Blog Post

Sustainable DH, or: Smashing things with Hammers

Digital Devices with a Hammer on top

What does it mean to do sustainable DH? As HASTAC scholar at the Vanderbilt Digital Humanities Center, I'm organizing a working group on this subject, and I also moderated a session about it at Vandy's 2016 THATCamp yesterday. Lest that tempt you to believe I have an answer to the question above, let me remind you I'm writing about DH here! We DH'ers, all H'ers, if I may, are not about quick and ready definitions. We're about probing complex questions and coming up with still more questions, tying these into centuries-long debates, and then pushing those debates on ahead a little. Let me share, then, where our working group's questions are going at the moment:

We wanted to ask about what's going on at the emerging nexus between the digital humanities and the ecological humanities, a nexus a group of articles assembled by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Stephanie LeMenager in the March 2016 PMLA titled "EcoDH." Because there is clearly something going on here. There's something going on when, already in 2007, consumer electronics and media production accounted for 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions. There's something going on when the people making our devices are throwing themselves off of factory roofs. There's something going on when our seemingly ethereal digital existences are leaving e-waste behind them at staggering levels and shipping that e-waste to the Global South where 21st-century ragpickers ruin their health and risk their lives "recycling" it.1

What's going on is bound up with the obvious but easily forgettable fact that the digital world is material. Matthew Kirschenbaum coined the term "haptic fallacy" to describe the belief that digital objects aren't material because we can't touch them. I'd like to propose a somewhat more ridiculous version of this fallacy: the hammer principle. If there is something that can be smashed with a hammer resulting in the loss of your digital object, then that object is material. Of course, in our age of cloud-computing, you might have to smash quite a few different things to lose your file. The hammer principle helps us remember that this condition, in which the destruction of your hard drive does not mean the destruction of the digital objects stored there, does not make those objects less material, but rather means their materiality has been amplified, that the material accretions of our digital lives are multiplying. Oddly enough, the term "cloud" designates the heightened materiality of our digital moment.

As an example, let me share a fun experiment you can do right now: go to your command line (Mac Users: search for "terminal"; Windows: search for "PowerShell"; Linux: you probably know what to do). Once your prompt is up, on Windows type "tracert" followed by some url, e.g. "tracert google.com". On Mac and Linux, you'll do the same, but you'll type the full word "traceroute" at the beginning. Hit enter, and you'll get a list of ip addresses. Each of these represents some router or network somewhere, some material stop along your data's route from your computer to the target url and back. That is, this is a list of things that could be smashed with a hammer (in some cases, with lots and lots of hammers). Here's my trace from my home in Nashville to vanderbilt.edu, the domain of the institution where I work.

I normally travel to Vanderbilt by riding my very material bike over a mile of asphalt, putting the bike on a very material bus which travels several more miles over asphalt, and then riding a tad more over a mix of asphalt and concrete before setting my rubber soles on some tasteful red brick. What a surprise that my digital route to the same place turns out to be materially far more complex! My data packets travel through routers in 17 different places, moving hundreds of miles along physical cables all the way to Georgia and back! Those few miles of asphalt pale in comparison.

This drives home the materiality of the internet; to paraphrase Leonard Kleinrock in Werner Herzog's new film, it reminds us that the internet has an odor. Recognizing the materiality of our digital doings, our working group at Vandy is looking to investigate three aspects of sustainable DH: environmental sustainability, socio-economic sustainability, and the sustainability of scholarship (this blog post is a finite number of hammer blows away from destruction!).

To counterbalance the latent luddite tendencies suggested by talking about a hammer principle, let me mention two exciting projects which have sparked our working group's interest, both of which are about building things, not smashing them. The GO:DH group on minimal computing offers intriguing suggestions about how we might use older and/or less powerful technology to both do our work and open new critical windows onto it. Meanwhile, the Play the LA River project, which involved broad swaths of the LA community in activities which playfully drew attention to the material environment around them, makes us wonder whether and how we might do something similar.

I said before that there is something going on at the intersection of digital and ecological humanities, and made that sound pretty bleak. These projects remind us that there are exciting and positive things going on at this intersection. Let me close by asking: What's going on around you? If as humanists we write to find out what we think, as digital humanists, we blog, chat, and tinker to the same ends. Our ideas develop and emerge in conversation, and thus, in the conversations of our working group we will be developing ideas about sustainable DH. I'll be writing further blog posts on this same subject with some of our developing ideas, so that our bi-weekly face-to-face conversations can merge with the conversations you are having elsewhere. Perhaps you have thoughts you can share now in the comments, so that we can discuss them and let the conversation grow...


  1. All of these examples are indebted to Richard Maxwell and Toby Miller's excellent Greening the Media.This and the volume edited by Maxwell, Jon Raundalen, and Nina Lager Vestberg, Media and the Ecological Crisis, should be required reading for any student of new media.

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