A Big Tent Revival: Productive Problems in the Digital Humanities

To the average reader perusing part three of Debates in the Digital Humanities, things look bad. Tara McPherson’s self-proclaimed polemic problematizes the “modularity of the digital era” as it separates issues of ethnicity and gender from legitimate study. Elizabeth Losh explores the ethical, political, and institutional gray areas of hacktivism as it relates (or does not relate) to the Digital Humanities, and Mark Sample reveals through Don DeLillo a major shortcoming of the field. While George Williams uncovers the less-than-inclusive interfaces ill-equipped for universal users, Charlie Edwards tackles still other usability issues. Beyond this, William Pannapacker and Ian Bogost share similar concerns about the members of the humanities: Pannapacker fears that the Digital humanities cool kids alienate others and Bogost calls attention to stubborn humanists in general. Bethany Nowviske, on the other hand, is tired. Tired of participating in the DH “gentleman’s club,” tired of the institutional melee, and tired of being helpful and nice. It seems, in light of all of this, that there is trouble under the big tent. Read more about what these problems mean…

DH – Who’s In? Who’s Out?

The common thread through all the essays in Part III of Debates in Digital Humanities goes beyond the question of who is or isn’t in the dh, and it asks questions about who should be included but isn’t. After these readings, one might see a picture of dh that is white, male, and ableist, which runs contrary to the themes of social justice and activism. This isn’t meant to be an accusation so much as it’s an observation that, given that dh attracts personality types who care about social justice and activism, it’s interesting to me that lack of diversity and other social issues need to be solved within dh, while dh-ers are also working on them within general society. I don’t know – maybe it’s a naïve assumption that many people share that issues would be solved within a community if the members’ attention is directed outside.

In the tradition of “language shapes reality,” the overall theme of this section was “computing shapes reality.” I struggled most with Tara McPherson’s “Why Are Digital Humanities So White?” I didn’t struggle with the need for more racial diversity in dh – I was completely on board with her on that issue the whole time. The struggle for me came with the comparison of “modular” coding to segregation. At the end of the essay, it’s clear that she doesn’t mean that coders are making the world racist; rather, that a compartmentalized, modular world view is reflected in both things. Again, I don’t disagree, but for me, it was harder to concentrate on her larger point when the thought of, “But…modular code that lets computers run smooth and reliably and that’s a GOOD thing! Everyone likes it when their machines run well, no matter who they are!” kept intruding. I had to let go of the good/bad judgment for a bit, realizing that a racist would argue that a “modular” (segregated) society makes things run more smoothly (at least for them). I’m not advocating bloated, clunky code any more than McPherson is saying that writing modular code creates racial problems; rather, I had to remove myself from “good/bad” subjectivity in order to keep following. This will likely be an essay I revisit as I contemplate the ideas of computing shaping our experience.

The essay I found most interesting is “What do Girls Dig?” by Bethany Nowviskie. Following the flow of the tweets, particularly when people were telling Brett Bobley to invite women in data mining to the conference by name, vaguely reminded me of the #WheresRey hash tag in the wake of the strong, central female character being absent from much of the merchandising tied in with Star Wars: The Force Awakens. This association was especially strong in my mind when the tweets in the essay turned to “Boys & unicorns & SPARKLES!” Similar conversations ensued among Star Wars fans who wondered why they’ve been left out as a target demographic when they’ve been active consumers of Star Wars and its merchandise since 1977 – and furthermore, why would they undermine the strong, self-reliant lead character by excluding her? While the data mining conversation didn’t result in the same occasional vitriol and tone-deaf defenses of why such an exclusion would occur, both situations identify a need to examine why women are participating in some activities and not others.

Much to digest in this section – almost too much to cover in a single blog post – but these are the things that stuck with me the most after reading.