When Kimberly Christen, Alex Merrill, and Michael Wynne highlight some of the advantages of Mukurtu CMS as used for The Plateau Peoples’ Web Portal as “linking histories of collection and colonization with those of survival and adaptation” in “A Community of Relations: Mukurtu Hubs and Spokes,” I believe they get to the heart of the question of whether calls for postcolonial ethics and accountability in digital humanities (DH) projects may be attained, even with “circulatory” and “dynamic” (Graban) subjects. Namely, that such calls can be attained because they must be attained, because there is a need for them in order to survive and adapt against both the enduring legacies of colonialism and emerging neocolonial practices. The need and the desire to create such an ethics already exists and is actively being deployed as well as critically reflected on.
For example, the digital humanities work that we examine this week as an introduction to the topic of Data Colonialism, though just a small sampling of the possibilities of such achievement, does in fact accomplish much in the way of proving these exigences. The projects also show some of the more general decolonial principles that may guide further efforts of resistance—efforts which the representative work show to be both possible and absolutely necessary, in spite of the (very real) difficulties of working with in-flux subjects and sometimes against a culture steeped in “algorithmic obsession” (Graban) and open access ideals (though not necessarily practice).
Christen, in “Relationships not Records: Digital Heritage and the Ethics of Sharing Indigenous Knowledge Online,” points out that even open access practice is “more complicated, more nuanced, and conditional” than the implied ideals of “unfettered access as the norm and description and sharing without cultural, historical, or political context” (406). These ideals greatly inform general perception of open access and transparency standards in DH undertakings. Since the rise of open access, nonetheless, there has not been universal agreement about what that means or what its practice might subsequently entail.
Because of this seeming contradiction, Christen shows that a disruption of such dominant cultures could orient itself more around bringing to light incongruities that already exist in the system, and pointing out the double standard in not allowing for such a wealth of meaning to exist for other(ed) cultures. In other words, since the culture of open access is clearly not an infallible monolith of practice, even within the culture it pervades out from, why shouldn’t there be systems that openly work to complicate it in the ways that it already complicates itself (in a less self-aware way)? There are no reasons why other cultures of data usage would be any less valid in their contexts—just reasons for their being less prevalent that are often tied to colonialism, particularly in terms of Christen’s work with Indigenous knowledge archiving.
Both Christen’s article and Christen, Merrill, and Wynne’s efforts in extending Mukurtu CMS through Mukurtu Hubs and Spokes act against colonizing influences in DH projects and scholarship. They also also begin to extend some decolonial frameworks or ethical guidelines in progress—tentative answers that they assert based on the work that they have undertaken so far as perhaps useful heuristics, but dynamic as a postcolonial perspective would assert necessary. These frameworks or guidelines in progress include, among other considerations, the steps of ETHICS (Engage, Talk, Help, Invest, Create, Support) (Christen 411) and the “‘Mukurtu Shared’ workflow model” which emphasizes helping to build and maintain trust at all levels and stages of a project and incorporating “cultural and ethical checks” (“A Community of Relations”) to this end.
Moreover, the guidelines undergirding Rapid Response Research (RRR) again speak directly to the need for postcolonial ethics and accountability as a framework for scholarly intervention into “pressing political, social, and cultural crises.” RRR emphasizes the same kind of “agile development model” that in part guides Mukurtu Hubs and Spokes in “A Community of Relations.” Decoloniality comes into play not just in the actual work undertaken, like the Torn Apart/Separados project and its dynamic “critical data & visualization intervention” of the humanitarian crisis arising from the “USA’s 2018 ‘Zero Tolerance Policy’ for asylum seekers” (Torn Apart/Separados). It also comes up in the considerations for creating such an RRR project in the first place.
These considerations emphasize in detail whether there is truly a pressing need for the work proposed and encourage deep self-reflection on the makers’ “best intentions to ensure [they] aren’t hurting, rather than helping” (“Rapid Response Research”). Archival considerations go beyond collection and clinical detachment from context in these projects—to the contrary, they must be informed by context and their aggregation is useful insofar as it is looking to discover and shed light on previously unnoticed or deliberately ignored knowledge (like the widespread economic ramifications of ICE across the US). It is not collection of information that implies that data as “open, reusable, and unhinged” (Christen 405)—the data is hinged on examining the crisis. The same data is even being considered with specific ‘Reflections’ contributed by scholars in the project to try to cut off the potential danger of decontextualization that may then have neocolonizing influences on data.
The postcolonial needs that Mukurtu Hubs and Spokes, Torn Apart/Separados, and Rapid Response Research address prove the myriad possibilities available for developing corresponding ethics and accountability by what they have accomplished so far. These possibilities offer paths forward to address concerns about the ‘staying power’ of such postcolonial efforts (as Christen et al and RRR both highlight): they are here to stay so long as there are people concerned with maintaining them, and they will continue to improve and adapt because those efforts are designed with self-reflexivity and ‘survival’ in mind, though perhaps not always explicitly articulated as such.
Moving forward into our meeting, I want to consider specifically how these different concrete efforts, which have begun to evolve ethical frameworks/guidelines of their practice, may continue to develop these frameworks. I also want to think about how these frameworks may be useful or perhaps also something to survive or adapt against to some degree in future DH projects, in the efforts of creating further frameworks better suited to different cultures and contexts.
Christen, Kimberly (2018). “Relationships not Records: Digital Heritage and the Ethics of Sharing Indigenous Knowledge Online,” in Routledge Companion to Media Studies and Digital Humanities, edited by Jentery Sayers. Routledge: Taylor and Francis, pp. 403-412.
Christen, Kimberly, Alex Merrill, and Michael Wynne (2017). “A Community of Relations: Mukurtu Hubs and Spokes,” D-Lib Magazine, vol (23), number 5/6.
“Rapid Response Research” (from The Nimble Tents Toolkit) <https://nimbletents.github.io/rapidresponse/>
tgraban [Tarez Samra Graban]. “Data Colonialism.” FSU Digital Scholars, WordPress, 13 Feb. 2019, digitalscholars.wordpress.com.
Torn Apart / Separados <http://xpmethod.plaintext.in/torn-apart/volume/1/>