There are certainly no shortage of think pieces, articles, and takes on the opportunities of introducing group-based, experimental, and “hands on” knowledges into Humanities research. In turn, there are hosts of critiques of the Humanities lab model and the Digital Humanities in general. Both the promoters and critics of DH practices (and the vast majority of scholars who occupy spaces orthogonal to these debates) approach DH with a similar assumption: that computational tools, thinking, methods, etc. have impacts on the types of scholarship that occurs in humanities spaces. These impacts can lead to new, exciting frontiers of knowledge, discovery, and community. Or, the unintended consequences of techno-fetishizing the humanities can undermine the foundations of critical thought, harm students, or put us in league with the systems of power that we should be attempting to dismantle.
From a Science & Technology Studies (STS) perspective, the shape of this debate is provocative. You could replace the words “Digital Humanities” with any other contemporary sociotechnical phenomena–Facebook, algorithms, platforms, blockchain (ugh), Tesla–and the conversation would remain largely unchanged. Framed by proponents as revolutionizing an older form of practice, or of responding to some “new normal,” a technological phenomenon offers tools that, if wielded properly, can provide tractable solutions to intractable problems. Others caution that without proper oversight, moral authority, the participation of stakeholders, and rigorous evaluation, the unintended (or, frankly, intended) consequences of such a phenomena will cause harm, particularly to persons historically most vulnerable.
These two positions are not incommensurate. They sprout from the same ground. As Matt Wisnioski described in his 2012 book, the shape of this conversation didn’t come from critics of technology, but from technologists themselves, who were concerned with protecting their industries and disciplines from the 1960s backlash against WW2-era social and technical institutions. Rather than fighting the lost battle of the Progressive-era promises of technological innovation always leading to social good, engineers, scientists, and government officials changed the narrative of technological progress to incorporate, and then defang, their critics. This new narrative became what Wisnioski calls the “ideology of technological change:”
An ideology of technological change posited that technology was neither good, nor evil; neither was it neutral. Technological change was a semi-autonomous force that was accelerating rapidly, outracing the ability of social institutions [to] adjust. It produced tremendous opportunities, but also social dislocations, alienation, and the threat of nuclear holocaust. Through rational management, however, technology’s negative unintended consequences could be minimized and its positive capacities maximized. (page 410)
In a forthcoming paper, I discuss how this rhetorical move came to dominate conversations in the Digital Humanities and in issues of tech and social justice more broadly. This is not to say that it is not vital to discuss the intersections of technological practices with and through marginalized persons and communities–as the our team hopes to make evident, the political in the digital is our central concern. Rather, the ideology of technological change frames these discussions teleologically–through questioning the inputs and outputs of technical practice. What are the impacts, the consequences, intended and unintended, of technology? What codes of ethics can we develop to rationally and ethically manage technical development? What sociotechnical systems can be built to manage other sociotechnical systems?
This rhetorical move is powerful. It places power back into the purview of technical institutions. Their power no longer becomes challenged, or delegitimized; it becomes something to be managed. The solution to which becomes to make sure we’ve checked in with the marginalized before we marginalize them more, or to place English majors in middle management roles in Silicon Valley. “The digital” stops being a contested term; it becomes concretized as a specific set of technical practices controlled by specific sets of people, rather than a contingent, shifting, historical phenomena. The muddled intra-actions that make up the digital become demarcated, cleaned, and categorized into chunks manageable by power.
So too with the Digital Humanities. As Adeline Koh has argued, the uncritical integration of digital tools into the humanities devalues the humanities. I would further this point–that even when being critical of the digital, the humanities still devalue ourselves when we accept wholesale the ideology of technological change–itself often packed with the digital phenomena we attempt to appropriate.
One of the goals of the THL is to challenge the ideology of technical change. One of our tactics is to move from teleology to epistemology–from asking not only what technologies do, to whom and for whom, but also how we know the boundaries of technical practice.