritage, such as language and song—as functional and generative, not as static content, there merely to be received, but as active technologies in and of themselves. (This is found all through Eshun’s work, and beautifully demonstrated in a documentary I highly recommend, John Akomfrah’s The Last Angel of History.) To Eshun, the objects of cultural heritage are still-running code and tools that hum with potential. Our historical repositories and even the vaults of the archaeological earth contain active instruments—artifacts waiting to be used, and transformed even as they are played back—just as surely as a scratch artist makes productive dissonance from records on a turntable. So, not for playback and reception—for activating. For use.
Okay. How might Eshun’s technological reframing of that longstanding historiographical concept of a “usable past” combine both with Hutchings’ location of liberation and community agency in the capacity not merely to access information but to create independent philosophical infrastructure, and with Dery’s summation of the speculative, alternate-future goals of Afrofuturism—to become informing principles for the next generation of future-oriented and liberatory digital libraries, museums, and archives?
I dunno. What I do know is that we need more design experimentation to figure that out, and that we might run these experiments along certain fruitful axes or spectra. So, here’s my non-exclusive list. In no case are the ends of any spectrum I will present self-cancelling notions; we may usefully imagine malleable, overlapping systems and oblique slices. The goal of an exercise in digital library design run along these spectra would simply be increased awareness of their relevance to the concerns I started with, and their impact on individuals and communities and ecologies: the possibilities they welcome or foreclose; the dangers they ward against or fail to see; their fundamental generosities and what they hold back.
Enlightenment vs. Afrofuturist Structurings. Library organizational schemes are still largely Enlightenment-era crystallizations of a singular, dominant understanding: the best that a rational society accepts and knows. It is no accident that we appeal to “authority files” in creating metadata and often present information in stemmatic, patrilineal relationships of “inherited properties.” We create it through the little boxes of tabular forms. But new possibilities bring us closer to actualized community agency in digital knowledge infrastructure—alternate naming and finding schemes, practical models for intersectional logic systems, linked open data that melds multiple taxonomies and inheritances—an extension of the content-creating revolution of the Web to meaning-making. This is fundamental liberty that would reach its fullest expression in grassroots, independent and interdependent, broadly accessible, machine-readable philosophical framings—interoperable knowledge infrastructure beholden to no-one. We might invest in such a thing.
However—in an era of derogated scientific and scholarly expertise, climate data denial, rising white supremacy, Breitbart and InfoWars—isn’t it also our responsibility to construct libraries that reflect and prop up structures for truth-seeking that the academy has spent so long evolving and optimizing—namely the forms and methods of our (admittedly problematic) sciences and disciplines? So, what’s the place of the resistant or subaltern premise in digital library design? How do we honor and elevate indigenous knowledge structurally, without simultaneously providing a platform that can be instantly colonized for political disinformation and ideologies of hate?
Historico-evidentiary vs. Speculative Orientation. I also want design experiments that address the basic temporal and evidentiary alignment of our libraries. Present interfaces too often suggest a singular, retrospective or historical orientation toward the material they give access to, and fail to allow community-driven and multiple, speculative, futurist visions to emerge from our collections. So let’s ask: do our digital libraries present their contents as flat fact, or as hypotheses and fodder for interpretation? Do they allow us to look backwards and ahead? Do they adequately indicate gaps and absences and the conditions of their own assemblage, or do they present (as I described before) archives as evidence?
To answer these questions in the form of prototype designs requires us to delve beyond the interface layer in digital knowledge infrastructure, and into the fundamental nature of our archives. Wendy Duff and Verne Harris, in seeking a new basis for archival description, argue against positioning “archives and records within the numbing strictures of record keeping… which posit ‘the record’ as cocooned in a time-bound layering of meaning, and reduce description to the work of capturing and polishing the cocoon.” Instead, they call for “a liberatory [descriptive] standard… posit[ing] the record as always in the process of being made, the record opening out of the future. Such a standard would not seek to affirm the keeping of something already made… [but rather] open-ended making and re-making.”
In considering the orientation of our libraries toward digital objects as evidence, we should also heed Anne Gilliland and Michelle Caswell’s call for increased attention to the “archival imaginary:” those absent (perhaps missing, destroyed, merely theorized or wished-for) documents that traverse aporia and offer “counterbalances and sometimes resistance to dominant legal, bureaucratic, historical and forensic notions of evidence that… fall short in explaining the capacity of records and archives” to move us. Designing for such imaginaries would counter “strands of archival theory and practice [that] maintain an un-reflexive preoccupation with the actual, the instantiated, the accessible and the deployable—that is, with records that have… evidentiary capacity.” How might such “differing imagined trajectories of the future” emerge from records both present in and absent from the past?
Assessment vs. the Incommensurate. Concerns about “archives as evidence” lead us to the hyper-measured condition of the contemporary library. How could things be otherwise? Our digital knowledge platforms are made up of counting machines situated in the neoliberal academy. And indeed, thoughtfully designed and well-supported metrics can help us to refine those systems and suit them better to the people who must inhabit them. Their development is also a necessary, pragmatic response to straightened circumstances. In the face of information abundance, increasing service demands, and limited financial and staffing capacity, assessment measures are instruments through which open access advocates and cultural heritage professionals can make the case for resources and show where they are wisely applied.
Measurement is not going away. The challenge for systems and interface designers is to enable humane and ethical quantification of behaviors and of objects that are by nature deeply ambiguous and even ineffable. These include (of course) users’ complex interactions with information and each other in digital spaces. But we’re also talking about the instantiated cultural data itself: digitized and born-digital objects—records continually remediated as they are delivered or displayed—fundamentally fungible, organic, fluid, and incommensurate, one with another.
Transparency vs. Surveillance. Patron records have long been among the most closely-guarded and assiduously expunged datasets librarians hold. Responsible 21st century digital knowledge design must keep privacy concerns paramount. This is because technologies of sharing and of surveillance are a single, Janus-faced beast. It is up to us to create and fiercely guard mechanisms that protect users’ rights to read, explore, and assemble information unobserved. Our designs must also respect individual and community agency in determining whether historical or contemporary cultural records should be open to access and display in the first place—ideally fostering and encouraging local intellectual control. But here, again, the contradictory challenge is to build infrastructure that can shield while also opening up. We need our digital library platforms to contribute to watchdog and sunlight initiatives promoting transparency, accountability, and openness in government and corporate archives—while simultaneously upholding cultural and individual rights to privacy and local control.
Local vs. Global Granularities. I see the fundamental paradox of the Anthropocene as our struggle to hold local unpredictability and planetary-scale inevitability simultaneously in mind. Add to that the fact that, somehow, we now must understand humankind as both infinitesimally small and fragile, and as a grim, global prime mover. Can our digital library systems help us to bridge those conceptual gaps? They must, if we want to fashion futures that use both science and empathetic understanding to their fullest extent, integrating big-data processing with small-data interpretation—understanding broad, systemic thinking and local application as part of a unified endeavor, and helping us identify trends even as we tell stories of exceptional experience.
These have been a quick and dirty five among many possible vectors for design thinking that might open 21st century digital knowledge infrastructure to broader community ownership, richer scholarly application and space-time sensitivity, and more creative, speculative ends. I picked these by starting at a place of great respect for Afrofuturist thinking, but other theoretical frameworks and ways of knowing might take us elsewhere. (Many of those have been usefully articulated at the Ecotopian Toolkit conference this week.) May they loop our libraries backward into stories not yet told and forward to every better future we can build.
Last night, the Trump administration released its new budget blueprint, an advisory document that proposes increases in spending to military programs and national security, coupled with major decreases to—or the complete elimination of—many programs supporting scientific data and research, human health, and environmental safety; social uplift, education, and protection for the poor; international diplomacy, cooperation, and aid; and the arts, culture, history, and museum and library services. The House and Senate will now begin offering their own budget resolutions, and a long process of negotiation—informed by the will of the people, as expressed to our elected representatives—will ultimately result in Appropriations committee legislation setting funding levels for agencies and offices germane to the goals of the Digital Library Federation and its mission to “advance research, learning, social justice, and the public good.”
These include—among many others—agencies and offices whose federal budgets the Trump administration proposes to eliminate entirely: the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (which supports NPR and PBS), the National Endowment for the Arts, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the US Institute of Peace, the Appalachian Regional Commission—and of course the IMLS, the Institute of Museum and Library Services. IMLS not only supports academic library and information science R&D programs that contribute to the development of a coherent and utterly necessary national digital platform; it also supports public programming and education in our nation’s 123,000 libraries and 35,000 museums—themselves vulnerable to future budget cuts. Future reductions may also be proposed to the budgets of the National Archives, the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution and other federally-funded keepers of records, culture, and national memory.
Program officers and staff of public service organizations like these are prohibited by the federal Hatch Act of 1939 from engaging in some forms of political activity, thus curtailing their ability to advocate fully for the agencies to which they have devoted so much, while serving as agency representatives. The DLF community must represent them, and—in our support for the myriad ways these agencies serve us—we raise our voices to represent the communities and publics we serve together.
Last month, in a national climate of growing division and rising fear, the DLF and its parent organization, CLIR, offered a statement outlining our community’s enduring values and our own “Deepening Resolve.” I spend my every day in awe of the imagination, drive, compassion, and expertise of DLF practitioners. I know the people who make up our working groups and who staff our member institutions are resolute in their understanding of the power of digital libraries to serve—as we put it in the statement—”individuals and institutions that are both stalwart and vulnerable, people living now and generations yet to come.” The DLF community strives to build usable, welcoming, and respectful knowledge representation systems that embody “our shared, core values of enlightened liberalism and scientific understanding,” help us understand the past and imagine better futures, and advance “our mission to create just, equitable, and sustained global cultures of accessible information.”
These are lofty goals. Like all things, they start in the local, the embodied, the world near to you.
Regardless of your party affiliation or political creed (and in the understanding that diversity of thought is among our community’s great strengths)—if you share my concern about aspects of the current administration’s budget proposal and vision for libraries, research data, and cultural heritage in the digital age, I urge you to contact your representatives and make your views known. Finally, I remind you that the DLF has very consciously redoubled its efforts to function as a flexible, pragmatic, and supportive framework for grassroots efforts of all kinds, relevant to our field. DLF members and non-members alike are invited to use us as a platform for effective community organizing. We are here for you, and for the futures you want to build.
[Shannon Mattern’s wry observation that “speculative now seems to be the universal prefix” got me thinking about time and unpredictability, and reminded me that my PhD thesis — Speculative Computing: Instruments for Interpretive Scholarship — is now and forever the same age as my eldest kid: 13 years old. Here’s the coda.]
By now the term “speculative” has slipped into my writing in several different contexts: first when I cite Swift’s satire of a Llullian combinatorial device busily cranking away in cloudy Laputa (a “Project for improving speculative Knowledge by practical and mechanical means”), and then in Ada Byron’s early realization that algorithmic devices like Babbage’s Analytical Engine have subtle, extracurricular benefits:
For, in so distributing and combining the truths and the formulae of analysis, that they may become most easily and rapidly amenable to the mechanical combinations of the engine, the relations and the nature of many subjects in that science are necessarily thrown into new lights, and more profoundly investigated. This is a decidedly indirect, and a somewhat speculative, consequence of such an invention. (Lovelace, “Note G”)
It returns later, when I describe and interrogate the notion of aesthetic provocation and speculate forward from the subjective and intersubjective premises of IVANHOE to its possible manifestation as Ivanhoe Game software. And of course every branching past or future expressed through our Temporal Modelling nowslider tool is a concretely-imagined, interpretive speculation.
Speculation is the first denizen of the curious realm of the ‘patacritical, that “science of exceptions” which seeks to expand our scope of thinking about ordinary and extraordinary problems through the proposal of “imaginary solutions,” solutions which crack open the assumptions through which those very problems are framed.  It is, perhaps, a strange bedfellow for the pragmatic interests that shaped my work on the projects outlined here — but then, pragmatism itself (as, in William James’s terms, the “attitude of looking away from first things, principles, ‘categories,’ supposed necessities; and of looking towards last things, fruits, consequences, fates”) makes an odd counterpoint to the inward motions of subjective structuring that characterize this work and to its frequent backward glances in deriving and interrogating scholarly primitives (James).
Like ‘patacriticsm, speculation is almost instantly reviled by some, who point out its negative connotations: speculators act without thinking through all possible outcomes; they take uncalculated risks for incalculable rewards; they are the teenagers of the academy; they are dot-bombers.
When I proposed the moniker “Speculative Computing Laboratory” — SpecLab — for an as-yet unnamed group coalescing at the University of Virginia at the turn of the 21st century around a set of risky, wacky, brazen projects in digital humanities, I did so with full knowledge of these uses, and more — with a nod toward a highly technical application of the phrase. Computer scientists define “speculative computing” in terms familiar to us from Ada Byron’s observations:
Speculative computing is a technique to improve the execution time of certain applications by starting some computations before it is known that the computations are required. A speculative computation will eventually become mandatory or irrelevant. In the absence of side effects, irrelevant computations may be aborted. However, a computation which is irrelevant for the value it produces may still be relevant for the side effects it performs. (Osborne)
It is this particular technological burden on the notion of the speculative that most attracted me — how the preoccupations of projection, without regard for the cost of relevancy, could become active: embodied in real work, real artifacts, real happenings and doings, in a digital environment. The resolute notion, in Osborne’s definition, of speculative efforts — our “imaginary solutions” — becoming either “mandatory” or perfectly “irrelevant” also appealed, and I must confess to enjoying a certain deformative reading of the paragraph: s/irrelevant/irreverent.
Of course, irreverence (like the ergodic, “non-trivial effort” that may characterize a reading of this dissertation) was never a real goal. My own career as a graduate student in humanities computing has been shaped by a necessary radiance, inherent in the projects about which I care most, outward from the archival impulses of IATH, through the hermeneutic designs of SpecLab, and into a fringe which is at once the center: ARP, a group for Applied Research in ‘Patacriticism, which labors steadily, at this writing, to embody elegant speculations about humanities scholarship in practical tools and working institutional structures for what comes next.
In a review of Jerome McGann’s Radiant Textuality, Johanna Drucker contextualizes our goals in terms of inevitabilities in the outlook for aesthetic theory and criticism:
The world is changing. Just as dramatically and radically as it did under the influence of post-structuralism and deconstruction. But the changes being wrought are taking place in day to day activities that are, for the most part, far from the seminar rooms that spawned theoretical activity in the past. These changes are being enacted and performed in the making of electronic instruments whose premises will change the way humanities is done… Making things as a way of doing theoretical work pushes the horizons of one’s understanding “because poiesis-as-theory makes possible the imagination of what you don’t know.” (Drucker, “Theory as Praxis”)
Enactment and performance are watchwords of the interpretive environments described here. I’m always conscious as a designer, and as a collaborator in a design community, that the instruments and environments I help bring into being embody a doubled relationship with the notion of poiesis-as-theory. Drucker and McGann discover the first strand of that helix: that we practitioners, we tool-builders, open ourselves to a fresh kind of critical engagement with the materials and ideas and histories of arts and letters. I write “fresh” rather than “new,” because, as both these theorists have shown, our work has a rich ancestry in critical and creative lines that, at times, have seemed to die out or be subsumed into other cultural and intellectual lineages. In my own experience, iterative development of software and systems — the making and refining of things that go (“I go, I go, look how I go!”) — teaches reams and realms more than mere abstract interrogative thought. The fringe benefits of constructive and pragmatic work are sometimes so great as to be a monumental distraction; this is the reason we often joke that the making of the Ivanhoe Game is the whole of the game.
The second, closely-wound strand of the poiesis helix involves both the practical and rhetorical goals of our undertaking: we wish to share the wealth, by making it possible for the users of SpecLab toolsets and environments to participate in the same fresh engagement with theory that making things makes possible. Every one of the interpretive environments I’ve described asks its inhabitants (“users” is sometimes too pale a term) to produce digital artifacts or perform mediated actions and manipulations in a representational landscape. The degree of abstraction of those representations varies, but they all embed a pragmatic understanding of critical and hermeneutic operation. For each concept, they supply a set diagrammatic or algorithmic or combinatorial tools for interpretive making and doing. Of each product of those instruments — whether a model or a performance or a set of embodied relations — they ask its maker one instrumental question: does it work? (Does it parse? Does it go?)
This is, perhaps, the ultimate brand of speculative computing — a close kin to the risky speculation we teachers and mothers engage in as we invest our energies in pedagogy, or in the bringing up of babies. We make, and make plain, worlds of opportunity with only the slightest notion of what their new inabitants will make of them, and in them. But we frame those worlds as active, and populate them with objects and agents and ideas, and we makers watch and learn.
 According to Alfred Jarry, ‘Pataphysics is:
above all, the science of the particular, despite the common opinion that the only science is that of the general. Pataphysics will examine the laws governing exceptions, and will explain the universe supplementary to this one; or, less ambitiously, will describe a universe which can be — and perhaps should be — envisaged in the place of the traditional one, since the laws that are supposed to have been discovered in the traditional universe are also correlations of exceptions, albeit more frequent ones, but in any case accidental data which, reduced to the status of unexceptional exceptions, possess no longer even the virtue of originality.
(Alfred Jarry, Exploits and Opinions of Doctor Faustroll, ‘Pataphysician , Book II, Chapter 8 (1907) tr. Simon Watson-Taylor)
In the same passage, he offers the following definition: “Pataphysics is the science of imaginary solutions, which symbolically attributes the properties of objects, described by their virtuality, to their lineaments.” I have punctuated the chapters of this dissertation with three such specifically-imagined “imaginary solutions.”
 See also “Speculative Computing: Aesthetic Provocation in Humanities Computing” (to which I contributed a discussion of Temporal Modelling) in Blackwell’s A Companion to Digital Humanities (forthcoming 2004), eds. Unsworth et al.
January 20th has inaugurated the worst and longest case of writer’s block of my life.
I hate to write, under the best of circumstances. It’s painful for me. It’s no fun. It has eaten up whole weekends of my children’s youth that I never saw and will not see again—me, holed up in coffee shops; my family playing games or buying too many comic books or feeding ducks at the park or making spaghetti or doing all the things my partner thought to do with little ones while I was trying to write. It has created bad habits, fetishes. That I can only write well first thing in the morning (still seeking quiet in my college dorm). That grown-up me needs water first—a shower or a swim. That I can only write important things if I’m mad. Lyrical stuff if sad, or scared.
Dissertations postpartum. (But here, writing-brain, the joke’s on you! I’m never doing those two things again!)
That the cost of a keynote is dual weekends at the screen: the first one wasted, the second half-inspired, driven half by fear. That the deadline for articles, chapters, has to loom—has actually to be here.
People think, because I write pretty things, they must be pretty to write.
Donald Trump, you wrecking ball, you craven seething hateful tragic little man. You tool of forces stronger and more evil than yourself, you sign of things to come and things that cannot be allowed to be. You broke my finger-tips, you broke my brain.
I thought I knew on Monday what I needed to say this morning. I was going to give heartfelt thanks to you all for being the community that you are—and for the experience of the past year and a half, for me, as director—and of the past three days for us all, as a tongue-in-cheek little conference village.
Mostly I was just going to be cheerful and chirpy, make a happy announcement about some new advisory board members, and turn things over to our panelists for equally cheerful and brief pitches about their groups and projects. (Panelists, I am so grateful to you for being up here with me.)
This plenary session is called “Open Invitations,” and I think that suits what I’m going to say now, instead, just fine.
What I’m going to say now presumes nothing about your personal politics. I think we saw last night how little we can presume, and how much work is needed on the systems and methods of data collection and analysis that we bear responsibility for and are complicit in as information professionals. How little we understand each other.
And I am especially conscious of how some of you in far less privileged and safe positions than mine must be feeling this morning—far from home, maybe among some friends, surely among many strangers, and perhaps in a lonely minority here, by virtue of the color of your skin or other qualities of the one precious body you’re in, by virtue of the place of your origin or the assumptions people make about that place, or the faiths you hold dear, or the genders of the people you love or want to love one day, or just by virtue of who know yourself to be. Even in what I hope and believe is a DLF village full of allies—clumsy, awkward allies, probably, most of us, but people who honor you and want and need you here—I know you must be feeling very alone.
What I want to say presumes nothing about the politics of anyone in this room, but the newly explicit social justice mission of the DLF is no secret. You may have seen me steer left. And it’s no secret that together, as a collective of individuals, many of us have been working to move this organization along the arc of the moral universe, and to follow where that arc bends—and go where people much more qualified to lead than we are, are leading.
That’s the context in which we make open invitations, today. The people who will take this stage represent just a smattering of DLF and DLF-connected projects. They are working hard, and the work they do bears on the immediate future facing all of us, and on the possible futures facing generations to come. If we have time when they stop, we want you to take the mics and issue invitations of your own.
But before we do that, I want to make the biggest and most open invitation that I can. And that is to use this federation, this DLF. It is yours. Its whole purpose is to be a framework for what you need, for what you want to create—or use to resist.
As soon as I possibly can, I will have our half-finished DLF organizer’s toolkit out and available to you to make that easier—but don’t wait for it to contact me and tell me what you want to do and what you need.
And I also want to say, before we start urging you to act, that it’s also okay to need some time. After all, the libraries and archives and labs and educational and scientific and cultural heritage institutions we’re building together are meant for the long haul. It’s right to move with care, including deep care for yourselves and for each other. I could not be happier or more grateful to Stacie Williams for starting us out with that theme, and I think it’s one we’re right to end on, too.
[This is the text of a talk I gave last week, as “Speculative Collections and the Emancipatory Library,” to close a symposium honoring Dan Hazen, about the future of academic library collecting. See also #HazenatHarvard tweets as assembled by Merrilee Proffitt, a video of the presentation from Harvard Library, and an excerpt from a prior talk (“Alternate Futures/Usable Pasts“), which introduces the concept and offers some paths in.]
[Edited to add: and please read the wonderful “Liberatory Archives,” by Jarrett M. Drake, which takes up many of the same themes as the talk below, and was apparently delivered on the same day! Maybe it’s time? Hurry up please it’s time.]
Reproducibility. Openness. Transparency. Rationality. Interoperability, and an orientation toward interdisciplinary problem-solving. Mine is a non-exclusive list, to be sure, but you might recognize these as values driving data management in the sciences and social sciences, and underlying the creation of collections, interfaces, and infrastructure in what we call “data-driven” fields. They have their problems of positivism, these values—and it has become the necessary project of many thinkers in the library and information science community to demonstrate how underlying assumptions of neutrality and universality in them—and therefore in our practices of selection and description, our design of search mechanisms, and even in many libraries’ public service policies and stances around them—are in fact decidedly non-neutral expressions of dominant, sometimes oppressive ideologies.
But I’ll risk the ire of friends to say that—taken together—the value-sets of open science represent a quality I find disappointingly, maybe even irresponsibly absent from digital library interface design and collection-building. They represent a forward-looking temporal orientation. And I think we feel the absence of that orientation, particularly, now that we are so decidedly past the era of collecting “on spec”—past, that is, being able to hold an image of libraries un-stuck in time, libraries on the long tail, libraries with a far, far future reach—where we invest in and gather materials that may have no immediate use-value.
While administrative imagination slowly catches up to the logic of the network—and while we work to realize “collective collections” that might mitigate this problem—local pressures move inexorably in, and train our attention on contemporary, not future needs: on meeting needs (as we say) “just in time.” Please don’t misunderstand. I do not propose that we adopt the values of open science wholesale (it will be a cold day in Hell when “reproducibility” takes hold in English departments—and “openness” itself has different valences and dangers across communities and fields). Instead, I suggest that we consider the cumulative effect of underlying value sets like these in terms of their temporal orientation—the degree of forward-lookingness and open-endedness inherent in the concepts we hold dear—and what that means for the systems we build.
It’s awful to go dead last, in a two-day event. Talk about future orientation! You prep the whole talk in the near certainty that everything you mean to say will be redundant by the time you say it. But I’d like us to devote some time at the end of the Hazen Symposium to the liberatory potential of humanistic digital libraries—and specifically to a project I’ll endorse, of freeing up the unrealized, multiple, creative trajectories that mostly rest too latent in them.
My argument today builds on a sense that digital humanities collections—archival and otherwise—are more likely to be taken by their users as memorializing, conservative, limited, and suggestive of a linear view of history than as problem-solving, branching, generative, non-teleological. This is a design problem. We’re building our digital libraries to be received by audiences as lenses for retrospect, rather than as stages to be leapt upon by performers, by co-creators. In other words, they’re not the improv platforms they should be: spaces for projection, planning, performance, speculation. Whether we’re talking about born-digital records or those historical documents and artifacts that have undergone the phase-change of digitization—once they’re online, I don’t want special collections, anymore; I want speculative ones.
Now, if this sense I have holds true—and I’ll pause to say that it may not! (I would be excited to hear negative reactions to my premise that future-orientation is too lacking in digital libraries. Maybe you see existing affordances better than I do, and we can use the Q&A to figure out to make them more evident and available to users. So please speak up!) But if it does hold true, this idea that we foster passive retrospect over active prospect in collection-building and the design of our digital libraries, it presents a serious, practical problem. That is because—if we mean to address the grand challenges of the 21st century—we have a pressing need for humanistic knowledge and patterns of work to interweave more fully with scientific understanding and practice, and for both to be made open to a vastly wider array of people, who can apply their various lived experiences and intellectual perspectives—and their future- and freedom-oriented turns of mind—to the problems we share.
All that said, it’s not like speculation is nowhere in the digital library enterprise. Uncertainty is basically the pre-existing condition of 21st-century librarianship. We re-shape our inherited ontologies, platforms, and patterns of information access and control at a moment of extreme unpredictability and rapid technological, social, and environmental change. We’ve begun to pay an overdue extinction debt, a toll for carbon use in this, our 200-year tech boom, which is being taken in the alarming disappearance of plant and animal species. (“Extinction debt” is a technical term in the environmental sciences as well as a transactional promise: all evidence suggests that the 6th great mass extinction of life on this planet is well underway—though uncertainties as to its impact on our own species remain.) We face political instabilities, which will only increase with environmentally driven human migration. Refugee crises and famine will intensify under climate change, along with genocide, war, and domestic extremism and strife. And libraries and museums grapple with the destruction of both tangible and intangible cultural heritage that attends globalization.
All this suggests one line of opposition to my appeal for more speculative collections already. Perhaps, given such a level of disruption and shock, you are prompted to wonder—with media archaeologist Wolfgang Ernst—whether “archival resistance against change is indeed a virtue.” This, from an essay in a collection on Decolonising Archives: “What used to be sacred space, secluded from public insight… is now directly wired to the communications circuit of the present. The archive loses its temporal exclusivity as a place remote from the immediate present.”
“With increasing mobility and acceleration,” Ernst asks, “should we rather value the immobile archive for its time-resisting virtue?” But even if we wanted our archives only to sit still and look back, we would have to prepare the digital knowledge infrastructures that surround them to operate under uncertain and fast-changing conditions. I mean this most straightforward and practical way. Are our collections sufficiently accessible, data-minable, documented, linked? Are they resilient, redundant, well-stewarded, robust? Are we adequately imagining far-future conditions as we put them together, including conditions of resource-scarcity and decline?
This is not the kind of pragmatic future-orientation I’m going to talk about today, but it’s the one that has rightly consumed most of the energy and imagination my communities, the DLF and NDSA communities, have for their work. Instead, it’s that word—imagination—that leads me to the conceptual and emotional issues at the heart of my talk: to design problems, to problems of mission and affect and agency. I’ll get back to some pragmatism at the end, but I need to start with ideas that are squishier.
Are we designing libraries that activate imaginations—both their users’ imaginations and those of the expert practitioners who craft and maintain them? Are we designing libraries emancipated from what I’ll shortly demonstrate is often experienced as an externally-imposed, linear and fatalistic conception of time? Are we at least designing libraries that dare to try, despite the fundamental paradox of the Anthropocene era we live in—which asks us to hold unpredictability and planetary-scale inevitability simultaneously in mind? How can we design digital libraries that admit alternate futures—that recognize that people require the freedom to construct their own, independent philosophical infrastructure, to escape time’s arrow and subvert, if they wish, the unidirectional and neoliberal temporal constructs that have so often been tools of injustice?
All of these are concepts stemming from theory and practice in Afrofuturism and other forms of speculative art and design, from the concepts of kairos and temporal modeling, the Caribbean “otherwise,” a striving toward “impossible archival imaginaries” and “usable pasts,” and from emancipatory research, a notion of “archival liveness,” and the ethics of care: ideas and fields I will draw from—even if time only permits telegraphic references today—as I offer preconditions for humanistic digital libraries that just might (as C.P. Snow once wrote of the community of scientists) hold the future in their bones.
My favorite line from our symposium readings comes partway through Dan Hazen’s “Rethinking Research Library Collections.” He’s discussing what he calls the “exuberantly expressive” new modes of both authorship & authority that are emerging in the digital age. “Libraries,” Hazen writes, “are on uncertain ground as they engage with this fractious, seductive, alien, and essential universe.” It’s a line that resonates beautifully with concepts from Afrofuturism—the fractious, seductive, alien, and essential cultural and aesthetic movement that first set me on this line of inquiry. Some of you have heard me speak about Afrofuturism before, or maybe have read a thing I wrote, but I believe it’s worth my pausing to repeat a bit and share—and to start, again, with a 90-second clip from a 20-year-old documentary by filmmaker John Akomfrah.
Did you catch the clue? It was “Mothership Connection.” But—besides a burning desire to seek out the rest of the documentary—what I would like you to take away from this clip is Akomfrah’s notion of a “black secret technology.” I want you to notice that both the evolving music that’s evoked (“the blues begat jazz, the blues begat soul”) and the fragments of the past that are there to be discovered by the Data Thief are all figured not as “pop culture” or “the arts,” but as an active technology. In other words, cultural heritage—this cultural heritage (like “this crossroads”), even when dug up, archaeologically, in the far future—will never be something we passively encounter. We don’t just play it back, like a phonograph record. It becomes… scratchadelia. This is vinyl for the scratch-artist, the DJ at the club. We’re talking about playable archives, simple records, that themselves become instruments—a truly usable past. (I draw this idea from music critic Kodwo Eshun’s More Brilliant than the Sun, the book that blew my tiny mind—soon to be reprinted; highly recommended.) So the archive becomes the instrument. Pause to let this sink in! Inherent in Aftrofuturism is an orientation toward past culture as future-oriented tech: codes to crack, tools to use, collections to transform.
Now—like Akomfrah—let’s skip forward in time a bit, before we back up and fill in the middle. Rasheedah Phillips, a brilliant young lawyer and community organizer, is the artist and thinker behind projects called Black Quantum Futurism and The Afrofuturist Affair. She’s also a science-fiction writer, frequent collaborator with musician Camae Ayewa, Moor Mother, and the author of an important entry on the word “Future” in a new edited collection of Keywords for Radicals, a book about “the contested vocabulary of late-capitalist struggle.” Just a few weeks ago, Phillips offered a workshop out of the Philadelphia storefront that has become her group’s experimental “Community Futures Lab.” The Lab is a place blending grassroots, activist community archiving with science fiction imaginings toward the design of alternate futures. It specifically works to document and resist forces of gentrification and displacement in North Philadelphia, to create counter-imaginings.
“Join us,” the workshop flyer said, “as we consider what technologies are practically and readily available to us to help shift / adjust / manipulate / augment / enhance our experiences of space-time at will. Black Quantum Futurism is exploring and developing temporal technologies that are more beneficial to marginalized peoples’ survival in a “high-tech” world currently dominated by oppressive, fatalistic, linear time constructs.”
You won’t find a clearer statement of a problem and a need. But Penn scholar Deborah Thomas reinforces the necessity for temporal re-conception in a recent article in Anthropological Theory, called “Time and the Otherwise: Plantations, Garrisons, and Being Human in the Caribbean.” Thomas catalogs the ways in which “blackness is foundational to modern temporality,” and how what she calls “moments of exceptional violence” in the Black Atlantic (past and present, emergent from cyclical patterns of violence) make more legible those subjective experiences of time that can challenge dominant narratives of causality. This explains why, as she points out, Caribbean philosophers have long been drawn to insights about nonlinearity and temporal entanglement from theoretical quantum physics. An “erasure of foundational violences,” Thomas writes, “becomes the tool through which inequalities are reproduced and made to seem inevitable in the contemporary period.” This is “generated, in large part, through a constant insistence upon the supremacy of a concept of time rooted in linearity, progressive teleology, and a tendency toward perpetual improvement.” Yet it’s an ideology that’s not “seamless” or easy to maintain in the face of trauma, and which, particularly in the “prophetic redemptive tradition… [of] radical black politics in Jamaica and the Americas… opens the possibility of unforeseeable and unpredictable futures.” Thomas concludes by asking: “how do we mobilize a transformed apprehension of temporality… toward the project of repair?”
In other words, what would we change if we took people at their word when they tell us there’s something wrong with the temporal dimension of this world of records and histories we’ve designed for them? That we need to work against the implicit sense our Enlightenment interfaces give, that the situation of the present is the only possible conclusion of the accumulated evidentiary data of the past?
Maybe the best way for the digital library community, in particular, to help break the sense of fatalism, inevitability, and disaffection from the historical archive that dominant narratives can provoke is to take seriously the Afrofuturist notion of cultural heritage not as content to be received but technology to be used. How do you position digital collections and digital scholarly projects more plainly not as statements about what was, but as toolsets and resources for what could be?
This is British Jazz saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings: “Since we did the album,” he shares in an interview, “a lot has been said about Afrofuturism… I think I first heard [the word in] John Akomfrah’s documentary The Last Angel of History… I watched it and I thought, ‘What does it mean to me?’ I went to a lecture by Kodwo Eshun… [who] was talking about Afrofuturism as… poeticising the past. That you recontextualise it, and mould it in a way that gives you a power over history.”
“I like that sentiment,” Hutchings says. “It’s essentially this Sun Ra philosophy that I’m really into: the fact that communities that have agency [are] able to form their own philosophical structures.” Communities that have agency are able to form their own philosophical structures. This is the idea that should galvanize digital cultural heritage work today: that traditionally “subaltern” groups must be able—not just to access their own content in archival and library systems, and not just to control access to it (as radical as that idea may be in some circles)—but to set the terms for the infrastructure itself, actively configuring classification systems, search-and-discovery interfaces, and visualization tools in our shared digital libraries to express independent theories of the world—the world as it is for them, and the world as it should be. For examples of work in this direction, I look to content-management tools focused on indigenous intellectual property, like Mukurtu. I also think you see the seeds of it in open-ended, multi-vocal, spatial and geo-temporal platforms, like the emerging Mbira system from Michigan State, or deep inside the theory and rationale for Neatline at the UVa Scholars’ Lab. These are projects led by anthropologists and archaeologists and (now, in the case of Neatline) narratologists, by the way—not archivists or librarians.
So, where are digital library developers in all this? The broader community of practitioners represented and drawn together by my organization, the DLF, is mid-stream in its shift from over-reliance on vendor-provided interface and content management “solutions” to a willingness to invest in open source, community-built platforms and to foster a more complex set of interrelations among developers and their partners and publics. This is a shift I see as the necessary precursor to the thing I’m really arguing for today: that we put both intellectual and material support behind design experimentation to help us better understand, and ultimately increase community agency in our digital libraries.
You have to own your own infrastructure before you can even think about using it to express the vital presence or historical lack of agency embedded in your archives—and before you can take one step toward affording agency to the people whose belongings have become your “collections.” You have to own your own infrastructure before you can give it away—before you can open avenues to communities that wish to use their own digitized and born-digital materials to craft alternate futures and autonomous philosophies of the world.
Afrofuturism, as an artistic and aesthetic practice, dates to the mid-20th century, with much deeper roots in 19th-century Black speculative fiction, including the work of W.E.B. Du Bois and Martin Delaney. One of its driving questions was distilled in the mid-1990s, in an essay cyber-culture critic Mark Dery called “Black to the Future.” The question is this: “Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for legible traces of its history, imagine possible futures?” Dery got at it by conducting interviews with pioneering sci-fi authors and intellectuals (Tricia Rose, Samuel R. Delaney, Greg Tate), who reflected on a literary landscape in which writers like Octavia Butler loomed large. But they also spoke to the elaborate performances of Afrofuturism’s early musical practitioners—performers like George Clinton, whose glowing flying saucer descended from concert-hall rafters to the significant tune of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” (That’s your “mothership connection,” by the way; the P-Funk Mothership is now on view at the new Smithsonian Museum of African-American History and Culture.)
And they talked about the famous Sun Ra and his jazz Arkestra. (Again, a ship, an ark.) Ra’s performance conceit—hardly ever dropped—was that he had returned to Earth from an abduction to Saturn, reborn as what Kodwo Eshun calls an “African-American alien musician.” Sun Ra was a savior figure, on a mission to teleport his people, physically, through the medium of jazz vibrations—and not just spatially but temporally—to an “altered destiny,” the alternate timeline they’d find on a new and better world.
There have been Afrofuturist strains in hip-hop and techno and R&B. You can see traces of it in mainstream artists (even Michael Jackson, or Prince)—but I particularly recommend the work of “electric lady” Janelle Monáe, who leads androids to freedom, and that of a little-known, now defunct Detroit-based techno group called Drexicya. This is a group whose sub-aquatic revisionist history about a futuristic Black Atlantis begins in horror—it begins with “disruptive” mothers in labor, thrown overboard in the Middle Passage: mothers who drowned; babies who mutated, breathed water, and lived. So you see that, even in its exuberance, as it imagines alternate destinies and divergent timelines, turns slave ships into motherships and alienation into salvation—Afrofuturism never loses sight of its origin in trauma and loss. Most especially, it never forgets its archival aporia: gaps and uncertainties that open possibility even as they hurt. Can a community whose past has been rubbed out, imagine alternate futures?
This brings me to the “impossible archival imaginary,” a term from a recent article by Anne Gilliland and Michelle Caswell. The concept builds on earlier work in which Caswell offered grassroots archives as sites where global, diasporic groups, brought together by shared elements of identity and as independently as possible from institutional control, could undertake what she called “the messy business of contesting, renegotiating, and redefining collective memory of the past.” Her focus in that first piece was on actual archives.
The “impossible archival imaginary,” on the other hand, centers in the “absent or unattainable archive”—records which don’t exist. This may be because they’ve gone missing, have been destroyed or spirited away, or because they were never real in the first place, no matter how much we wish they were. “Imagined records” exert a powerful influence over communities and help to define both reality and possibility in an affective landscape of shared imagination, offering important “counterbalances and sometimes resistance to dominant legal, bureaucratic, historical and forensic notions of evidence that so often fall short in explaining the capacity of records and archives” to move us. Gilliland and Caswell want to counter “dominant strands of archival theory and practice [that] maintain an un-reflexive preoccupation with the actual, the instantiated, the accessible and the deployable—that is, with records that have… evidentiary capacity.” Instead, they show how “differing imagined trajectories of the future” can emerge from records both present in and absent from the past.
Just to offer one among their many provocative examples: consider how documentation works in the petition formulated by the grieving parents of Michael Brown after Ferguson, a petition that police officers be fitted with body cameras. This implies “a new category of imagined record,” Gilliland and Caswell write, “the record that need-not-be-created because its very possibility prevents the brutality of its creation.” The what-if of absent documentation—in this instance, the “nonexistent imagined record of Brown’s murder” that might have been captured, had a camera been in place, creates an alternate universe, a temporal paradox, a speculative timeline: it has “an envisioned aspirational trajectory… to bring about a more just future.”
The basic case Gilliland and Caswell make is “that archival theory and practice can no longer afford to ignore… phenomena of the imagination” and that “complicating the link between record and event… opens up archival thinking to non-dominant and pluralist epistemologies.” It’s an argument akin to one made by another pair of archivists more than a dozen years before—Wendy Duff and Verne Harris, who advocated for the development of new standards in a 2002 article on deconstruction, narrative, futurism, and archival description, called “Stories and Names.” “Our dream,” they wrote, “is of a descriptive standard which is liberatory rather than oppressive, one which works as a touchstone for creativity rather than as a straightjacket. What would the attributes of such a standard be?”
To Duff and Harris, a liberatory descriptive standard “would not position archives and records within the numbing strictures of record keeping… which posit ‘the record’ as cocooned in a time-bound layering of meaning, and reduce description to the work of capturing and polishing the cocoon.” In contrast,” they write, “a liberatory standard would… posit the record as always in the process of being made, the record opening out of the future. Such a standard would not seek to affirm the keeping of something already made. It would seek to affirm… open-ended making and re-making.”
There’s a small amount of digital library interface experimentation around these concepts right now. It’s of extremely high quality—but there’s simply not enough! In the interest of time, I’ll just say that I particularly admire projects by my Australian colleagues Tim Sherratt (University of Canberra), who has long worked against the grain of existing digital cultural heritage platforms, and Mitchell Whitelaw (ANU), who both creates and theorizes “generous interfaces.” Whitelaw is also among several authors of a relevant new piece by Tom Schofield et al in Digital Humanities Quarterly, on the concept of “Archival Liveness.” Schofield and his co-authors outline attempts to bring open, broadly participatory, and temporally-aware design and visualization to archival collections—not as something enabled by or resulting from expert metadata creation, but rather happening synchronously with processing by archivists and cataloguers, and in community with end users.
I rush to an end. Grappling—in terms of selection, arrangement, description, and delivery—with the imaginary, with process, with time as situated kairos rather than impersonal chronos, with users as co-creators: all these things would bring us closer to having digital libraries and archives that permit speculation and maybe not only demonstrate, but help to realize greater community agency in the context of shared cultural heritage. And if it must be our collective argument now, that research libraries can no longer purchase and house truly far-future-oriented collections, collections full of stuff no-one is asking for at present—well, I’ll just point out that imaginary archives likely come cheap and don’t take up a lot of space.
But could digital libraries emancipated from time’s arrow, geared toward community imagination and control, and looking forward rather than back become systemic instruments of liberty? We know from emancipatory research theory (the best of which I’ve found in nursing and disability studies) that people make themselves free: scholars and technologists don’t do that. So how can we set our digital libraries up for community-driven transformation into the “independent philosophical [infra]structures,” that Afrofuturist thinkers cite as a mark of freedom? In pragmatic terms, what about the trust, and what about the tech?
Search itself (despite acknowledged problems of “ungenerosity”) is a technical paradigm that would seem to work against the hegemony of the pre-fab, linear timeline interface or the time-ordered browse—if only our search engines’ settings could be opened up to end users in ways that are less about filtering shared, least-common-denominator results and more about crafting wholly new avenues for discovery. A popular open source public access catalog (or OPAC) system, Project Blacklight, was designed with this in mind—intended (at least its early days, when I was involved in the work) to allow even non-technical librarians and user communities to tweak relevance ranking and control fields that should and shouldn’t be indexed—effectively, opening up the black box of search. So that’s one possibly arc of inquiry.
However, work by Safiya Noble, Frank Pasquale, Bess Sadler & Chris Bourg—among others—shows us how sharply inflected and downright biased deeply underlying search algorithms can be. Even if a project like Blacklight could be taken forward in its most open, community-configurable direction, there remain boxes within our black boxes, like nesting dolls. And lest I paint too rosy a picture of the future for open, malleable, community-based infrastructure in general: you only have to look at an experiment like “Tay” to see the how hard this work will be. Tay was the Microsoft chat-bot who was released to train herself in conversational understanding through open interaction on Twitter, and who—based on what people taught her to say—went from dumb sweetness to full-blown violent white supremacy in less than 24 hours. They had to take her down.
Safiya Noble, in an important new paper called “A Future for Intersectional Black Feminist Technology Studies,” urges LIS scholars to support counter-narratives and the creation of better tools through continued, rigorous, multivalent analysis of our underlying infrastructure—to help the cause by keeping up “feminist pressure on the development of technologies, in the context of material consequences that diminish any liberatory possibility.” Her advice is that we concentrate especially on intersectional analysis in tech: those areas where overlapping oppressions throw power differentials into sharp relief. As an area ripe for just that kind of Noble analysis, I would highlight technologies of digital surveillance—how watchful analytics permeate all our systems and pose a huge challenge to developing and maintaining the kind of community trust that is a baseline requirement to working, as overwhelmingly white institutions like libraries, in partnership with (or service and productive subordination to) minoritized groups.
I hope you have a sense, from the theorists, artists, and practitioners I’ve cited today, that the issues I’ve raised are worth working on, and that they require an approach from multiple angles. To approach the problem of temporal orientation in our digital cultural heritage interfaces in a humanistic—not to say humane—way, we need archival theory and practice, literary and historical scholarship, the intersectional analysis of built systems; we need community-based activism and the arts; we need experiments in visualization and imaginative representation, including the picturing of absence and wishes. We also need more basic theorizing—coupled with concrete design experimentation—of what liberty, agency, and temporal orientation can mean in complex digital library systems.
Finally, I think we need to begin to articulate a shared list, similar to the non-exclusive set of “open science” values I began with, of touchstone concepts for working in speculative collections—ideas we can hold on to, to keep ourselves focused and honest and capable of collaboration across institutional and disciplinary and town-gown lines. How would we start such a list of values for future-oriented, humanistic digital libraries? I’ll throw out just a few, to see if any stick. I value subjectivity. Permeability. Possibility. Agency. Hope and respect.
I want to return, in my last moments with you, to the question anthropologist Deborah Thomas let linger at the end of “Time and the Otherwise,”— a question that, in our context, presumes a level of success for this enterprise. “How,” she asks, “do we mobilize a transformed apprehension of temporality toward the project of repair?”
Thomas is talking about repair in the social and cultural sense: repair as healing, as reparation. I find it impossible to read this question now, though, without also thinking of library and digital knowledge infrastructure: systems we may need to correct, systems (in Steve Jackson’s sense) that we will need to patch and maintain, content that we want to migrate and preserve. I can’t answer her question, yet. But I know that repair itself is not a backward-looking activity, even if that’s what’s suggested by everything in our Western tech cultures of the new, of planned obsolescence and continual innovation. An argument for future-oriented, humanistic digital libraries is not an argument against maintenance and repair, or against appreciating the past and honoring and protecting what our archives house today. Instead, it’s a suggestion that we might use the active technologies of our digitized cultural heritage better: to transform our shared and disparate “apprehensions of temporality” in a way that links prospects for the future with an ethic of care for the past—and for the people who will always live in the spaces in-between.
[While I’m cleaning up the text of a talk I gave at Harvard’s Hazen Symposium last week (see #HazenatHarvard or Merrilee’s Storify for tweets from many great presentations), I thought I’d share just the prelude and final paragraph to one that preceded it, and was really a first stab at the concept. This is from Marquette University Library in late September.]
[Update: “Speculative Collections,” the talk that followed, is now available.]
It wasn’t until I took a job in the library that I became unstuck in time. I thought I knew what time was, in that way that you think you know things, now, when you’re just out of your 20s and it’s possible you could have it all together. I thought I knew time as a young mother: how it drags and loops with repetition (sleep and milk and laundry); how quickly it passes, as little bodies grow and reach and change. I thought I knew it as a scholar. My academic training had been in classical archaeology, on the one hand, and poetry and textual criticism on the other—the meter of lyric verse and the history of print culture—with a weird stop-over in the middle to teach the design and aesthetics of video games. Each of these disparate fields has its own ticking metronome, its particular largo or accelerando. They have positionality as disciplines and different ways of positioning the objects of their study, all splayed out on timelines of their own making.
I thought I knew time, too, because I’d designed software to model it. Part of my dissertation work around (ahem) the turn of the century, in which I was grappling toward something I called Speculative Computing, had been to collaborate with a small team (Johanna Drucker, Jim Allman, Petra Michel, and many generous colleagues) in prototyping a tool for humanistic timelines. These were timelines not governed—as nearly all digital interfaces to time were then and still are—by the mechanical ticking of a scientific clock. We were funded, oddly enough, by a grant to Johanna from the Intel Corporation, which was interested in hardware requirements for the Don Draper-like transcendent moments they hoped you might have with the digital equivalent of your family’s slide carousel. They wanted to sell computers that were machines for memory, rather than just memory-machines. So they offered money (time is money) to some humanities scholars (who come cheap), to tinker with stretchy, squishy timelines, to imagine interfaces and interaction modes for the personal and uniquely human experience of time.
We created timeline tools for fiction and memoir and contested historical events, lines on which nothing could be pinned precisely, tools for sketching ambiguous causes and imprecise moments. Our Temporal Modelling Project made timelines for causal relations and visions proleptic—acts of revision and retrospect, anticipation, prediction, self-illusion, and regret. We modeled time that zips by, and time that drags its feet. We also built branching timelines, my specialty, in which the subjective observer’s standing-point—the moment of the now, my experience necessarily very different from yours even in the same instant—was like a bead: any number of beads, really, all valid imaginary nows—which could move freely back and forth along unraveling threads of time—concentrating them for a moment, maybe, into a contingent view of past, present, and future—but always in motion and part of a fabric of observation and interpretation, being perpetually unmade and made.
So I guess I was primed to look beyond progress narratives and linear conceptions of time. But a few things in recent years have untethered me more and more from time’s arrow, with regard to our collective cultural heritage mission. Four things, in fact. I will share them this morning to prompt you to consider whether these ideas, or similar emerging ones, might unsettle the connection of time to your work, too—and whether there is something valuable for scholars and librarians in that feeling—something we can use in a constructive way as we re-imagine, to better ends, the fundamental temporal orientation of the next generation of digital libraries and digital scholarly projects.
Most of all, my goal is to suggest a great (though sadly, mostly latent) capacity in digital scholarship and digital librarianship—and that is the capacity for our work to fuel the conceptualization and the realization of alternate futures. The question I want to ask is this: can we design digital cultural heritage platforms that help to break the sense of fatalism, inevitability, and disaffection from the historical archive that our dominant narratives and systems provoke in so many of the people our work means to empower? Can we position our digital collections and digital scholarly projects more plainly not as statements about what was and is, but as resources for the building of different, better worlds?
“The unbearable whiteness and patriarchy of traditional archives,” Princeton archivist Jarrett Drake tells us, “demand that new archives for black lives emerge and sustain themselves as spaces and sites for trauma, transcendence, and transformation.” This is a statement from a brief essay in which Drake describes his experience, in the summer of 2015, in helping to build a community archive of police violence in Cleveland. The project was begun in a grassroots way, when the Society of American Archivists held its annual meeting in a reeling city. It was in that sense as much an attempt at transcendence on the part of archivists unsatisfied with consumerist academic conference culture as it was a processing of trauma for the community in whose service they worked. I take much of my inspiration from practitioner-driven and community-based archives like this, created in partnership and out of overlapping trouble.
Alongside what Drake calls the necessary emergence of such archives, I want to share what I take to be the core message of another emergent and transformative and necessary movement. And that is the cultural and aesthetic movement of Afrofuturism. I’ll discuss this concept in greater depth in a little while—but to distill its message now, we might simply say that the clearest marker of agency and therefore deep-seated freedom in any community—any community, but most especially one that has suffered the obliteration and co-opting of its history—is that community’s ability to create independent philosophical infrastructure, and to use that infrastructure to imagine futures that diverge from the dominant historiographical timeline. The implications for libraries and the academy here are, I think, profound.
And they place a requirement on us. We—the professions that come together in the shared enterprise of digital scholarship and cultural heritage—need to find a way to step back from patriarchal, colonial, heteronormative, and white mediation, and from its sense of control over time, in order (as Afrofuturist thinkers would have it) to make a new space-time in which broader and more diverse publics can assert that agency and imagine alternate futures. I think one way to cultivate the will to step back, among those of us who steward and share the past—who are in love with the past, when it comes right down to it—is to try to unsettle our fundamental orientation toward it.
The first of my own four un-moorings in time was the realization of the degree to which a retrospective, memorializing and even embalming impulse seems to govern library and digital humanities collection-building. That impulse is evident even now, in the wildest moment of evolution imaginable for our inherited archive: that is, midstream in mass digitization—the great remediation project of the present day. The second came in watching the academy’s response (or sometimes our lack of response) to those neoliberal challenges to mission, funding, and scope that have sharpened since the last recession, and that discourage scholars from devoting time to speculative thinking just as surely they do librarians from collecting for the long haul and speculatively, “on spec.” (Indeed, we are all focusing now on shorter and ever more precisely quantified timescales, and on the paying customers who stand before us rather than on generations unknown. We’re all asked for faster and more evidence-based return on investment. Those demands have consequences on imagination.) The third temporal unsettling I came to feel is what I’ll call the vertigo of the Anthropocene—which is extreme and is slowly filtering out over more academic disciplines. This is shorthand for the scientific understanding and humanistic theorizing of our place in deep time, in geological time, where all of modernity can be both a nothing of a blip—a little plasticine-and-H-bomb layer in the rock—and simultaneously this planet’s great, destructive prime mover. And finally, to return to where I started, I came to better understand how counter-insurgencies to inevitability function in Afrofuturism, and to appreciate the potential for scholarly projects and cultural heritage organizations to contribute positively to this crucial work at a moment when we must all assert that black lives matter.
I know that’s a lot. Too much for one talk, maybe, but it seemed important to lay out a broader context for temporal unsettling and alternate ways of thinking about time. I’ll dig into these four areas today to differing degrees—beginning with the first of them.
* * *
So I end with questions, rather than answers, and will look forward to your thoughts.
How can we, as digital scholars and platform-builders and people who steward the content of digital libraries, better support the explorations of groups like Rasheedah Phillips’ Community Futures Lab, groups that combine community archiving with speculative thinking? How can we trouble the temporal narratives our collections and methods of organization and interpretation imply? Can our digital archives and digital humanities projects fuel the conception and realization of alternate futures? What about problems of surveillance, of bias in black box systems, of the lack of perspective of a library profession that is pervasively, unbearably white? How might we and our scholarly projects and archives become generatively unstuck in time, too—and if we can’t, how can we get out of the way?
This is the text of a presentation I made yesterday at a wonderful Columbia University symposium called Insuetude (still ongoing), which is bringing media archaeologists together with stones-and-bones archaeologists. I started my talk with a bit of film, as a way of time-traveling to the middle of my theme, in part for the pleasure of taking a jarring step back out. Please watch the first 90 seconds or so of The Last Angel of History, a brilliant 1996 documentary by John Akomfrah. You can catch it in this clip. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
Now—what would it mean to take an explicitly antiracist approach to the digitization of cultural heritage? To its technological recovery? To its presentation, not as static content to be received, but as active technology to be used? What would it mean to create an actively antiracist digital library?
Let us first understand the construction of libraries in general, along with their embedded activities of remediation and digital stewardship, as exercises in spatial and temporal prospect. This is work that requires practitioners and builders to develop a geospatially expansive imagination, and to see their charge as having as much to do with things speculative as with retrospect—as much, that is, with scrying for possible, yet-unrealized futures as with reflecting documented, material pasts. If we agree that our collective network of libraries, archives, and museums should be made for prospect—with spatial scope and (as C.P. Snow wrote of the community of scientists) holding “the future in their bones”—then taking up the design problem of an antiracist digital library, particularly in this country, means addressing one fundamental question.
Where and when do black lives matter?
afropolitanism: black people belong in all spaces. afrofuturism: we belong in all times.
— Sofia Samatar (@SofiaSamatar) August 9, 2015
—Sofia Samatar, author of “A Stranger in Olondria.”
Here we have the clearest statement I’ve yet seen, about the two vital cultural and aesthetic movements I want to discuss today. One read on Afropolitanism and Afrofuturism is that they mark the emergence in contemporary thought of hopeful and positive expressions of diaspora, a reclaiming, in some sense, of black peoples’ agency in their continuing, historically enforced dispersion, away from hearth and home and throughout time and space. In Afropolitanism, the diasporic imagination extends all over the world, including into elite Western circles—past barriers of continents, countries, and especially class. In the sci-fi realms of Afrofuturism, black ownership over the Diaspora goes beyond all that. It reaches into future worlds—it extends to the stars.
Why am I talking about this, here? Why am I talking about things—I want to admit up-front—that are outside my own personal experience and scholarly expertise, and at Columbia, where your own Dean Alondra Nelson is a towering figure in academic Afrofuturism? Beyond that I’m trying to take this reminder more seriously in all my work:
—it’s because I recognize I am all too typical of the people building digital cultural heritage infrastructure in North America, much of Europe, and across the Anglophone world. I’m painfully typical of the practitioner community designing what some of our American funders have begun calling a “national digital platform,” and I’m painfully typical of the researchers and administrators who theorize and support it. There’s a pervasive whiteness in librarianship—a profession, by our last, imperfect measure, 88% white—that is unbearable, paralytic, oppressive. And yet we’re working at a moment of great opportunity, when technologies and practices are truly beginning to align for the creation of coherent, interconnected, sustainable digital archives and 21st-century knowledge infrastructure.
What is it that we want to build? What is it that we can build, from that perspective and position—and for and with whom? I want to suggest that, within activist movements like Black Lives Matter and cultural and aesthetic programs like Afropolitanism and Afrofuturism, rests a potentially liberating and—for digital libraries—maybe altogether new kind of community-based agency. We can ignore that agency and replicate colonial archival configurations and normative knowledge structures of the past. Or we can take it seriously and step back a bit, so that the people who rightly possess and articulate it may better direct us all—on their own terms—in systems-building for digital stewardship and the work of memory institutions. (And lest I seem too far afield, agency & ontology are two broad themes of this afternoon’s panel.)
Here’s British Jazz saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings:
“Since we did the album, a lot has been said about Afrofuturism… I think I first heard [the word in] John Akomfrah’s documentary The Last Angel of History… I watched it and I thought, ‘What does it mean to me?’ I went to a lecture by [music critic and theorist] Kodwo Eshun… [who] was talking about Afrofuturism as being a way of poeticising the past. That you recontextualise it, and mould it in a way that gives you a power over history. I like that sentiment. It’s essentially this Sun Ra philosophy that I’m really into: the fact that communities that have agency [are] able to form their own philosophical structures.”
Communities that have agency are able to form their own philosophical structures. This is surely the most crucial concept taking hold in digital cultural heritage work today: the conviction that “subaltern” groups must be able to use archival and library systems to express their independent theories of the world as it is, and as it could or should be—and to build whatever they need for the world to come. It’s exemplified in content-management tools focused on indigenous intellectual property, like Mukurtu, or on place-based multi-vocality, like the new Mbira platform from Michigan State (projects notably led by anthropologists and archaeologists). It’s inherent in the shift in the digital library community, from near-total reliance on vendor-provided “solutions” to a willingness to invest in open source, community-built platforms and to foster a complex set of interrelations among developers and their partners and publics. It’s also, I think, the latent digital cultural heritage systems affordance most in need of design experimentation and intellectual and material support right now: how to express the vital presence or historical lack of agency; how to enable or re-enable it on the part of the people whose belongings have become your “collections;” how to design for agency in a way that helps communities use their own digitized and born-digital materials in the creation of autonomous, living and breathing philosophical infrastructure.
And this is one reason I’ve become so interested in performance-based philosophies that you might at first glance mistake for so-called identity politics or for entertainment. But another reason I bring ideas from Afropolitanism and Afrofuturism here for your consideration—to the archaeologists and media archaeologists of this symposium—is that as I began learning about them, I saw in both movements a particularly materialized imagination.
It’s no coincidence that the Data Thief of The Last Angel of History is an archaeologist—that he’s looking for a place to dig. By seeking and reconstituting lost material traces, he will crack future-oriented codes. He’ll make a usable past, in the same way that scratch artists transformed the vinyl archive—the recordings spinning on their turntables—into revolutionary new music. It’s no coincidence that Rasheedah Phillips identifies her “Black Quantum Futurism” with an “African space-time consciousness” that is less subjective than history because it centers on the objects of material culture: “ways in which we ‘time travel, simply by touching and interacting with everyday objects… artifacts of memory and meaning, storing up energy… which is neither created nor destroyed in the larger universe.” No coincidence, too, that Kodwo Eshun’s great essay “Further Considerations on Afrofuturism” is punctuated with interludes like this:
“Imagine a team of African archaeologists from the future—some silicon, some carbon, some wet, some dry—excavating a site, a museum from their past: a museum whose ruined documents and leaking discs are identifiable as belonging to our present, the early twenty-first century. Sifting patiently through the rubble, our archaeologists from the United States of Africa… would be struck by how much Afrodiasporic subjectivity in the twentieth century constituted itself through the cultural project of recovery… Imagine them reconstructing the conceptual framework of our cultural moment from those fragments.”
Let’s look at two such conceptual frameworks. Afropolitanism appears, in part, as an urbane, international (largely European) kind of scenester culture, perhaps hottest in the mid- to late-2000s when Taiye Selasi laid out its attractive vision in an essay called “Bye-Bye Babar.” The label spoke to young, well educated, and upwardly mobile professionals either born in Africa or who could claim recent—perhaps ambivalent or nostalgic, but clear—parental or familial ties to the continent. As Selasi puts it, Afropolitanism was born “between the 1988 release of [Eddie Murphy’s] Coming to America and the 2001 crowning of a Nigerian Miss World, [when] the general image of young Africans in the West transmorphed from goofy to gorgeous.” Think Iman. Think Barak Obama, who performed Afropolitanism in Dreams from My Father.
Finnish-Nigerian journalist Minna Salami traces the concept through her award-winning “Ms.Afropolitan” blog, highlighting its relation not just to spaces (the global+local, or what she calls “glocal”), but to synthetic speculation: Afropolitanism is a “modern-day oracle [she writes] whose algorithmic mediums (literature, theory, folktales, art, myth, fashion etc.) serve to reduce the discord and asymmetry of separation between Africans themselves as well as between Africans and the rest of the world.” So you see the movement itself, alongside its expressive media, being figured as an algorithmic, speculative technology—an oracle—performing a spatial version of what information scientist and speculative thinker Kari Kraus calls “conjectural criticism.” It’s code to be executed, run.
The Afropolitan concept was initially widely embraced, but has been more recently critiqued (by Emma Dabiri, Binyavanga Wainaina, Stephanie Bosch Santana, and others) for having succumbed to Western commodity culture and hipsterism—for creating, in its love for textiles, art objects, food, and fashionable places to see and be seen (as Dabiri puts it) an “Instagram-friendly Africa… the latest manifestation of planetary commerce in blackness.” The critics’ problem is almost entirely that Afropolitanism, like libraries and museums in their colonial roots, finds fullest expression in the acquisition and exhibition of stuff.
On the other side of our equation, in Afrofuturism, an undeniable, flamboyant materiality and focus on embodiment remains celebrated—is frankly where it’s at. Perhaps, when it comes to the materialist critique, the Afrofuturist aesthetic is given a pass by virtue of its obvious connection to advanced and imaginary, otherworldly technologies.
Afrofuturism, as an intellectual, artistic, and literary practice, dates to the mid-20th century, with earlier roots in speculative fiction by W.E.B. Du Bois and others. It takes its name from a passage in a 1994 Flame Wars essay by cyber-culture critic Mark Dery, entitled “Black to the Future.” Dery not only coined the word, but helped crystallize the concept of Afrofuturism into one electrifying question: “Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for legible traces of its history, imagine possible futures?”
He got at this question by conducting a set of interviews with pioneering sci-fi authors and intellectuals (Samuel R. Delaney, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose), who reflected on their own work, on that of Octavia Butler (even then the grande dame of the field), and on the highly problematic visions of white writers of black futures, like Robert Heinlein and William Gibson. But the piece spoke, too, to the elaborate costumes and sets and performances and films and photoshoots of Afrofuturism’s first musical practitioners, possessed of that so-called “black secret technology”—and that is where much pop-culture understanding of the movement inheres.
We’re talking here about jazz musician Sun Ra and his salvific Arkestra (still touring years after his death); about George Clinton’s stage-craft flying saucer ex machina, the P-Funk Mothership (summoned by singing “Swing low, sweet chariot,” and recently acquired by the Smithsonian for the long-awaited National Museum of African American History and Culture). We’re talking about the techno beats that were only one piece of the “aquatic assault programming” of Drexciya; about the mechazoid, typographic “Gothic Futurism” of New York graffiti and hip-hop artist Rammellzee. And, closer to the present, we see Afrofuturism in more quietly-costumed but no less fully fleshed, futuristic black bodies: the exploited and up-for-auction androids of “electric lady” Janelle Monáe. Afrofuturism is exuberantly self-possessed, and expressed through its relationship to sonic and material culture, but it never loses sight of its roots in trauma, pain, violence, enslavement, and loss.
I’ll take just a moment to describe the most famous Afrofuturist musician, Sun Ra, and set his work—for contrast and similarity, and to get at some core themes—alongside techno/electro duo, Drexciya. Born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1914 and a conscientious objector from World War II, from the 1950s on, Sun Ra wove mythologizing strands of Egyptology, Rosicrucianism, numerology, Gnosticism, and more, into an otherworldly musical mission and absolute (as improv actors say) “commitment to the bit.” Ra’s performance conceit—rarely dropped in interviews or casual conversation—was that he had returned to Earth from a brief abduction to Saturn, reborn as an angel or what Eshun, in More Brilliant Than the Sun, calls an “African-American alien musician:” a savior figure, on a mission to teleport his people—physically, through jazz—to a new and better world.
“That would be where the altered destiny would come in.”
Ra projected such peace and hopefulness that it slightly obscures the fact that the ideas driving him and Drexciya are one and the same. Afrofuturism’s roots in pain and violence are easier to see in projects like theirs. In the ‘90s and early 2000s, the anonymous members of this Detroit-based group produced alienating, deliberately mind-melting, liquid techno music, delivered in underwater concept albums centering around the dwellers of a kind of militaristic Black Atlantis. That people originated—horrifically and triumphantly, in Drexciya’s mythology—from the mutant offspring of “disruptive” pregnant women who had been thrown overboard from slave-ships in the Middle Passage: murdered black babies who breathed water and lived.
You can see in both Sun Ra and Drexciya how an idea of alienation rests at the heart of the work, along with a re-claiming of that alienation just like the re-claiming of Diaspora I spoke about before. To listeners accustomed to the space invaders of mainstream science fiction, this music offered a different philosophy. It was, as Mark Sinker wrote in The Wire in 1992, that “the ships landed long ago: they already laid waste whole societies, abducted and genetically altered swathes of citizenry, imposed without surcease their values.” It’s a startling notion, whether you are of the race of pale, extra-terrestrial predators or now-mutant, evolved prey. And therefore, black or white, if in the past you’ve trained your eyes to the skies for aliens, to quote Eshun again, know this: “They have been here all along and they are you. You are the alien you’re looking for.”
I’m conscious this has been broad-brush and reductive, but I’ve now given you the fastest look at these two brands of world-building I could manage—just glancing at their orientations toward conceptual reclamation and technological re-use, their relations to art and artifact, and their spatial and temporal scope. What is the digital library, the modern museum, the usable archive that Afropolitanism and Afrofuturism demand? I’m grappling toward one answer in this talk, conscious that there are voices in critical race studies far more authoritative than mine. But I think movements like Afropolitanism and Afrofuturism call on us to build networked, inter-institutional, future-oriented cultural heritage systems: systems that seek to transcend their colonial pasts, even while recognizing that the thought-patterns of knowledge workers, the inherited ontological structures of our archives, and the material expressions of the culture they contain or link to are inescapably shaped by those pasts.
Inescapably? How can we work against inevitability? Maybe (and this is by no means a novel observation) by seeking ways to extend and hand off agency—contextual and descriptive authority, selection and collections-building authority, etc.—to communities of users from historically disenfranchised groups: not just to de-center already-dominant narratives, but to step away from white mediation and change where storytelling power sits:
“The unbearable whiteness & patriarchy of traditional archives demand that new archives for black lives emerge and sustain themselves as spaces and sites for trauma, transcendence, and transformation.” —Jarrett M. Drake.
Our institutions clearly have to become more intersectional, both in the aggregate (as federations of libraries and archives) and in terms of their internal staffing and structure. They should be built by more diverse and inclusive teams, sure; but even more, people of color and people from traditionally disenfranchised and underrepresented groups must lead them.
But I also wonder what would happen if we attempted to decolonize our cultural heritage systems through organizational schemes, interfaces, and embedded services that recognize and celebrate autonomy—that divest the center from authority—and through which external communities could gain more independent ability to direct resources. I don’t know concretely what I mean by this yet, but it is the core design problem of agency I was talking about before. Direct those resources where? Toward any locus communities of users identify—perhaps even toward places that our shared algorithmic discovery systems, if made more open and, crucially, designed to shun surveillance, could help them foster and define—places where emergent, alternative philosophical structures, like Afropolitanism and Afrofuturism, serve as a beacon of power and imagination.
I have a few more questions, as I wrap things up. I wonder if we could better support the kind of materialized imagination we see in movements like these, by offering platforms for digital cultural heritage that more obviously grapple with their own materiality. Could that help us reactivate the objects they give access to, demonstrate that they’re not just “content” but rather—hearkening back to the Last Angel of History—technologies? That, even if seemingly defunct or merely about playback, the contents of our archives are actually here to be excavated, decoded, set spinning, made into hypotheses? (Again, I think of the transformation of vinyl archives, phonograph records, into scratchadelia.)
Digital libraries are so inescapably material that they hurt. They are products of human, physical labor: we see black fingers on the white pages of our Google Books. Media archaeologists (some in this room) produce effective scholarship on the human and environmental impact of the minerals we mine for our slick devices; on the consequences of our taste for rapid obsolescence; on the heat and toxicity of the server rooms we call “clouds.” And there are embodied, affective impacts of all these realizations. We hear more open discussion of mental health aspects of librarianship, of climate science, and of other fields with future-orientation. I’ve done work myself on the vertigo involved in facing extinction as the core business of philology, particularly in the context of the Anthropocene.
So, at the same time that we’re designing with greater appreciation for embodiment, affect, and materiality, I think movements like these remind us that we also need platforms that engage with the ephemeral: with social media for “documenting the now;” with sonic culture (perhaps adopting techniques from archaeoacoustics (which is what I actually thought I’d be writing on when I started this project); with work to support and recover endangered languages; and with programs creating records of last resort, addressing “culture under threat”—work often performed in the face of terrible human suffering based in prejudice: genocide, refugee crises, war.
Above all, I suspect the hallmark of a digital library or museum that’s not just not-racist, but instead actively working against pervasive structures of racism in our society, is that it’s organized to promote the design of speculative futures—in as unmediated a way as possible, and by all its users. The digital phase-shift happening in libraries now is an opportunity to make reparations for past sins and to co-create archives that can move us forward from contemporary horrors.
This means librarians, archivists, and museum workers have to answer affirmatively the core question of Afrofuturism: “Can a people whose past has been deliberately erased imagine alternative futures?” And our digital cultural heritage systems, in their spatial scope and past-and-futures prospect, must offer one clear answer to the question of where and when black lives matter.
Everywhere. Every when.
[This is the draft of an invited contribution to a forum on “care” that will appear in Debates in the Digital Humanities 2017, edited by Matthew K. Gold and Lauren Klein. It’s a capsule summary of my NEH talk, “On Capacity and Care.” (A more digestible pill?)]
The grand challenges that face (and link) little cultures and fragile creatures across the implacable Anthropocene must be met by an academy made more capable—in every sense of that open-handed word. But our perpetually erupting anxieties about data-driven research and inquiry “at scale” seem to betray a deep-seated—and ill-timed—discomfort with the very notion of increased capacity in the humanities.
There are obvious and valid reasons for humanities scholars to be skeptical of big data analysis, distant reading, or work in the longue durée: problems of surveillance and privacy; the political ends to which data mining can be put and the systems of consumption and control in which it is complicit; intractable and cascading structural inequities in access to information; and disparities in sampling and representation, which limit the visibility of historical and present-day communities in our datasets, or filter them through a hostile lens. We can further understand and respect a discomfort with vastness in fields that have, most particularly over the past half century, focused intently on the little stuff: working in bits and bobs and “small things forgotten.”
Humanities scholars make theoretical and practical advances—including advances in the cause of social justice—by forwarding carefully observed, exquisitely described jewel-box examples. Our small data add nuance and offer counter-narratives to understandings of history and the arts that would otherwise fall along blunter lines. The finest contribution of the past several decades of humanities research has been to broaden, contextualize, and challenge canonical collections and privileged views. Scholars do this by elevating instances of neglected or alternate lived experience—singular human conditions, often revealed to reflect the mainstream.
The most compelling arguments against algorithmic visualization and analysis are not, therefore, fueled by nostalgic scholarly conservatism, but rather emerge across the political spectrum. Yet they share a common fear. Will the use of digital methods lead to an erosion of our most unique facility in the humanities, the aptitude for fine-grained and careful interpretive observation? In seeking macroscopic or synthetic views of arts and culture, will we forget to look carefully and take—or teach—care?
I see the well-established feminist ethic and praxis of care, itself, as a framework through which the digital humanities might advance in a deeply intertwingled, globalized, data-saturated age. An ethic of care—as formalized in the 1970s and ‘80s by Carol Gilligan, Nel Noddings, Joan Tronto, Virginia Held, and others—means to reorient its practitioners’ understanding in two essential ways. The first is toward a humanistic appreciation of context, interdependence, and vulnerability—of fragile, earthly things and their interrelation. The second is away from the supposedly objective evaluation and judgment of the philosophical mainstream of ethics—that is, away from criticism—and toward personal, worldly action and response. After all, the chief contribution, over prior directions in moral philosophy, of the feminist ethics of the 18th and 19th century that inform this work, was to see the self as most complete when in connection with others. Kantian morality and utilitarianism had valorized an impartial stance and posited that, as a man grew in judgment and developed ethical understanding, he separated himself from others. The mark of a fully developed (implicitly masculine) self was its ability to stand apart from and reason outside of familial systems and social bonds.
A feminist ethic of care—like many a DH research agenda or platform for large-scale visualization and analysis—seeks instead to illuminate the relationships of small components, one to another, within great systems. Noddings identifies the roots of care in what she calls engrossment: that close attention and focus on the other which provokes a productive appreciation of the standpoint or position of the cared-for person or group—or (I would say) of the qualities and affordances of an artifact, document, collection, or system requiring study or curation. Humanities scholars hone and experience engrossment in archival research and close reading. We perform it in explicating subjectivity. We reward each other for going deep. Yet one concern in the literature of care has been whether engrossment can become too intense. I believe the answer is the same for caregiving (nursing, teaching, tending, mothering, organizing) as it is for humanities scholarship. Real experts are those who manifest deep empathy, while still maintaining the level of distance necessary to perceive systemic effects and avoid projection of the self onto the other. In other words, empathetic appreciation of the positional or situated goes hand in hand with an increase in effective observational capacity. A care-filled humanities is by nature a capacious one.
To me, this suggests that a primary design desideratum for Anthropocenic DH and cultural heritage systems must be the facilitation of humanistic engrossment through digital reading (viewing, listening, sensing) and large-scale analysis. Let us build platforms that promote an understanding of the temporal vulnerability of the individual person or object; that more beautifully express the relationship of parts, one to another and to many a greater whole; and that instill, through depth of feeling in their users, an ethic of care—active, outward-facing, interdisciplinary, and expansive: sufficient to our daunting futures and broadened scope.
[Trigger warning: miscarriage.]
Ten years ago today, I lost the baby that might have come after my son, and not between him and my daughter, but instead of her. How can I be sad, when such a child is in the world? But grief doesn’t work like that. I fucking hate Halloween. I hide it from the kids, but have hated it for nine years. I hate All Saints’ Day, too. This is the tenth Hallowmas I’ve had occasion to hate — All Saints’ to All Souls, día de los Muertos, de los Inocentes. Angelitos.
Looking back, though, there were sweet things even then. My boy was two. He had been a pirate the night before, with an eyepatch I’d made, and a tinfoil dagger. On November 1st and 2nd he was still wobbling around the house chanting his botched catchphrase: “Shiver my noodle!” And all the costumes and candy and autumn leaves since.
About a month ago, I started steeling myself, as usual, and realized I was feeling better. I thought, “Ten years! Maybe that’s a coin you toss in: the TPQ for getting-over-it.” Now of course the day is here, and I’m thinking this is less like stratigraphy and more like carbon dating. Is there a half life for this crap?
Losing a little, wriggling germ of potential can be incredibly lonely. You go from future to now, and us to awful me in an instant. I can’t even imagine the earth-stopping grief that must attend a stillbirth or the death of a child. But with a miscarriage, people — friends, even family — may not know yet, that you were pregnant. This contributes to a culture of silence around the issue, and makes what is actually an entirely common event (by some estimates, up to 20% of known pregnancies and 50% of all conceptions) come as a terrible, unexpected, and solitary shock.
A couple of years after it happened, I started sending quiet little pings out into the social media ether, in alternating networks, to mark the date. I’ve done this every other year since, sometimes deleting them after they’d been up a while, and sometimes letting them linger. I decided a long time ago that the tenth year would be my last, and most public. (This is it.)
I’m a pro-choice atheist feminist whose life is full of joy. I believe that any feeling a person may have about this matter — from grief to anger to guilty relief — is valid and okay to feel. I began writing about my own pregnancy loss because I was always teaching grad students in one way or another, and working in the gendered field of librarianship which put me into contact with lots of women of childbearing age — and also because my work brought with it a growing following of younger colleagues online, where professional connections turn easily into friendships. My past Twitterings and scattered signal flags on Facebook were all much shorter and less personal than this post, but they’ve shared the same message:
Like so many women, many more than you may realize, I’ve been there. If it happens to you and you find you need someone — please remember this message, and know we are of a sisterhood.
You can talk to me.
[This is the blended and edited text of two talks I gave last week. One, titled “On Capacity and Care,” was the keynote presentation at the 2015 Office of Digital Humanities project director’s meeting at the National Endowment for the Humanities. The other was titled “Grand Challenges in/and Graduate Education,” and was presented at the University of Michigan, to inaugurate a series of “Mellon Conversations on the Future of the Humanities Doctorate.” Want the tl;dr version? It’s here, as “Capacity Through Care,” a brief provocation for Debates in DH 2017.]
Let’s see the merest edge of a glacier—stable, renewed through deep time—quickly bow to pressure, calve, and rush with a roar to join a flood that rises six thousand miles away. Let us see (we have seen; we could hardly bear to see) a child face down in the surf of an unforgiving sea, its waters connected with those you bathed in this morning: one among thousands cast off from political and economic systems through which we are likewise linked. Let’s see a human gesture, a characteristic crooked smile, a passing thought typed into a search engine, any one of a dozen unthinking transactions of a morning—the purchase of an apple, a novel for the train. Let’s see all of these things become tiny points of data in a surging ocean of data in which we may feel increasingly alienated and lost, and yet—happily or with un-wished-for accuracy—be found.
We are educating new cohorts of students of the liberal arts, both graduate and undergraduate, perhaps best positioned to discover, interpret, and build upon a growing species of understanding—one that may be deeply uncomfortable, yet has been more deeply, fundamentally, and long desired in the humanities: the knowledge of relationships among the largest and smallest of things. It’s my belief that the sobering environmental and social challenges of the 21st century—our grand challenges, global challenges, even extinction-level challenges—will require a more capacious humanities. By that I mean one that understands its history and possible futures broadly, and that has organized itself to work effectively, simultaneously, and in deep empathy and interconnection with other fields and disciplines, across multiple, varied scales. And this is why I took the invitation to speak to you on graduate education reform—as an opportunity not just to address the sorts of tactical steps one might take at a university like yours, in response to the more immediate issues that often provoke this conversation (issues like the employment placement of grads, their funding streams, future prospects for the professions of literature, history, and so on within the academy), but to address some much larger frames outside it, through which I think we need to look. So, among my major themes tonight will be the complementary notions of capacity and of care: two ideas that rarely appear together—particularly as they seem to work on different ends of the scale, and are so differently gendered—in our discourse about the humanities in the digital age.
So-called “big data,” as no-one in this room needs telling, is here. We are generating contemporary scientific, social, and economic data at an almost unthinkable clip—and we are also remediating and opening up lost or formerly inaccessible humanities information from our recent and our distant past: more of both, every day, and at scales that would shock researchers of just a few decades ago.
The digital tools and platforms for bringing coherence to these data are here, too, and are developing rapidly in sophistication, nuance, stability, and ease of use. Sense-making systems are in the hands of humanities scholars who—now, only a few years back—might never have expected their major interpretive work to hinge on, say, the algorithmic analysis of mass-digitized text corpora—or on social media visualization, or on deep layers of spatial data stacked one upon another in an online map. Maybe even more exciting, these interlocking tools are now in the hands of so-called data journalists. Of schoolteachers. Of museum and library professionals. Of advocates for government transparency and open science. In the hands of artists. Social workers. Community organizers. Increasingly, user-friendly data-driven, algorithmic sense-making systems have become accessible to the general public, too.
This means that it’s time for more of us to get serious about interpretive, cultural information-processing, and about sharing capacity, and about the infrastructures that support the humanities alongside other fields. The United States plays catch-up in these areas, where we have fallen somewhat behind—as those of us know, who have long worked in the GLAM sector (in galleries, libraries, museums, and archives), or engaged as digital scholars with our international peers. My off-the-cuff estimate is that we are something like 10 to 15 years behind Europe, Australia, and New Zealand—not in technological capacity per se, but in serious, coordinated investment in what one of our American funders, the Institute for Museum and Library Services, has smartly begun to call a “national digital platform” for cultural heritage: “a way of thinking about and approaching the digital capability and capacity of libraries across the US.” We are certainly far behind in terms of general scholarly awareness of the need for such a thing and in widespread, grassroots coalition-building around it.
A national digital platform like this would not just improve public library services and access to information: it would radically increase our country’s academic research capacity, across humanistic, scientific, educational, and cultural heritage fields. It would demand, in turn, widespread support for a few crucial things: for digital collections and publications oriented toward sharing, in robust, open access repositories; for the linked and rich metadata that make them discoverable and interoperable; for usable but lightweight VREs or virtual research environments, filled with integrated, interchangeable toolsets; for the coordinated policies and agreements that help to shape practice and establish norms; and—at the most basic level—for a strong investment in building and sustaining the workforce needed to create and maintain and advocate for it all: for everything that would constitute a true national digital library.
You might attribute the tardiness of the humanities community in this sphere to American individualism and the systems of academic reward that work against collaboration in the liberal arts. You might also look to the entrepreneurial, experimental, playful (“everted” and fertile and admittedly fun) character of humanities computing during the period of the tech boom and its transition to the “digital humanities”—or to the failure of some hegemonic and airless visions for research infrastructure. But I believe we must primarily locate it in the conditions for sharing cultural and scholarly content: in the deliberate, step by step de-funding of the commons in this country, including the starving-out of its major drivers: the humanities in secondary and higher education, our public cultural heritage institutions, and our local, state, and federal agencies for public history and the arts.
We can catch up, though. Private humanities funders like the Mellon Foundation (which I know is supporting your explorations here), and public funders like the NEH, where I gave an abbreviated version of this talk a few days ago, are placing more considered emphasis on capacity-building. They’re doing this by supporting follow-through after start-up, implementation and sustenance and curation alongside technical innovation, and by offering incentives to all of us to pay more attention to professional and scholarly career paths. Likewise, key players in Washington grow in appreciation that, in order to build real cross-cultural capacity and solve pressing human problems, humanities organizations must be at the table with scientists and engineers by default, not as an afterthought. This is true for anything like a new Congressional initiative about technology and innovation, a White House OSTP conversation, or a court case or policy hearing on access to information. (Here you might think of federal research funding allocations; sunlight initiatives in government data; the development of open science and open access policy; copyright law; net neutrality; privacy and surveillance; and so forth and so on.) But it’s also true for work on human migration, mitigating climate change, creating more resilient cities, preserving and expanding democratic values, and preparing for the world to come.
We also see a blossoming of non-profit catalysts to the use of humanities data and collaborative cultural heritage for the common good. These include (among many others) funders like the Mozilla and Knight Foundations, and organizations like the Digital Public Library of America, the Center for Open Science, Educopia, CNI, the HathiTrust, and the two I work for: CLIR—the Council on Library and Information Resources—and the DLF, the Digital Library Federation. All of these, and organizations like them, public and private, are rewarding and interesting places where people with humanities training can make a difference. In my most optimistic moments, I imagine the growing energy they bring and consensus they build could crescendo in a practicable call for a new New Deal, a new age of public works.
So far, I’ve discussed external factors that have implications for the future of the humanities and for graduate education and that, importantly, draw our attention to the concept of capacity. Again, these are: the need to grapple with the emergence of data at vastly greater scales; to channel, deepen our investment in, and put to use the tools and infrastructure that are growing to meet it; and the imperative to connect cultural heritage concerns with larger conversations and grand challenges in the public sphere. But there are also internal, intellectual factors—new theories and research directions—that drive humanities scholars to engage with the concept of capacity and explore digital tools and methods for working “at scale.”
Some of these are contained (if heated), scholarly conversations, in which fields like history, literature, or linguistics grapple with the implications of particular new techniques or the appearance of larger and more diverse, relevant datasets. In other cases, they are big, open re-framings: invitations from outside the humanities to formulate and voice more capacious understandings, or to meld approaches into an inter-discipline with a wider potential readership (as with media archaeology, or the environmental humanities). And some of these re-framings hinge on metaphors that seem particularly well-suited to our current scene: ways, for instance, in which we might begin to position culture and human production as just one part of a huge, complex, and long-term data-processing system—a system that’s biological and ecological and evolutionary and geological in nature, as well as social and historical.
As an example of two such frames or metaphors, consider these: scholars of the digital humanities and of library and information science are listening as genomicists begin to figure everything organic on Earth as its “biocode:” 50 billion tons of interlinked DNA crunching the numbers everywhere—a 3.5 billion year old mainframe with computational power, one paper estimates, 1022 times that of Tianhe-2, the fastest supercomputer ever built. What do we do with an idea like that? What might scholars interested in (say) the virality and promiscuity of textual production do? Another rubric for a capacious line of thought comes to archivists and philosophers (and to the rest of us) from geology: the contested “Anthropocene.” This is a label for a new epoch and for a conception of humans at two scales at once—both infinitesimally small, fragile, and transitory, and as a grim, planetary prime mover, capable of producing a lastingly visible moment in natural history—human traces in deep time and rock.
Humanities interests in areas like these often relate to our philosophical and moral obligations in the face of ecological crisis, globalization, or biomedical advance, and work to theorize the position of little, individual people or animals or inanimate things within large systems. In considering them, scholars sometimes dwell on concepts of resilience or on tipping points and the relation of past stemma to possible futures—and they always, always bring special humanities skillsets to bear. (This is why we see new research on how, for instance, iterative sketching, narrative and storytelling, and the creation of verbal, speculative design scenarios can serve as a strong complement and sometimes even a superior technology to statistical and algorithmic methods of prediction.) And many humanities scholars engaging with issues of scale, or advocating for—as Jo Guldi and David Armitage put it—a “return to the longue durée,” approach capacity itself as a theme: the capacity of ecologies, social systems, or rhetorical and economic and philosophical and even aesthetic systems. This is fascinating, far-reaching work.
But a problem has emerged in the scholarly community. It’s relevant to the way we train and prepare graduate students, and I’m afraid it hinders both the theoretical and practical, worldly sides of the work I’ve begun to describe. Too rarely do humanities scholars active in data-driven research (which I hasten to add is only one of many areas of DH, and not particularly my own) escape the sticky, exhausting trap of having to defend an attraction to capacity and scale to their peers, within their own narrow disciplinary spheres. They seem to do this to the exclusion, in many cases, of making one simple and valuable point. And that is that the new skills and datasets we’re building in the humanities—and, more importantly, the generation of students we’re educating for new humanistic literacy in more empirical methods—can give us powerful scope and reach beyond our disciplines, beyond some of the walls that have grown up or been placed around us. I refer here to the humanities in its institutional expression: to its departments, professional societies, specialist journals and publishers, methods for advancement, and so forth. These are often beautifully suited to perpetuating themselves as a coordinated system and to deepening the internal richness of humanities scholarship, but perversely less good at making the humanities diffuse, accessible, attractive to collaborators, expansive in conception, and permeable to entry by under-represented groups.
This is concerning for three reasons. One is simply that operating in a defensive mode holds the research back—holds it back from doing good in the world. Another is that it makes the predominantly junior scholars working in these areas—areas like text and data mining, digital mapping, or 3d and visual analysis of large datasets—feel too exhausted and timid to help build coordinated infrastructure and reform graduate education at the same time they struggle to make their own new work look enough like their forebears’ old work to earn a modicum of employment stability. Finally, it’s concerning because many humanities-trained people who build significant digital skills and have practical, project-based experience to offer—yet who don’t see value in undertaking a wholly intra-disciplinary fight (people like me) or who might have done, but who gave up on seeking a stable academic appointment to fight it in (like many I know)—tend to make one of two choices. We either stay deeply involved in higher ed and the design of humanities infrastructure from the inside, but in undervalued and often unheeded service roles, or we move out of the academy entirely, and contribute elsewhere without much looking back. In either set of cases—with much of the alt-ac crowd and among tenure-line DH scholars distracted by an internal, disciplinary fight—vital voices, energy, and insight are lost. And that’s a problem, because these are often the people most capable of contributing to a re-shaping of graduate study and cultural infrastructure to meet the demands of a globalized information society, a rapidly-changing American demographic, a political tinderbox on every corner, and an ailing planet.
One root of a distracting and unproductive disconnect between (to put it grossly) extraverted digital and introverted non-digital modes of scholarship is expressed as anxiety about “big data,” or the concept of “distant reading” in the humanities. This is an anxiety you may have tried to assuage or perhaps have felt acutely yourselves. As I move into the next section of this talk, I want to suggest that this anxiety points to discomfort with the very notion of increased capacity in the humanities. Obviously, there are other issues in play, to make smart humanities scholars skeptical about big data: like problems of surveillance and privacy, the political ends to which data mining can be put, structural inequities in access to information, and disparities in representation: in which communities are visible in our datasets and through whose filter or lens. And I’m sure I could say more about the roots of that discomfort as it applies to interdisciplinarity, our continuing “two cultures” problem, and a number of other factors. But because addressing all of these issues requires a humanities more apt to engage with data-mining, not abdicating from engagement with it and encouraging our students to shy away, I want to muse a little on an underlying “big data” concern that I think rests in our special discomfort with capacity and scale.
This is a discomfort we can well understand and respect in a humanities that has, most particularly over the past half century, focused intently on the little stuff—on small data, working in bits and bobs and (as a mentor of mine once titled a book) “in small things forgotten.” In other words, the concern is deep-seated and it is valid. Humanities scholars have made major theoretical advances and practical advances in the cause of social justice, by bringing forward carefully observed and exquisitely described little examples. Our small data add nuance and offer counter-narratives to views of history and the arts that would otherwise fall out along blunter lines. The finest contribution of the past several decades of humanities scholarship has been to broaden, contextualize, and challenge canonical collections and privileged understandings, by elevating little examples of neglected and alternate human experience—experience that often turns out to reflect the mainstream.
It’s worth noticing, though, that our reluctance to engage “at scale” arises on polar sides of the political spectrum. On the one hand, we see it among our smart liberal arts colleagues who rightly view methods of close reading (or close observation of visual sources, or individual ethnography, or physical archival research—pick your magnifying glass) as a path to social change. And at the opposite end of the spectrum, the same reluctance appears in elite conservative and reactionary rags that mourn the digital death of the English department and (arguably) overly fetishize the literary classics and the reading experience of the printed book. Both fear that we could lose what is special about our training in careful humanities observation if we set aside those magnifying glasses and spend too much time with what some of my DH colleagues have begun calling our “macroscopes.”
Is it humanly possible, both groups seem to wonder, to build an appreciation of the small and situated at the same time that we increase our observational capacity? The underlying concern is a pedagogical one, and that’s why I think it’s important to keep in mind as departments and schools consider new ways to structure the humanities PhD. The concern is that, in keeping pace with the trends and opportunities that I’ve outlined, and in a rush to work with supposedly alien methods and at scale, we humanities faculty will forget to teach our students to read carefully, closely, and well.
You may note I have used the word “careful” several times in the last few paragraphs. That’s because I see a strong connection between the notion of humanities capacity and its discontents, and the concept of care. So I want to turn now to some questions that motivate this talk. I won’t answer them all, but I want to hear more people asking them: Can an ethic of care help us build the kind of capacities we need in the humanities right now? Can it help us integrate the macro- and micro-attention that humanities work requires in the digital age? What would the technical platforms and digital humanities communities of practice we are building look like if they were more self-consciously predicated on a something the humanities values deeply and performs well?—that is, on care, in its many manifestations across our fields. How might taking care—and taking the concept of care more seriously in graduate education and cultural heritage infrastructure-building—serve to expand our scope?
Like the digital humanities, an “ethic of care” is better understood as a set of practices than as coherent theory or unary stance. It was first articulated by feminist scholars like Carol Gilligan, Nel Noddings, and Virginia Held in the 1970s and ‘80s, but continues to develop as a school of thought today. What is meant by “care?” I like Joan Tronto’s definition, from a 1993 book called Moral Boundaries. She sees care as something performed collectively: “a species of activity that includes everything we do to maintain, contain, and repair our world, so that we can live in it as well as possible.” I like this, because it puts me in mind of one of my favorite recent media studies essays, called “Rethinking Repair,” by Stephen Jackson. In it, Jackson makes a call for what he calls “broken world thinking.” He sees acts of maintenance, disassembly, and mending—particularly visible in the global South—as hopeful and generative: a virtuous complement to fresh manufacture and in fact ever-present in embodied human interaction with technology. These acts become more important than ever in hard times—but they’re occluded by our dominant, Western tech rhetoric, which instead values words like “innovation” and “development.” Jackson wants us to think not so much about making things new, as about making do, and of thereby engaging what he calls—referencing this line of feminist thought—“an ethics of mutual care:” care, that is, for each other, for the world around us, and for our devices and instruments: what I might call the literal objects of our affection.
It’s easy for me, as a person trained in the study of material culture, to see these objects of affection as the texts and artifacts that humanities scholars, museum workers, and librarians recover, conserve, share, and tend. But of course a feminist ethic of care has generally been more focused on people than on things. Its major domains have been teaching, parenting, nursing, social work, and librarianship.
Nel Noddings identifies the roots of care in what she calls “engrossment,” and here’s where I think we find another valuable analogue to humanities work and to what our graduate training has always tried to foster. Engrossment is the development of empathy, the kind of close attention and focus on the other that provokes a productive appreciation of the standpoint or position of that person or group—or (I would say) an appreciation of the qualities and affordances of an object or system. It’s a profound skill that humanities scholars hone. We experience engrossment in archival research and close reading, and perform it when we explicate subjectivity and lived experience. One concern in the literature of the ethics of care has been whether engrossment can become too deep. I think the answer is the same for caregiving as it is for humanities scholarship: real expertise lies in developing deep empathy while still maintaining the level of critical distance necessary to see and describe systemic effects and avoid projection of the self onto the other. (And that, my friends, is a 21st-century skill!)
But let’s make it very simple. At its heart, an ethic of care is meant to reorient the practitioner’s understanding in two ways. The first is toward an appreciation of context, interdependence, and vulnerability—of fragile, little things and their interrelation. The second is an orientation not toward objective evaluation and judgment (as in the philosophical mainstream of ethics)—not, that is, toward criticism—but toward personal, worldly action and response.
Now, how does this relate to notions of capacity in the humanities? To the humanities in a big-data age, and to what we might train our students to do? Well, care ethics—like many a digital humanities research agenda or platform for visualization and analysis—seeks to illuminate the relationships of small things to each other within great systems. And (like the post-New Critical, historicist and poststructuralist strands of humanities theory that evolved alongside it) an ethic of care might love a well-wrought urn, but will always seek to understand its context: the networks of interrelation that create it and in which it participates.
After all, the major contribution of the emergence of a feminist ethics in the 18th and 19th century, over the moral philosophy that preceded it, was to see the self as most complete when in deep connection with others. Prior modes of thinking, like Kantian morality and utilitarianism, demanded a kind of impartial stance and posited that, as a man grew in judgment and developed ethical understanding, he separated himself from others—that one mark of the fully-developed self was its capacity to stand apart from and reason wholly outside of familial systems and social bonds. It’s worth noting that those theories of rational moral understanding grew in concert with economic systems that valorized a private profit motive and circumscribed the participation of women and the servile under-classes. A competitive capitalist marketplace depends upon but does not assign much value to things we create through networks of reciprocity, compassion, generosity, mending, and care.
And this brings me to acknowledge that the ethic of care shares in problems that have plagued the digital humanities and cultural heritage fields—another reason, perhaps, that we can learn from its development. A primary criticism of care from within the feminist community is that it perpetuates what has been called, in deliberately provocative terms, “slave morality”—that is, that over-identification of caring praxis with the social and professional roles that have been afforded to women and brutally assigned to people of color frames oppression as a virtue and perpetuates unjust systems. This concern emerges in the alt-ac community (obviously in a less acute way) in conversations about the service role of professional and so-called “paraprofessional” librarians, digital scholarship center staff, adjuncts, and other university-based knowledge workers, in their relationship to the more privileged positions of the tenured faculty. It emerges in the typical demographics of those various roles as well. It’s therefore a critique worth bearing in mind—especially if we find some of the more abstract principles of care useful in conceptualizing and peopling macroscopic humanities systems and tools.
For digital humanities practitioners, another danger in wholeheartedly embracing an ethic of care is it might induce us further to internalize and become overwhelmed with—rather than to thoughtfully weigh and evaluate—the unreasonable expectations that are cyclically placed on our field. Many of us have felt susceptible to moments when the wielding of what Matthew Kirschenbaum has called a digital humanities “construct” distracts us from hard-won, relational, and embodied self-knowledge about our own work. The construct, in Matt’s terms, is a projected, often single-issue monolith. It is used for rhetorical purposes and embeds expectations that the DH community will respond instantly and in unanimity to whatever issue the writer (often quite rightly) sets forth as important. But this elides the reality of the digital humanities as a complex system made up of individual actors undertaking varied scholarship and service—what Rita Raley has referred to as “actually existing projects:” real work, done by people with different goals, orientations, interests, talents, and contributions to make. The extent to which a monolithic “DH” is laden with expectations not placed on other scholarly fields is truly remarkable. And—as a small number of academic entrepreneurs have found profitable to exploit—caring digital humanities practitioners have a difficult time recovering from accusations that they, individually or as part of the construct-du-jour, do not care.
The biggest danger here, of course, is fatigue, which I have addressed in the context of weariness about always needing to justify one’s methods and research interest in work “at scale.” It’s an issue I articulated a long time ago, too, it seems, in a one-hit-wonder blog post called “Eternal September of the Digital Humanities,” and which, eternally, Septembrally, recurs. But the problem of fatigue has also been usefully examined by scholars of care ethics. Here’s where they posit the value of “networks of care” as a way for the practice to leverage its own strengths toward the increase of capacity and resilience at a personal and systems level. Ethically, individuals should provide care if they have the ability to do so; but the most ethical actors may become exhausted in their resources. Operating within self-conscious networks of care provides individuals the leeway to recover (in what pop culture calls “self-care”), and also to receive the kinds of attention and systemic service they need from others. This would be a digital humanities—a research, publishing, and scholarly communications field, a cultural heritage sector, and an overall educational enterprise—that does a better job of charging its own batteries.
All right, “it charges its own batteries,” but to what end? In its orientation toward response and action, a feminist ethic of care would always be asking the same thing we should ask with regard to the creation of a national digital platform and to efforts in graduate education reform: what do we have the capacity for, the capacity to do in a wider world, as individuals and networked collectives? I began tonight by talking about the major challenges, domains, and systems in which we desperately need to place more people with humanities training. I want to end this section of the talk with a few notes on how we might implement a capacity-building ethic of care in the humanities—particularly in the areas where the majority of humanities graduate students may seek work: in libraries, archives, museums, and galleries; in DH labs and centers; in publishing, communications, and allied fields; and in organizations that work for the future of the liberal arts or that build on humanities understandings toward the public good at the local or national level. I’ll talk about people first, and then platforms, before I close with pragmatic questions and considerations we might use to open a conversation about alternate forms and futures of the PhD.
About the people: it should be clear from what I’ve shared here that I think we’d better foster digital cultural heritage communities of practice if we more self-consciously built them as extensible, self-perpetuating networks of care. That’s not merely the kind thing to do. Please do not mistake it for something idealistic and motherly and sweet. I offer care as a hard-nosed survival strategy, and as a strategy to increase the reach and grasp (which is at the root of the word “capacity”—the “capture”) of the humanities. We must take practical steps to prevent fatigue at the individual and community level in digital humanities and cultural heritage fields and to promote, in Noddings’ terms, the kind of happy yet critical engrossment—in each other and in the stuff—that I’ve seen develop in the best collaborative teams. This isn’t the place to discuss them all, but I’ll mention that two of the simplest and most powerful tools of care I employed in the Scholars’ Lab, the digital humanities center I ran for eight years at the University of Virginia, were 1) the baseline provision of a goodly measure of self-directed “R&D time,” to ensure that all of my staff had the regular, restorative opportunity to move out of service mode and into curiosity-driven knowledge creation, and 2) the drafting of project and community charters—something we did both with graduate student teams in our Praxis Program and among our faculty and staff at the departmental level. (Charter-writing is a practice meant to help a group articulate its shared values and understand its individual members’ needs—in other words, to make real peer-to-peer collaboration possible across the boundaries of academic status and rank.) I also attempted to put in place management practices—including the crafting of budgets and, when needed, MoUs with collaborators—that could promote the professional advancement and lifelong learning of all my people. Since leaving the Scholars’ Lab for the Digital Library Federation, I’ve taken every opportunity I could (including this one) to tell humanities and library funders that professional development should be a required line item in any digital project grant.
Making the sorts of practices I’ve described here more widespread in the staff and alt-ac sides of the academy would have the valuable effect of bringing our digital labs, humanities centers, university presses, libraries and museums and admin offices, and all the other extra-curricular entities in which we may place our humanities grads into deeper connection with the educational mission of the institutions in which they sit. It’s crucial that we do a better job of that—a better job of connecting research and administrative arms of the humanities with the core teaching and community engagement functions of higher ed—because we’re in political fights we need to fight together. Furthermore, academic digital humanities will never partner effectively with the public-oriented cultural heritage sector until it can more openly embrace and reward work undertaken toward the public good. Finally, I believe that orienting our broader humanities personnel practices toward care—policies that impact faculty and staff alike—would align them more with valuable work on sustainability, resilience, & repair than with the Silicon Valley logics of disruption, innovation, and endless churn. And we need to do this, not just because we scholars and librarians fear what they might do to our stable, valued institutions and find those logics distasteful—but because larger, environmental circumstances suggest their dominance is soon to end. We should be laying the groundwork in our communities of practice for what comes next.
So much for the people. Now about the tools and the stuff—returning to the subject of humanities infrastructure with which I opened. (But of course this, as any interface or infrastructure conversation does, relates to the people as well—to scholarly users and to the disposition and welfare of our sorely needed cultural heritage workforce.) Here I’ll simply say that I am interested in considering the principles of an ethic of care among basic design desiderata for a national digital platform.
What if we did that? What if we more self-consciously drafted DH design specs to center on care? What if we did a better job of placing key humanities interests and concerns at the very heart of big-data humanities infrastructure? Doing so might help ensure our digital tools are truly open and more sustainably constructed, so that anyone with a reasonable level of training (the level I think our graduate and even undergraduate humanities programs might usefully provide) could look under the hood, change a spark plug in a moment of need—and build her next conveyance, to go further than we have imagined. It might ensure that our devices and interfaces embrace humanistic goals of accessibility and respect the needs of people who benefit from multilingual or lighter (lower bandwidth or more machine-readable) design approaches—thus opening up humanities resources to more users and cultures and regions of the world. We might be inspired to create preservation systems, both digital and physical, with a greater care for climate change and other environmental concerns. And, most of all, we might work more seriously on interfaces that facilitate close reading and promote deep, humanities engrossment. This is admittedly a challenge when snippet views prevail and so-called “non-consumptive reading” is a policy compromise we’re having to make—but solving the problem of engrossment is core to humanities appreciation in digital platforms, and that in turn is necessary to the health of the humanities in a changing media landscape. (There’s much to learn here from gaming and storytelling systems, including about how they scale.) Meanwhile—and toward the application of an ethic of care—let’s create more cultural heritage platforms that promote an understanding of the vulnerability of the individual person and object. Let our visualization systems more beautifully express the relationship of parts, one to another and to many a greater whole. Let our open data finally be linked.
I don’t know exactly how to do all of these things, but I do understand the first step, which is to educate more students of the humanities to enter (and create, and financially and politically bolster) the fields that will. We must better prepare them to engage with big ideas, big datasets, big problems, and to apply humanities skills to the construction of platforms of great capacity, predicated on care—which is to say on an appreciation of vulnerability and interconnection and an understanding of the self as most whole in relation to others. I say we must do this, because we desperately need our national—and international—digital platforms. We need online communities and cultural data collections that stand out as safe and welcoming, deeply interesting and productive places for the exploration of human problems and the human condition. As I imagine them, these are platforms that expand the co-creating audience for the humanities—places where scientists, engineers, architects, cultural heritage workers, and specialist researchers from disparate humanities fields meet members of an engaged and educated general public, come to look clear-eyed and work hard, on grand challenges together.
[These are my very rough notes for opening one particular conversation on graduate education reform, with an audience of humanities faculty, most of whom did not self-identify as DH scholars. I share them in the hope they’ll be useful to others, and that they’ll serve to contextualize parts of this talk.]
So, how do you insert humanities concerns into vital national conversations and decision-making processes? How do you place them at the heart of 21st century infrastructure? How do you embed them in the national and international digital platforms we need to create? (And I ask this, whether you think of that infrastructure in terms of data collections, technologies and tools, collaborative research and publication networks, political systems, or the structure of the many institutions that organize knowledge and make it matter in the world.) Well, the first step is to place more students of the humanities where they can build and tend and interject.
This has all been very hi-falutin. As we move into what I hope will be a much more practical discussion, grounded in your goal to reimagine the humanities PhD and in the particular situation at the University of Michigan, I want to share ten nuts-and-bolts questions:
[Here’s a cleaned-up version of brief remarks I made in a panel discussion on “Cultivating Digital Library Professionals,” at Tuesday’s IMLS Focus meeting in Washington, DC. The day-long conversation was meant to help shape a priority project at the Institute of Museum and Library Services: funding support in the United States for what is being called the “national digital platform.” (As in: we need one.) See the full agenda and archived webcasts, and learn about future #IMLSfocus events here. My message to the assembled group was pretty simple, and we’ve cross-posted it on the DLF site.]
We should put as much energy into connecting and building up people—into developing and supporting motivated, skilled, diverse, and intersecting communities of expert practitioners—as we do into connecting the services, systems, and corpora that are the other pillars of a national digital platform. The first thing needed in many institutions is not another technology component to support, but a functioning social conduit to a broader, supportive culture that values digital library workers and the various communities they inhabit and are inspired by.
I see the continuous renewal and expansion of expert practitioner communities as our most fundamental sustainability issue: the one on which all the others depend.
And I am consciously using the word “community” here, rather than calling this our digital library “workforce” or similar, although there’s some danger that such a happy-sounding word could make us elide difficult, (often gendered) labor issues in this discussion.
I do this for two reasons: first, because it helps us scale up a conversation that is too often about local and individual professional development. But I introduce it also because of how it plays on individuals as a concept. Understanding that you are part of a community changes your ethical orientation toward your colleagues, your users, the material and immaterial objects of your attention, and your shared work. Most of all, it sharpens your sense of futurity—your inclination to look beyond immediate horizons and to consider the much longer term. Communities have prospect and retrospect: futures and histories. They are predicated on mutual support and common fate, and have the capacity to draw together people at different career stages or with diverse professional identities and personal orientations toward the other communities they intersect with, including (in our case) the intersection of segments of the digital library practitioner community with vital user groups. And communities themselves set intellectual direction, in ways that are sometimes under-acknowledged and bear watching. This is why funding programs that support projects at national scale need at the very least to stay plugged into the conversations of practitioner communities as they evolve in their self-conception and (we hope) as they continue evolve demographically, to better reflect American society.
The first law for a funder in relation to this evolution may be, however: Do No Harm. (This is to return to some of the concerns we heard in Q&A earlier in this meeting, about funding programs that privilege scalable systems inadvertently reinforcing a kind of totalizing homogeneity, leaving minority voices and perspectives behind.) At best, though, being aware of how our various practitioner communities are evolving internally and in relation to user groups—or where they’re stagnating—could help agencies like the IMLS make enabling investments at crucial moments.
Of course, the other trick for funders in relation to GLAM sector professional development is how to support practitioner communities through programs that are necessarily and fruitfully user- and project-oriented. (A lot of what I’ve been saying sounds like IMLS’s Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian grants, a wonderful framework for supporting people as individuals and learning cohorts—but how you tie programs like this to the infrastructure building of the National Digital Platform IMLS priority may not be immediately obvious.) We know it’s necessary, though, because the best professional development and frankly the only meaningful community development comes through project-based learning, involving real world situations and practical collaboration.
One possibility is to infuse the spirit of the LB21 grants throughout IMLS: that is, to require more strongly that professional development outcomes for grant participants and for their larger communities of practice be formally addressed in all of IMLS’s programs. If we agree that this is a crucial part of increasing national capacity, it should be taken seriously in all grant applications and reports. We all know (but also often don’t say publicly enough) that much of the value of a funded project comes in around the edges of its core “deliverable.” And a requirement like this—that the impact of the project for individual participants and their communities of practice be directly addressed in the bid, that time for learning and community-building be directly budgeted in every project—becomes a tool for individual staff and middle managers to use to create healthier local, institutional cultures. Budgeted time (a clear percentage of effort allocation during the 9-5 workday) also becomes a tool for contributors to use to create sustainable, distributed communities around their work.
Want a grant? Show not only that you can get a worthwhile project done, but that the experience of working on it in community will positively impact the careers and the potential of your staff for years to come. Want a grant? Demonstrate awareness of how your people fit into, interface with, and have the time to help advance expert communities of national and global scope.
[Blog addendum! Yesterday, the Digital Library Federation announced our set of fellowship and travel award opportunities for the 2015 DLF Forum, to be held in Vancouver this October. Through the help of our members and generous sponsors, we’ll be bringing in awesome participants in five categories of award: new professionals, members of under-represented groups, and “cross-pollinators” from the museums, ER&L, and VRA worlds. If you’ve read this far, you probably care about this stuff, too. Please help us get the word out! Fellowship deadline: May 22nd. CFP deadline: June 22nd. DLF Forum registration: open now! And, as a non-profit program hosted by CLIR to expand and enrich our important community of practice, the DLF continues to seek Forum sponsorships. Can you or your organization help?]
[I recently had the pleasure of responding to a creative and beautifully grounded talk by Kevin Hamilton of the University of Illinois, called “Beyond the Reveal: Living with Black Boxes.” Kevin spoke as part of a workshop on “Algorithmic Cultures,” hosted by Chad Wellmon at UVa’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. The great Frank Pasquale also presented on themes from his new book, The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms that Control Money and Information, to which Siva Vaidhyanathan offered an illuminating response. My thanks to Chad and the IASC for hosting the conversation, and to Frank and Kevin for their encouragement to post these remarks. I hope Kevin will publish his terrific paper! You’ll only get glimpses of it in what is to follow.]
I want to begin from Kevin Hamilton’s own, very effective jumping-off point. By doing that, I’ll hope to encourage some further historical and contextual thinking about these problems in much the same way Kevin did, with his situating of the “black box” metaphor in changing 20th-century conceptions of agency and work—in our evolving notions of the relation of laborers to the systems and environments they inhabit. My context is a little different, though, if closely aligned, because I’m thinking of modes of interpretive work, of scholarship and creativity in the humanities. I’ll also talk a bit about the formal definition of the algorithm, and why I think it’s useful—particularly for practitioners and critics of the digital humanities but really for all scholars engaged in a discussion of algorithmic culture—to be clear on what an algorithm is and is not, especially in its connection to the kind of work we and most of our academic colleagues do.
“What do we do,” Kevin productively asks, “when the sociotechnical system we hope to study is obscured from view?” You’ve heard from him about a range of experimental approaches, all tending toward the conclusion—which resonates strongly with my own experience in digital project and platform design—that the most fruitful research paths may lie beyond or alongside the impulse to “reveal” the contents of a so-called algorithmic black box: even to include making a kind of peace with our platforms and our growing awareness of own situated positions within them.
But I’ll ask again. Traditionally, when we become interested in obscured systems, what do we do? Well, “we” (the sort of folks, that is, in the room today)—go to grad school.
Nobody lives with conceptual black boxes and the allure of revelation more than the philologist or the scholarly editor. Unless it’s the historian—or the archaeologist—or the interpreter of the aesthetic dimension of arts and letters. Okay, nobody lives with black boxes more than the modern humanities scholar, and not only because of the ever-more-evident algorithmic and proprietary nature of our shared infrastructure for scholarly communication. She lives with black boxes for two further reasons: both because her subjects of inquiry are themselves products of systems obscured by time and loss (opaque or inaccessible, in part or in whole), and because she operates on datasets that, generally, come to her through the multiple, muddy layers of accident, selection, possessiveness, generosity, intellectual honesty, outright deception, and hard-to-parse interoperating subjectivities that we call a library.
It is the game of the scholar to reverse-engineer lost, embodied, material processes, whether those processes are the workings of ancient temple complexes or of nineteenth-century publishing houses, and to interpret and fashion narratives from incomplete information. I think it’s worth emphasizing the great continuity between activities like the Facebook research Kevin has described and, say, the creation of a critical edition of poetry from a collection of inherited and discovered variants. Both are acts of scholarship that require an understanding of socio-technical systems of textual production, whether those are networked and computational, or scribal, or having to do with letterpress-to-linotype-to-digital technologies of print. Both result in a reconstruction—or, at the least, require the imaginative invocation—of missing bits and pieces. This is an invocation, in the humanities (and, I might argue, in the social sciences too), that is always partly evidence-based and partly intuitive.
What do we do when we take an interest in obscured socio-technological systems? We become their excavators and editors—we begin to experiment and play with them, and make ourselves scholars of them, in a long and honorable tradition. That’s the first point I wish to make: that there is continuity between the established concerns of the humanities and the conditions we respond to as jarring in our “algorithmic culture” today.
And this is why I think it’s crucial that we take a scholarly and creative stance toward the very notion of the algorithm, if we are going to speak of it sometimes as the imagined or cleverly-deduced tenant of a computational black box, and sometimes as a stand-in for whole processes we are tempted to call black boxes simply because we do not find them immediately legible or—worse, but sadly often, on the part of academics not trained or encouraged to think of their work as procedural in nature—because we do not consider them seemly targets for humanistic decipherment.
One way to do that is to make sure we are clear on the definition of an algorithm. (Understanding its long history as a concept and object of cultural criticism is crucial too, though we won’t have time to delve into that today.)
In the simplest terms, an algorithm is any effective procedure that pursues the solution of a problem by means of a predetermined sequence of actions, or steps. It is stepwise behavior toward an end—different, though, from less formal heuristics or so-called “rules of thumb,” which proceed by open-ended, situational trial and error, rather than in constrained and finite activity according to a predetermined set of rules. Genetic and learning algorithms are getting ever closer to intuitive, human-like heuristic behavior—which is one reason the ultimate black box has (not just since the mid-20th century but with increasing frequency since the start of the Industrial Revolution) been figured as the “technological singularity,” when machine intelligence will outstrip the human and we’ll find ourselves permanently and irrevocably out of our depth. But when we speak of algorithms we are generally talking about something smaller, more discrete, and plainly man-made—the deterministic algorithm: a limited, linear, and generalizable sequence of steps designed to guarantee that the agent performing the sequence will either reach a pre-defined goal or establish without a doubt that the goal is unreachable.
Usually these are little machinic agents, going about their business silently and beneath our notice. But we increasingly understand—not least from Frank Pasquale’s introduction and from our discussion at today’s workshop—the extent to which we, as complex bundles of thought and action, live in and in among algorithmic black boxes. We live. So I’m prompted to ask: how might a subjective, human agent’s interpretation of algorithmic processes in which she, too, is an element alter those stepwise algorithms? That is the autopoietic, entangled question that I feel Kevin’s art and research gets at so nicely. In other words, what are the assumptions with which we approach algorithmic or procedural activities of all sorts, and how might those assumptions both shape and be shaped by the ways we operate in computational, new media systems that constrain and (increasingly) define us?
This is another way of suggesting, to return to the philological concerns with which I began, that algorithmic methods are productive not only of new texts, but of new readings. My old friend and colleague Steve Ramsay has argued, in a book called Reading Machines, that all “critical reading practices already contain elements of the algorithmic.” And the reverse is true: the design of an algorithm—the composition of code—is inherently subjective and, at its best, critical. Even the most clinically perfect and formally unambiguous algorithmic processes embed their designers’ aesthetic judgments and theoretical stances toward problems, conditions, contexts, and solutions.
There’s a certain strain in scholarship and the arts (arts “useful,” in the sense that Siva Vaidhyanathan so helpfully brought into play today, and decidedly otherwise) that never met a black box without seeing it as a kind of a game: a dark game, in many cases, a rigged game, maybe, but a game nonetheless, in which we are invited to interpret, inform, perform, respond, and even compose a kind of countering ludic algorithm.
Repositioning closed, mechanical or computational operations as participatory or playful algorithms requires what economist and formal game theorist Martin Shubik called “an explicit consideration of the role of the rules.” This algorithmic literacy, this consciousness of the existence and the agency of the governing ruleset itself was, for Shubik in 1972, a key factor in defining something as a game (rather than, perhaps in the vein of much of our conversation here today, a calamity or a condition).
This is of course a highly privileged position: to have the knowledge and real and perceived agency to play within and against the rules. Fostering that kind of knowledge and agency among our citizenry—extending that privilege—is one primary aim of a liberal arts education. This seems an entirely uncontroversial statement to make, when applied to the understanding of aesthetics, or of systems of policy and law. That we shy away from teaching formal procedural, computational, and algorithmic thinking in the humanities classroom as somehow separate from humanistic concerns, and that we allow it to be bifurcated from our own fields as “STEM learning” and even set ourselves in opposition to it, is both a failure of collective imagination and a failure of our individual obligations to our students.
Why? Because, if you understand the basic principles on which a piece of computer code is constructed and must act, and if you are aware that you’re playing with and in it, the most constraining algorithm in any ludic or hermeneutic system becomes just another participant in the process. It opens itself to scholarly interpretation, subjective or artistic response, and practical enhancement or countering measures. And in that way, it begins to open itself to resistance. (This is another angle on “human factors” in algorithmic systems—on human awareness and agency as what Kevin has today called “controls for the controls.”)
In games like Peter Suber’s “Nomic,” which is based on constitutional law, such countering and playful measures become the real, iterative, turn-based modification of the rules themselves. Nomic is “a game of amendment.” And I think it’s no coincidence that the inventor of Nomic has revised himself into an open-access advocate and a dedicated reformer of closed scholarly communication systems.
In fact, we’re always amending our algorithms. We’re always playing with and against them, even as we set them up to sharpen themselves in play against us. The encouragement I take from Frank Pasquale’s interventions, from Shubik and Suber, and from Kevin Hamilton’s talk today—to consider “the role of the rules” in our black box games—leads me (I conclude now, in a rush) to the common insight of a perhaps unlikely trio: Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Charles Sanders Peirce.
Poets and logicians know the liberating value of constraint. We wouldn’t have a sonnet otherwise, or a proof.
As Hopkins put it, writing to his friend Robert Bridges about the inexorable logic of what he called “’vulgar,’ that is obvious or necessary rhymes,” to compose verse, we must understand the precise mechanisms by which “freedom is compatible with necessity.” For Dickinson, the enduring artistic value that comes from operating under constraint may begin with a natural blossoming, but must end in a squeeze:
Essential Oils — are wrung —
The Attar from the Rose
Be not expressed by Suns — alone —
It is the gift of Screws —
And—working in a more mathematical and pragmatic but no less imaginative mode—C. S. Peirce interpreted algorithmic specifications not as thwarting, confounding black boxes, but as creative prompts, “in the sense in which we speak of the ‘rules’ of algebra; that is, as a permission under strictly defined conditions.” Algorithmic and combinatoric art forms, such as the work of Sol Lewitt or the OuLiPo group, show us how this functions.
I want to suggest that it’s in granting ourselves playful permission, as through the exciting lines of research we’ve heard laid out today, and in their application in the classroom, that we’ll retain real agency: not just as artists and users, but as scholars and as citizens. What would happen if—as Kevin Hamilton has prompted us to do—we more systematically questioned not just the technical and data-driven frameworks of our “algorithmic culture,” but the validity of the “black box” metaphors that have simultaneously defined and obscured them? What if we refused, in our teaching and research, to understand algorithms as closed systems—refused to accept (in his terms) the algorithmic “dead end?” And what if, as Kevin suggests is possible, we practiced against the longstanding hermeneutic impulse to direct our scholarship wholly and finally toward a “reveal” of the contents of the black box?
What if we educated and designed for resistance, through iterative performance and play?
[Note: I have more on the definition of the algorithm in an entry in the recent Johns Hopkins Guide to Digital Media (eds. Ryan, Emerson, and Robertson), and on the notion of “ludic algorithms” in a chapter of Kevin Kee’s Pastplay: Teaching and Learning History with Technology.]
I recently collaborated on a project a little outside the ordinary for me: a case study for a chapter in a forthcoming textbook for, well, cops and spooks. (Cue performative outrage and sub-tweeting about the digital humanities’ complicity in our modern surveillance state–which I will address in a moment.) The book is the infelicitously-titled Application of Big Data for National Security: A Practitioner’s Guide to Emerging Technologies, edited by Babak Akhgar et al. These are circles alien to me, but in which my chapter’s co-author, Gregory Saathoff, frequently moves.
I write about the project here for two reasons–seemingly different, but in fact closely aligned. The first is that I successfully and quite easily negotiated alterations to my author’s contract with Elsevier (my own little valentine) that made it possible for me to reconcile placing the chapter in a Butterworth-Heinemann book with my deeply-held open access values. (I remain, in terms of journal publishing, a Cost of Knowledge signatory, pledging not to publish in or contribute editing and reviewing time to Elsevier journals until their business practices become less damaging to academic libraries and the public good.) I thought it might be helpful for others to know how I undertook this negotiation, and why open access publishing is usually even easier for me. The other reason for this post has to do with the content and message of the book chapter, and its relation to recent debates in the digital humanities. This, too, relates to problems of openness, audience, and the public impact of humanities scholarship.
First, on scholarly publishing. I wanted this piece–like the rest of my writing–to be reasonably open, not shut: that is, to be available in some format to all interested readers, regardless of their ability to pay. I typically accomplish this by posting, even before I have placed a given essay or article, a version of it on my blog, which is governed by the minimally-restrictive CC-BY license I’ve described elsewhere. (In short: a Creative Commons Attribution license allows non-commercial or commercial re-use of my writing, in whole or in part, asking only that I be credited for the work.)
To be perfectly honest, most of the time I post such things–transcripts of talks I’ve given, cranky little rants like this one–without the slightest intention to publish them elsewhere, and am later invited, because I have made them freely available online, to place them in journals and edited collections. Those cleaned-up versions invariably wend their way into Libra, UVa’s institutional repository. In the present situation, because our “big data” case study was a co-authored work, and because I was brought onto the project after my collaborator had already agreed to contribute it as a textbook chapter, it didn’t occur to me to pre-emptively publish a version online. I foggily assumed that Elsevier’s increasingly enlightened journal policies, which do allow for posting of pre-prints, would apply to book chapters as well.
Last week, shortly before the book went to press, I received what I considered to be a ridiculous author’s contract. This document not only asked me to give up copyright to the piece, but prohibited deposit of a draft or pre-print in our IR and effectively asked me to sign away my own fair use rights to the content. If I signed this contract, agreeing (for instance) not to distribute copies of more than 10% of any version of the piece, even to my own students without asking that they purchase access, I would–in my I-am-not-a-lawyer view–have fewer defensible rights to use the work in my teaching than would a random colleague in a classroom next door.
I came back to Elsevier with a slightly modified version of the SPARC addendum, to which I added some solid language from Case Western University’s library. After a bit of expected pushback and negotiation, aided by a personal phone conversation with the book’s helpful editorial project manager, in which I could answer questions, do a little evangelizing, and convey what was most important to me (the striking of the 10% rule and the ability to deposit a pre-print without embargo or password-protection), we came to an agreement. I signed a modified version of the Elsevier contract, dropped a draft in the repo, and collegially shared the publisher’s feedback on language used in Libra with our scholarly communications librarian.
This is the most energy I’ve ever expended futzing with publication contracts — although I did once benefit from someone else’s futzing. All told, I probably spent a grand total of 90 minutes making sure that an open access version of the case study was available to the world and preserved in perpetuity. One caveat: as a non-tenure-track faculty librarian, my work is not typically evaluated in terms of journal impact factors–so this is not necessarily blanket advice I’d give to a junior scholar seeking a conventional career in a conservative department or discipline. However (speaking of complicity), I will point out that systems of academic evaluation are systems within the academy’s control.
Now, a few words about the case study itself: how it came about, why I anticipate that this work may be ill-received in some quarters, and why I thought it important to undertake.
Besides being a close colleague from faculty governance at UVa (and the person to whom I recently handed over the General Faculty Council chair’s gavel), my co-author is a forensic psychiatrist on our research faculty, and a consultant for entities like the FBI and, on matters of prisoner mental health and radicalization, the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Greg Saathoff directs a think-tank based in UVa’s School of Medicine, the Critical Incident Analysis Group. CIAG focuses on the societal impact of moments of (mostly mass) violence: acts of terrorism, foreign and domestic, and other arresting, convulsive, heartbreaking happenings with potentially destabilizing implications for democracy and everyday freedoms. (Think–if you can bear to; I have a hard time–of school shootings and the like.) CIAG is a multi-disciplinary consultancy and convener of conversations, whose projects aim to “distill current knowledge, providing an opportunity to identify and build productive networks and policies that enhance resilience without diminishing our liberties.”
Five years ago, Greg chaired the formal Expert Behavioral Analysis Panel (EBAP) commissioned by the government to review psychological and other records pertaining to the primary suspect in the “Amerithrax” anthrax mailings, an event that briefly paralyzed the US government in the wake of the September 11th attacks of 2001. These mailings of envelopes of deadly spores to media outlets and politicians–causing five deaths and at least seventeen non-fatal cases of inhalational anthrax–are now commonly thought to have been a result of “insider threat.” Insider threat is whistle-blowing’s Mr. Hyde: the use, by someone with classified knowledge or access to dangerous materials, of that knowledge and access to spread darkness rather than light. But it was a complex and highly controversial case, not at all (to stay with our theme) open-and-shut. The man ultimately determined by the Department of Justice to have been the mailings’ perpetrator (Dr. Bruce Ivins, who worked at a USAMRIID lab to develop anthrax vaccines sometimes cited as a contributor to Gulf War Syndrome) committed suicide while under suspicion. The investigation itself has been subject to repeated, thorough and costly scientific reviews. When my colleague was asked to contribute an EBAP-related case study for the forthcoming law enforcement textbook–reflecting on how contemporary, rapidly-expanding possibilities for “big data” analysis might have changed the work of a panel like the one he had convened–he came to me.
I was as surprised as you are. I am not a text-miner by trade. I have written more about the continuing value of hand-crafted, “small data” in our digital age, than about computational analysis of massive data sets. And, of course, I recognized that this is stuff a goodly number of my colleagues in the liberal arts would see as sullying, just to touch. I’m certain of this not only because I keep my ears open to academic discourse about the digital humanities, but because I have twice been urged–with no apparent sense of irony–to alter the conference code of conduct drafted by an “inclusivity working group” I chaired, in a way that would discourage or prevent attendance at DH conferences by people working for government agencies or the military-related private sector, or to require them to disclose their employment status publicly. I’ve also recently read a published essay in which the mere attendance of English professors at a DARPA-sponsored academic workshop on theories and neuroscience of narrative is cited as damning evidence of the “dark side” of literary studies’ digital turn.
Such impulses prompt me to ask: how isolated from internal conversations driving the development of the American security state should we humanists remain? How shut to them? How irrelevant must we keep our viewpoints and hard-won humanities knowledge, in order to stand clean before our peers?
As Greg and I talked through the particulars of the Amerithrax case, I realized that key hermeneutic methods and base assumptions of the humanities–fundamental to the interpretive, ludic, and experimental way the DH community has long approached techniques like sentiment analysis, stylometry and authorship attribution, visualization, and data analysis at scale–could be made to speak to a dangerous nexus of behavioral analysis and criminal investigation in our “big data” age. Even scholars’ and archivists’ basic, completely naturalized understandings of humanistic data as subjective, selected, partial, ambiguous, and always particularly situated in space and time were important to communicate to the audience for a textbook like this. I was also attracted to the opportunity to encourage in law enforcement classrooms and among policy-makers a conversation (as we put it in the case study) not “about what is possible, but about what is advisable”–to prompt trainees and national security advisors to discuss professional ethics and the consequences of over-reliance on distant reading, when lives and liberties are at stake.
Our case study–while trying to tell the story of the Ivins EPAB analysis from declassified records–touches on issues as diverse as the assumption of privacy by civilian military employees and the impact of email monitoring on scientific communication, the USA PATRIOT Act’s “chilling effect on the day-to-day information-seeking behavior of average citizens,” and long-held humanities understandings of what we call “the relationship between algorithm and interpretation.” We conclude that:
It is important for law enforcement investigators to understand that big data analysis in crime-solving and behavioral analysis is rife with decision-making and contingency. Its conclusions can be dependent upon the subjective standing points of those who assemble data sets, design the processes by which they are analyzed, and interpret the results. In other words, such techniques provide no push-button answers—only arrangements of information that must be interpreted in almost a literary sense and which, in fact, themselves depend on a chain of previous decision-points, interdependencies, moments of expert intuition, and close, interpretive readings (Chessick, 1990).
and see data mining as:
an aid to interpretation of selected and processed (therefore, in some sense, pre-interpreted) datasets. It can be a crucial means of focusing investigators’ attention—but is never a substitute for close and critical reading of sources, or for psychological and behavioral analysis.
We attempt to convey Johanna Drucker’s warning that:
technologies of display borrowed from the natural and social sciences can render those who study humanistic datasets “ready and eager to suspend critical judgment in a rush to visualization.” Drucker holds that all human-generated data must instead be understood as capta—not as something rationally observed, neutrally presented, and given, but rather as that which is taken, in the form of subjective representations demonstrating and demanding the “situated, partial, and constitutive character of knowledge production, the recognition that knowledge is constructed” by people with inherent, inescapable agendas or biases, blind-spots, and points of view (Drucker, 2011).
Finally, in considering algorithmic data analysis and visualization techniques as “an aid to elucidation,” rather than a substitute for close reading, we find that:
we can usefully bring to bear lessons learned from the application of computing to interpretive problems in humanities scholarship. These range from the impact of implicit assumptions and biases on research questions and the assembly of datasets (Sculley & Pasanek, 2008) to the reminder that subjective and objective concerns must be kept in useful tension in text analysis, data mining, and visualization (Clement, 2013). A comprehensive review by the Council on Library and Information Resources, of eight large-scale digital humanities projects funded under an international “Digging into Data Challenge” scheme in 2009 and 2011, found that “humanistic inquiry,” like human behavior, is “freeform, fluid, and exploratory; not easily translatable into a computationally reproducible set of actions.” This review identified a characteristic need that data-driven projects in the humanities share with the application of data analytics to investigations of insider threat: the need to address inevitable gaps “between automated computational analysis and interpretive reasoning” that can “make allowances for doubt, uncertainty, and/or multiple possibilities” (Williford & Henry, 2012).
In the end, I’m not sure how successful the chapter will be, in bringing humanities values and concerns to a law enforcement audience (just as this blog post may well miss its different mark). Preliminary reviews by investigators involved in the case and familiar with the state of discourse around “big data” analysis in law enforcement have been positive, but the case study represents a rather new format and readership for me. I was open to the attempt.
You can freely download a peer-reviewed pre-print version of “Interpretation and Insider Threat: Re-reading the Anthrax Mailings of 2001 Through a ‘Big Data’ Lens,” from UVa’s open-access institutional repository.
Thirteen years ago, I was a graduate student in English literature when the Twin Towers collapsed, a fireball erupted from the Pentagon, and a group of everyday travelers hurtled a fourth involved commercial airliner, in self-sacrifice, into a muddy field. We got an email from our department chair. It read (I paraphrase), “this is why poetry matters.”
I had been watching people leap to their deaths from skyscrapers on the morning news. “Bullshit,” said I, a girl who had been in love with Shakespeare and Pope and Keats and Tennyson since grade school. And that was the end of any more conventional conception I may have had of my own career–the end, for me, of the profession of English.
I was, truth be told, already on the way out, toward my discipline’s methodological and material oddball fringe–specializing by then not in literary hermeneutics but in the mapping of its lessons and techniques to bibliography, scholarly editing, human-computer interaction, and humanities computing. Over time–by applying my teaching experience and past education in Education, and by learning from the side jobs in labs and centers that I held as a grad student–I built some expertise in project management and digital cultural heritage. In that way, I applied myself to work that felt more satisfyingly pragmatic to me. I couldn’t bear to spend my time happily, as a single, sensitive reader and writer–but I could happily spend it struggling: nudging and nurturing people, and helping them find ways to work effectively as teams in the protection and remediation and interpretation and sharing of stuff. Soon I was a mother and a post-doc. Then I was a member of UVa’s research faculty in Media Studies and a mother some more. Finally, I became a librarian and (heaven help me) an administrator.
These days, I run the library-based Scholars’ Lab, a digital humanities center I and my colleagues rapidly developed into one of the most respected in the country. The SLab is noted most particularly for its commitment to creating extensible, open source software platforms for humanities interpretation, and for the model of its graduate fellowship programs, which are helping new cohorts of scholar-practitioners find their own ways to make poetry (or history, or philosophy, or any of a number of humanistic pursuits) matter, in and to a difficult world.
What does that mean, matter? I can only answer from my own perspective. I chose the word “platform,” above, with care. For me, making the humanities matter in the digital age involves the fashioning and iterative refinement and (above all) the bold use of new platforms–systems for accessing, analyzing, and interpreting data. Data are what some disciplines call their “materials,” others their “texts,” and still others “sources” or “evidence:” the stuff.
The thing about platforms is that you stand on them. One might boost you up, so that your voice can be heard. Another might provide a scaffold from which you can scan your surroundings better, from a new, distant or speculative vantage point. Still another might enfold you, helping you intensify your focus, and perhaps see through your frustration how bounded and particular the codes and frames of your perspective have always been. Just as digitization has not de-materialized the humanities, but rather brought its material basis into ever-sharper relief, so have digital platforms failed (dire warnings aside) to flatten and depersonalize our subjective, interpretive response. Instead, the digital humanities foreground subjectivity by making us more conscious of our positions as individual, interpretive agents inside larger systems–inside algorithmic machines.
These are things I know in my heart and down to my bones as a digital humanities practitioner. I should probably write about them more often. I was prompted to, today, by receiving another shock to the system from my comfortable seat at the University of Virginia, and by observing another set of personal, academic, and institutional responses to dark and difficult times. I’m going to make a leap, but bear with me. I write (as I have done for thirteen years) about the relation of individual, subjective agents to complex systems.
Last week, Rolling Stone magazine published the shocking and horrific story of an undergraduate woman who reported being brutally gang-raped a five minute walk from my office, at the house of one of UVa’s powerful and moneyed fraternities, in what the article suggested (most sickeningly of all) could be a regular occurrence–a initiation ritual for the men of Phi Kappa Psi. Since then, our community has been reeling. Initial messages from upper administrators were flat and disheartening, corporatized and inhumane. A first remedy proved to be none, as the “independent” counsel assigned by our Board of Visitors to investigate and advise was revealed to be a brother of the very fraternity under investigation. Later steps and messages have been better, but some are still surprisingly tone-deaf to the fact that (for instance) Thomas Jefferson, whose rape of the enslaved Sally Hemings began when she was as young as fourteen, is not a man to idolize in getting to the roots of rape culture at UVa. Students and faculty and staff have rallied and marched and taught. Remembrances have been pinned up, pulled down, and pinned up again, and as we dig deeper into the legal standards and guidelines that have shaped our collective, institutional response–and into our own personal histories of averted eyes and inadequate acts–we are sick at heart. The scale and systemic nature of the problem makes it nearly too much to grasp, particularly at a moment when we are feeling so shaken by individual horrors and specific crimes.
Time seems to blur: from the 1954 case in which a dozen UVa men were investigated–though not criminally–for the apparent rape of a teenaged girl on Jefferson’s storied Lawn (only two of whom were expelled, with another three specifically pardoned lest the punishment interfere with their military officers’ commissions); to the 2005 trial of William Beebe, who belatedly confessed to being one of then-first-year Liz Seccuro’s Phi Kappa Psi rapists in 1984; to the heartbreaking autumn of 2014, in which the sins of not one but two other Virginia schools–Liberty and Christopher Newport Universities–were visited on Charlottesville, when their early-2000s failure to stop a budding serial rapist and murderer resulted in the death of second-year student Hannah Graham at the hands of UVa employee L.J. Matthew (a friend, awfully, of a friend). This followed on his rape and murder of Virginia Tech student Morgan Harrington in 2009. Two girls dumped in our fields and woods. Sixty years since 1954. Thirty years since ’84. A 195-year history since our founding. How many more acts of gendered violence might I list here? Thirty-eight UVa women (surely a tiny fraction of those wronged) came forward as victims of sexual assault on our beautiful, perfect campus–a World Heritage site–last year alone.
“And as much as I love UVA,” said one rape survivor in a harrowing interview, “that’s really part of the foundational culture—the capacity to sustain a deep lie. The whole school venerates Thomas Jefferson, the man who said all men are created equal but also owned slaves.”
The work of one associate dean has come under particular scrutiny amid the mess, not only for her portrayal in the Rolling Stone article (why don’t we provide good stats? because “nobody wants to send their daughter to the rape school”), but because of a damning videotaped interview in which she underscores UVa’s apparent slap-on-the-wrist approach to known offenders, the nuances of which stem from local interpretation (perhaps misinterpretation) of complex Title IX laws and guidelines. Dean Nicole Eramo may be the woman we have charged with the most dangerous and difficult emotional labor at UVa. I know her only slightly, as the person who dropped everything to respond immediately and with compassion to a panicked call I once made to the office of the Dean of Students–a response typical of Eramo, I understand, and one that at least one student’s mother, who returned a year later to meet us, credits with saving her daughter’s life. Rape survivors and other students have spoken out strongly in her favor.
I was horrified on first viewing of the interview, in part because I was ignorant of the laws, and oblivious to our institutional approach to sexual violence, intimidation, and other kinds of so-called “misconduct.” And I continue to have grave concerns about whether we have properly interpreted the grievance and mediation guidelines in the 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter issued by the DoE’s Office of Civil Rights as they apply to cases of sexual assault. But when I watch the now thoroughly scape-goated Eramo speak a second and third time, I notice other things: a school official lacking the polish and shine of the media training American universities provide to so many of our administrators, in an attempt to make them bullet-proof (and teach them never to tell the unvarnished, short-hand truth, even if it helps a victim understand her part in the inhumane workings of a “rape school”). I see a person who knows that her tacit understanding of a complex, broken system exceeds her ability to articulate it on the air. I see a person trying, perhaps most of all, far too hard to help UVa mother its way out of this horror, by paying close and compassionate attention to individual cases (victims and perpetrators alike)–in a situation that in fact simultaneously calls for something likely above her pay grade: an elevated, larger, and more systemic view.
And here is where I return, to reflect upon my scholarship and work. Balance in perspective. The imperative to zoom freely and efficaciously, from specialist to generalist understanding, from the longue durée to the specific instance–from big data to small data and back again. These are skills, competencies, and toolsets that I believe strongly we must develop, as we learn to perform humanities scholarship in an age of mass digitization and increasing complexity of information systems. Can we become more conscious of this need, the need to take the long view, and to see more clearly the machines that imbricate and drive us, from vantage points internal and external alike? What tools and methods do we need, to grasp and analyze the whole without losing the individual, or (to risk melodrama) without losing our souls?
And why did I make this post so uncomfortably about me, about my personal history, my scholarly work, my progressive shocks of recognition as a student and a woman and a mother? Because that’s what we do when we interpret. We re-position ourselves. I’ve watched with sad pride this week as members of our community have stepped up and spoken out–standing on stages and at podiums, blasting raw words through social media, getting arrested on porches. Those are good platforms. But we need analytical and interpretive platforms, too, that help us embrace our own subjective positioning in the systems in which we labor–which means, inevitably, to embrace our own complicity and culpability in them. And we need these, at the same time, to help us see beyond: to see patterns and trends, to read close and distantly all at once, to know how to act and what to do next. We need platforms that help us understand the workings of the cogs, of which we are one.
[Note: I am proud to say that the University of Virginia Library’s Special Collections department immediately activated its smart protocols for collecting and preserving physical and digital ephemera related to the current situation at UVa, and that the faculty and staff of the Scholars’ Lab are working with professor Lisa Goff and other American Studies colleagues on a digital history project called “Take Back the Archive“–forthcoming very soon. The idea, from our capsule summary, is to crowdsource and curate a countering response to all of the “we didn’t realize” and “we just didn’t know” statements we are hearing around Grounds, by using Neatline to collect and visualize documentation (and possibly later, survivor stories) related to the history of sexual assault at UVa. Please wish us–all of us–well.]
[Cross-posted from the Re:Thinking blog at CLIR, the Council on Library and Information Resources, where I’m honored to serve as Distinguished Presidential Fellow. Check out all the great content at CLIR!]
In recent years, we’ve guided four separate cohorts of the graduate fellows who participate in the Scholars’ Lab’s Praxis Program through an unusual exercise. Praxis is a team-based fellowship, in which six students, from a variety of humanities and social science disciplines and in varied phases of their graduate careers, spend two full semesters working together to design, create, and launch a digital project—either “from scratch” or by building on and refining the work of the previous year’s group. They do this with the benefit of careful mentorship, smart technical instruction, and lots of free caffeine and therapy from University of Virginia Library faculty and staff.
Our fellows’ first challenge, though, is not the daunting one of formulating a scholarly question that lends itself to exploration through building. Nor is it the challenge of learning a new digital production method (or four, or five), nor even of designing a system that can make a meaningful technical or intellectual contribution to humanities teaching and research (like the 2011-13 cohorts’ Prism project, or the past two groups’ revival of the Ivanhoe Game). Instead, our fellows nervously draft a project charter.
What is a charter, and why do we recommend it at the outset of a new collaboration? It was a Twitter conversation on collective authorship and the Praxis Program, recorded here, that made me think a post like the one I’m writing now might be useful. And therefore I’m inclined to answer a question like this by starting with other ones, which typically emerge near a project’s end, when students, faculty, and collaborating staff members are considering how to represent their contributions to the broader scholarly and technical community. Specifically, how should authorship be listed on the project’s website, and on the conference papers, posters, and published essays and book chapters that will play such an important role in disseminating results and boosting careers? What’s the fairest and most transparent way to give credit where credit is due, particularly in a situation—entirely common to the digital humanities—where one’s team crosses more than disciplinary boundaries, and in fact verges into the inter-professional, a realm of sharply differing approaches to questions of authorship and fair-dealing?
Well, it depends. It depends on the make-up of the team, on who wants and needs what, and on the basic (and likely internalized, differing, and unspoken) assumptions with which you and your collaborators begin your work.
The purpose of a project charter—which should always be a living document, subject to revision by the team—is less to settle and more to prompt hard questions like these. By addressing such issues near a project’s outset, groups that consciously chart(er) a path seem more likely to make thoughtful authorship decisions down the road, particularly at moments when they may be scattered geographically or pressed for time. But as you can see from the student-written 2014-15 Praxis Program Charter, from the charters drafted by previous groups, from the resources we provide them for thinking about the exercise, and from the blog posts they’ve written about the experience of charter-writing, a good deal of effort and empathy is called for. Although we typically start by focusing the team’s attention on the problem of shared credit (something being taken up by various groups in different ways: see FairCite and its proposed declaration, the Collaborators’ Bill of Rights, Neatline’s narrative approach to a credits page, and new and very promising work toward an open standard and shared taxonomy), project charter conversations quickly and fruitfully veer in other directions. For the Praxis Program, these have ranged from issues of sustainability and long-term responsibility for research outputs to specific ways of supporting open communication, constructive criticism, the freedom to fail, and the fostering of personal growth. They have led to statements that blend values and group ethos with the nuts-and-bolts of day-to-day work: touching on specific ways to foster diversity of thought and experience; on obligations toward each other and toward past and future cohorts; on decision-making around open source and open access; and on the very notion of “eupraxia,” or how to be and do good. These are, I expect, uncommon conversations in a humanities graduate education system that is still overwhelmingly predicated on solo work and competitive, individual achievement. I am grateful for them.
This summer—after several years of teaching and guiding grad students through the process of drafting of project-specific Praxis Program charters—the faculty and staff of the Scholars’ Lab finally got together to write a more general one of our own. It represents, as we say in the document, “our core and shared ethos:” what we attend to, and how we see ourselves. You can read the Scholars’ Lab’s staff charter here.
(For more about the Praxis Program at the Scholars’ Lab, see “Praxis, Through Prisms: A Digital Book Camp for Grad Students in the Humanities,” in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s 2012 “Digital Campus” edition. Praxis was created with seed funding from the Mellon Foundation under the auspices of the Scholarly Communication Institute in 2011 and is now a program of the UVa Library. It also inspired the creation of the international Praxis Network and various professional development programs in the library community, such as Columbia University’s Developing Librarian Project and others presented at this year’s DLF Forum. Praxis and other SLab graduate fellows blog about their experiences in our programs, step by step, as a way of getting more comfortable with sharing iterative work and communicating with broader and more diverse audiences. You’ll find their latest posts here. Finally, Jeremy Boggs announces the Scholars’ Lab charter as part of a SLab website revision that also includes an Accessibility Statement—perhaps the first published by a digital humanities center in the United States—and a technical colophon.)