Blog Post

Politics of Access

Politics of Access

Hello fellow HASTAC Scholars, and other readers,

I am excited about being a HASTAC Scholar this year, and I am looking forward to hearing about the work that other HASTAC Scholars are doing.

I thought I might use this first post to briefly outline my Digital Humanities interests with the hope of discovering intersections with your work. I would love to hear from you if you are interested in similar research, or if you would like to collaborate on something related to our shared interests.

Broadly, my DH work revolves around the intersection of Postcolonial Studies and Digital Humanities. Adeline Koh and Roopika Risam in their Postcolonial Digital Humanities blog describe this field in this manner:

“Grounded in the literary, philosophical, and historical heritage of postcolonial studies and invested in the possibilities offered by digital humanities, we position postcolonial digital humanities as an emergent field of study invested in decolonizing the digital, foregrounding anti-colonial thought, and disrupting salutatory narratives of globalization and technological progress.”

That last idea, ‘disrupting salutary narratives of globalization and technological progress,’ was my entry point into Digital Humanities when I was a Masters student at the University of Florida. (I am now pursuing my doctoral studies at UF.) As an Indian student studying in the United States, I was struck by the marked difference in technological infrastructures between the two countries, and more broadly between the Global North and the Global South[1]. (One example of this unequally developed digital infrastructure is represented in the map at the top of the page which shows the network of underwater (or submarine) cables. These cables carry telecommunication signals, and as such, are part of the material support for the global digital network. This map from the Oxford Internet Institute is another interesting one which visualizes the total number of Internet users in a country, and the percentage of Internet penetration in that country. This map shows that even in countries like India with a high number of Internet users, the percentage of the population that has access to the Internet remains low.) 

These differences in development which are visible in this map, and in other maps of socio-technical infrastructure don’t exist arbitrarily. As Castells writes in Communication Power, the digital network “diffuses selectively throughout the planet, working on the pre-existing sites, cultures, organizations, and institutions” (25). Institutions and cultures which have more power continue to produce, define, and regulate value in digital networks and spaces. Although Castells does not explicitly address this in Communication Power, the inequalities in the development of the digital network is also one of the lingering aftereffects of colonialism.

Scholars such as Rayvon Fouche have also shown how Western and corporate interventions (like the One Laptop Per Child program) to rectify the Global Digital Divide are often undergirded by colonial epistemologies of a progressive West saving a technologically backward Other. In her recent talk at DH Forum 2015, Anita Say Chan noted that such ventures are a part of techno-utopian hype cycles, during which technocrats promise that their technology will help the so-called Third World. At the heart of every hype cycle, however, is a willful forgetfulness of the failures and disenchantment of the previous hype cycle. The recent meeting of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Facebook’s grand promise to bring Internet to India (and other countries) might be considered the latest iteration of a techno-utopian hype cycle. These meetings generated a lot of press attention, and generous amounts of enthusiasm as well as skepticism. Overnight, it seemed, dozens and dozens of Facebook profile pictures unfurled the tricolors of the Indian flag in support of the ‘Digital India’ venture (and transformed, I might add, a national endeavor into a nationalist one).

My early interest in these inequalities of technological infrastructure and access to digital technologies led me down two interconnected avenues of research and praxis:

Implications of the inequalities in socio-technical infrastructures, and access

I want to start by listing some of the very big questions that I am interested in:

  • How do technological inequalities (globally, and within countries) shape digital knowledge production?
  • What ideological frameworks are privileged in debates in the digital public sphere (social media sites, eforums, newspaper comment sections, etc)?
  • Are these digital public spaces safe for minorities and subalterns (defined along lines of race, gender, sex, class, nationality, and other vectors of identity)?
  • How might we think of digital tools and interfaces as ideologically constructed (and influenced by the beliefs and biases of their makers)?
  • Is there a distinct separation between makers and users? Do users have the opportunity to shape the digital tools and sites they use, and influence international, national, and local technological laws and policies?

As these are big questions, I can illustrate how some of them operate in my research with one example. My most recent work has been on how digital archives channel and consolidate nationalist narratives, i.e. the glue which holds together the imagined community of the nation. Specifically, I have been looking at the September 11 Digital Archive to examine how its interface + the documents held in this archive construct 9/11 as a traumatic event in the psychic life of the American nation-state. Minority voices (especially Muslim voices) are remarkably absent in the user-submitted collection and items (and this raises questions about why Muslims might not have self submitted content). And when these voices are incorporated (via curatorial intervention and solicited collections), they are strongly organized around the experiential register of 9/11. Muslims are made legible as ‘victims’ (traumatized by the attacks as well as the state’s Othering after 9/11) by claiming an American(ized) subject position and hence, tempering their difference.

In the next phase of this project, I will be working on how to incorporate a postcolonial commitment to decentering in the construction of digital archives. In other words, how do we design digital archives so that dominant (in this case, nationalist) narratives do not become hypervisible and occlude minority voices and experiences?

 

Doing Digital Humanities in India

Unequally developed digital infrastructures also have particular implications for doing Digital Humanities in the Global South. As the CenterNET map of DH centers worldwide reveals, DH is still largely a Euro-American field of study. There is a need for DH centers to develop in other parts of the world, and for these centers to articulate parallel, multiple, and alternate research agendas for the Digital Humanities.What does it mean, however, to do Digital Humanities in a country where digital infrastructures are underdeveloped, and where Internet access is not uniform? How do you construct a digital pedagogy or plan digital projects when a vast section of the population accesses the Internet on mobile devices rather than laptops or computers? The imperatives, needs, and challenges for doing DH in the Global South are likely very different.

As I believe that a postcolonial approach to Digital Humanities cannot not be limited to theory and research, I also work with the Center for Digital Humanities, Pune to understand what a postcolonial digital humanities praxis might look like. CDH Pune was founded in 2013 because there was growing interest in the local academic community (the state of Maharashtra) about Digital Humanities. Although there was (and is) interest, scholars and educators were uncertain about how to join the Digital Humanities conversation. Many were concerned that this conversation was premised on technical skills, or that it undervalued the humanities. Since then, we have worked to organize DH workshops, lectures, and conference sessions that showcase ‘big tent’ Digital Humanities. Our commitment is to fostering a local and an Indian Digital Humanities and this means, among other things, listening to local community members about which DH topics and skills they want to learn about, and acting as a platform for Indian scholars who are doing Digital Humanities work. There is a lot of exciting DH work happening all over India, and in fact, many Indian scholars were doing this work before it was considered to be a part of DH. (I think this is one of the reasons why we need alternative timelines and genealogies of the Digital Humanities apart from the one traced by Matthew Kirschenbaum and others for North American DH.) 

I hope to write more about DH in India in future HASTAC blog posts so I will stop here for now.

I welcome your comments.

 

[1] Of course, these inequalities exist within the developed countries of the so-called First World as well. In the American context, the National Broadband Map is an excellent visualization of how the Digital Divide continues to persist. In Race, Rhetoric, and Technology, Adam Banks has an excellent analysis of the Digital Divide and how solutions to this problem have been reductively framed in technological terms.

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