On What The Digital Is: For Alexander Galloway

The WB202 podcast at Critical Inquiry has an interesting interview with one of this group’s distinguished scholarly speakers from our final webinar this year, Alexander Galloway. Titled “Defining the Digital”, Patrick Jagoda’s podcast involves discussion with Galloway about his work in general, with two general questions emerging from the conversation that I do think it is safe to say Galloway has spent a great deal of time thinking rather hard about: 1. Just what is “the digital?” 2. Just what is “the analogue?”

Reading the article linked to the podcast (“The Poverty of Philosophy: Realism and Post-Fordism”) gives a glimpse into why Galloway thinks his considerable expenditure of effort attempting to answer these questions is worthwhile: With the emergence of what he calls a “renaissance” concerning Realism in Continental Philosophy — what he calls “Speculative Realism” — has come a parallel philosophical emergence in the present state of economic organization that is prevalent in countries of the Global North. For example, in the work of Quentin Meillassoux concerned with flushing out his “speculative materialism”, Galloway finds what could be a coincidence in his ontology and the mode of production of post-Fordist capitalism that he sees as exemplified in the programing language Java, and object-oriented programming languages in general. This is perceived as a grave danger to philosophy as a whole, for if this sort of Realism truly is to be the next big thing, or at least play a major role, we stand to lose the ability to criticize our current economic situation and culture climate effectively. If our theories and critiques just reproduces the status quo, they will never be effective, and will not allow us to to imagine alternatives.

Thus, it is imperative for us to be able to judge whether or not we are simply reproducing our digital economic conditions in our philosophy that we have a clear and useful understanding of what digitality is, what it means to be analog, and here comes the real rub: we have to define these terms without ourselves making use of the resources of our economic and societal practices lest we commit the very sin we are attempting to accuse those troublesome realists of. (I think this is part of what motivated his desire for a “purely rational” definition of the digital that he mentions in the discussion, as well as efforts that he describes later on to define the digital without reference at all to computers. He is trying his best to avoid exactly what he thinks the Speculative Realists are likely guilty of).

I must say that I agree mightly, that we should be wary of our philosophical notions and what we might be taking for granted, and with the care we must take to try and avoid reproducing problematic ideas, or promoting those that our own concotions. It is precisely as HIlary Putnam says: Though we be kibitzers at the end of the day, if we don’t try to do good philosophy, all we will have left is at best philosophy and nonsense, that is always and constantly produced, and at worst will be dangerous philosophy that genuinely harms us. And to do good philosophy, we must take the sorts of precautions Galloway is in so far that as part of our job is to imagine alternatives, we should try and avoid developing what Daniel Dennett has called “Philosopher’s Syndrome”. As concerns his concerns though, is it that we have not understood the digital yet? Is it true as he says, that we have yet to really dig into its philosophical aspects, and can we do so without mention of the technologies and programming languages that does not “simply coincide with the spirit of capitalism?”

Well yes. As a matter of fact, it has already been done. But another point first; if there is one thing the Analytic tradition can offer to project like this, it must surely be its insight into the nature of definitions. From the time Russell first read Frege and from then on, without end or antebellum, they have obsessed with it, fruitfully. One of the most relevant developments was a theory of explication, as followed the work of Rudolf Carnap (1956), and Quine. What is an explication? Consider these two types of definition that we can use as definientia: 1. Stipulative definitions are those that impart meaning to the defined term, and needn’t be concerned with how the term is actually used at present, or was ever used. These sorts of definitions are necessary when we want to coin a new term or item of technical vocabulary, or to fix the reference of certain terms already in use (Kripke, 1980), or to amend the meaning of a term already possessed. 2. Descriptive definitions are similar that they try to make explicit what a term is, but they have as a design constraint that they must capture the significant features of existing usage; they cannot stray to far away from what the folk mean by the words they say.

Having a commitment to maintain the rightness of fit between the predefined meaning and the post-post defined meaning can be motivated by a number of philosophical desiderata, chief among them is a desire to analyze and thus clarify the everyday concepts central to human life, or to some specific human activity, or that is troubling the human condition in some way; were we to offer up a stipulative definition of the word “justice”, but it not refer to that sort of thing that everyday people mean it to, what good is it to them? What good is it to us? These two sorts give us the ingredients necessary for explication, the sort of defining I feel is most important; explications are a hybrid stipulative-descriptive definition, in that they aim to capture central prototypical features of the concept they aim to define as they are presently used, precisely so they can stipulate that it have this or that different feature/ different meaning. They are a sort of conceptual engineering, allowing us to change our concepts piecemeal, to shed problematic aspects of them, or to designate how we think a term should be for it to serve our ends. But when is an explication valid? When does it fit the explicatum adequately enough? What features are necessary to preserve, and how far can we alter the meaning of the term?

W.V.O. Quine offers these helpful criteria and a rule of thumb. What is truly important is that an explication preserve function in a specific context, differences in meaning beyond this being irrelevant. (1960) If the term differs before and after only out in the “dont-cares”, difference in meaning is not an objection. This definitional invariance of function is what gives explications their real usefulness for Quine. What this allows us to do is start with some objectionable concept that we would like to see replaced, but that we cannot do without, nor can we replace it with a whole sale different concept. We can then formulate some explication, or a series of them, that we can freely interchange, on more and more occasions as we pin down what we consider the central functions of the original term to be across context, developing explications that eventually game full isomorphy with respect to function, yet lack all of the disagreeable parts of our original concept. We can then just stop using the original all together. To be sure, he understands explication always to elimination, but it needn’t be conceived of happening all at one time, meaning whatever theories we have being dependent on the bad concept will be altered to drastically or unnecessarily, allowing us to more or less go about deploying them with success (something akin to what he calls in “Two Dogmas Revisited”, The Principle of Minimal Mutilation).

What this all means for Galloway, is that he might be going about this all the wrong way. We needn’t object to using the terms and concepts from computer science, or from our current economic theories, etc. We should be aware of when we are borrowing concepts surely, but if their deployment truly is a heinous thing, something that should be out of the question for the good critic and philosopher, we can just explicate the bad parts away. Besides, it is the concepts being used in economics and computer science, in business, and so on and so on, and these concepts precisely, that Galloway is concerned with coming to understand and define.

We want to capture the central features of digital and analog as they are used in the real world, not conjure up two separate concepts, digital* and analog* wholesale. If he cannot adequately define these conceptions of digital and analog he cannot criticize this new wave of realists for deploying them, because he cannot say if they truly are out of ignorance. By starting with the accepted notions, we can deploy them in humanities work to the functions they serve elsewhere, and slowly shape them to be discipline specific and most useful for us.

First point made. Now then, it just so happens that there exists a taxonomy of terms within which the digital and the analog have been defined within the philosophical tradition, that do not depend on reference to computers, and that I think are perfectly suitable for Galloway’s purposes. They can be found in the wonderful article by Corey Maley “Analog and digital, continuous, and discrete” (2011). Drawing together the central features of these terms as they have been used in the cognitive science and philosophy of mind literature concerning mental imagery and representation, as well as electrical engineering, communications, and computer science and mathematics, he produces a quadrumvirate of illuminating definitions.

They all concern representation, and I will spare you more exegesis, though I will list my personal tweaks to his definitions that I believe will fit the role that Galloway has in mind for them. To begin with, it is important to recognize that though often we conflate analogue with continuous, that they are not necessarily synonymous, and we treat digital and discrete dually. The main difference between the two sets of terms is that the one, analog and digital, has to do with representations, and the other can apply to anything whatsoever. Maley defines a representation to be “Analog” if and only if it changes in value in response to a change in value of what it is representing, i.e. they covary, and that the difference in the representation be a linear function of the change in that represented. Thus there is a clear sense in which the changes are “analogous”, in that they correspond, match, and so on. He defines a representation as “Digital” if and only if it is a series of digits in a positional notation system. The position determining the value means that there can only ever ben countably many digits in a sequence, so digital representations are necessarily discrete, but the converse does not hold. And that’s all.

Thus the mystery has been solved. Galloway need not stress about computers, and silicon valley, and the dangers of realism. True enough a computer can be a digital computer, but it also can be analog, and many have. I’d like to close with how I think these definitions have helped clarify the “Digital” in the Digital Humanities for me personally. Out of all the things I could say it is, I am going to follow Karl Popper and say that the Humanities is distinctive in that it is primarily concerned with studying the intended and unintended products of human actions and thoughts. Now to make that Digital, we take those objects of our study, represent them digitally, as sequences of numbers, and study the properties and structures of the representations in hope that they reflect features of the original objects.

If the original objects were “born digital” all the better; saves us one step.


Putting Historical Imagination in Conversation with Digitality: Are Affordances Constraints?

On April 12, the Digital Scholars and FSU Demos Project hosted a webinar on “Humans and (Global) Networks” with featured speakers Alexander Galloway and William G. Thomas III. In the course of this webinar, among other things, Galloway discussed in more depth his choice of Turing’s article on the imitation game as reading material before the webinar, and unpacked the concepts of analogic and digital, while Thomas spoke on the ideas of historical imagination and digital historical scholarship.

It was interesting to see these concepts interact with each other throughout the discussion, and here I try to extend the connection between Galloway’s and Thomas’ concepts more directly, as Dr. Graban tried to get at when she noted some “disagreement” that was “not essentially negative” between their varied approaches to the digital and that she felt were still united in a common purpose, then asking how they might see “networks play[ing] a role in that.” She wanted to elicit discussion on their varying approaches towards the question of “Does each of you believe in network in the same way?”  

I am interested in exploring more their differing perspective in terms of networks but also in terms of digital scholarship specifically. I would also like to see how, if at all, some of their other texts, like “Peak Analog” and “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” and “The Differences Slavery Made” and its retrospective essay, correspond in their concerns with digitality. In the webinar, as in “Peak Analog” and even in his intention in assigning Turing’s “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” Galloway showcases his concern with trying to get at definitions of the digital that are purely digital without being analogic. In “Peak Analog,” for example, he states,

A generation ago, the theoretical humanities was fixated on codes, logics, the arrangement of texts, and the machinations of the symbolic order. Today the theoretical humanities is more likely to address topics such as perception, experience, indeterminacy, or uncomputability. Why in the digital age have some of our best thinkers turned toward characteristically analog themes?

Galloway’s response to the question about networks during the webinar was focused on his interest in current “widespread public skepticism” regarding privacy, and on the idea that horizontal power networks do not necessarily correspond to a “waning” of power but to less hierarchical presentations of power. Perhaps this response reflects those same concerns about what digitality is exclusively (perhaps specifically) concerned with and what digitality can do.

This public skepticism over privacy, then, could be an example of a phenomenon tied specifically to digitality—privacy disruption as created by “codes, logics…the machinations of the symbolic order.” In the context of history, Galloway seemed to try to relate back these concerns about power and privacy to historicizing personal liberation in digital environments to personal liberation movements in analogic environments.

In terms of hierarchical versus more horizontally based power structures, Thomas also seems to agree that the danger and debate over various models of power flow that are centralizing and surveilling, even if not strictly hierarchical, is present in historical scholarship as well. The political dimensions of technology, then, are where Thomas can specifically begin to see some of the intersections between digital networks and historical scholarship (not specifically historical imagination, though). Thinking more about historical imagination specifically, Thomas discussed how digitality might allow for a “highly contingent reimagining of our world” with digital affordances allowing for “rendering the full human complexity of the past.”

Would this discussion of digital affordances, then, be concordant with Galloway’s pursuit of a definition of the digital in purely digital terms? With conceptions of digital networks under a similar framework?

Furthermore, would Thomas’ work on projects like “The Differences Slavery Made,” with their particular focus on how the digital medium allows for the shaping of arguments in ways that analogic forms do not, be sufficiently distanced from the analog and concerned enough with code and logics and symbolic order to function as exemplars of digitality? Perhaps the word “exemplar” isn’t the most suited here, since digitality itself might not be associated with history (as an analog field), but the question remains: Where would historical imagination fit into a definition of digitality in purely digital terms? Should this even be a particular concern for humanists interested digitality or engaged in thinking about historical imagination?


Works Cited



Digital in Context: Critical Studies

Critical code studies is a part of digital humanities as an effort to combat potentially biased or dangerous algorithms of mass destruction. But before we question programming, Alexander Galloway argues that it’s imperative to question digitality within other contexts by redefining a concept that we take for granted within its typical context. Galloway’s work in defining the digital combined with the work done by William Thomas III on historical imagination inspires a critical look at the usage of digital space and its potential contribution of an additional dimension to scholarship.

During the webinar, Galloway incorporates different contextual definitions of digital in an effort to understand the significance of digitality. One goal is to define the digital without relying on the machine, which is something we take for granted when talking about digitality. This can change by exploring the digital within software and computer programming, even though its framework is embedded in hardware. From my own experience in programming both in STEM and digital humanities, programming is both functional and aims for readability by both machine and humans. By thinking of the digital as an end goal rather than an abstract, untouchable concept which separates hardware from the digital definition, it expands upon the relationship between humans and the digital. Another feature of digital as it relates to both programming and other contexts is efficiency.

Digital as a method implies that the digital and the machine have a shared purpose: efficiency. Since machine and digital are the typical context in which the digital is defined, there is merit in exploring the machines as well. Alan Turing mentions the analog parallels of each part in a computer while discussing what differentiates a computer and a human (Turing 1950). If we can imagine that stored memory is essentially writing with pen and paper to record more permanently, then this further enforces the relationship between digital and analog, with or without a machine influence. While the digital can be simply described as an efficient method, it is important not to discount the organic relationship between the digital and the hardware it lives in.

Previously, digital has been defined through its relationship to people and machines. If digital can be defined as a medium, what relationship does that create? Within social media, it impacts relations between humans to inspires a constant global connection, that isn’t possible without using the digital as a medium.  Thomas III uses digital as a medium to change our relationship with a previously unrecorded history. With his production of Anna, he tells the story of Anna Williams, a individual’s journey to freedom, not widely known. Thomas III uses the digital to tell untold histories that give agency to individuals that can only be glimpsed at in scraps of lawsuit paperwork, in his collaborative project, O Say Can You See. Using hyperlinks between case files, he creates a network that has benefited people now to find out about their past.

Thomas’s project, The Differences Slavery Made: A Close Analysis of Two American Communities, as a digital entity, brings home the use of historical imagination in a digital space. When something is put online, there is a tension surrounding whether or not its purpose extends beyond accessibility. For his project, there is a distinct level of difference between the digital entity and the paper discussing the project. By removing the linear structure of the paper, the digital project leaves you free to interact with as much or as little of the project you need and there are tools for keeping track of what has or has not been explored. Because of these features, the digital as a medium enhances the original structure and is adaptable to fit the needs of an audience (Thomas III 2007).

By giving digital multiple definitions that thrive in various environments, it gives a better sense of what relationships are already tangled in the digital and what can be used in an effort to increase digital scholarship. As digital humanists, a contemplation of the digital space – how it can be used and what changes when we use the digital, helps to strengthen the preexisting relationships between human, machine, and digitality. Due to the theoretical and practical use, critical studies can be incorporated in other digital spaces besides programming.

Works Cited

Considering Digital Scholarship: How Do We Perform and Interrogate Digital Ways of Knowledge-Making and Other Questions for our Webinar

FSU Digital Scholars is moving into its last webinar of the semester, “Humans and (Global) Networks.” This webinar will feature scholars Alexander R. Galloway of New York University and William G. Thomas III of University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Both scholars raise provocative questions in their work; for example, “Is digital scholarship worth the effort?” and, “Why in the digital age have some of our best thinkers turned toward characteristically analog themes?,” among others (Thomas III; Galloway).

Galloway, in his blog post, “Peak Analog,” helps us explore this question through a discussion of the digital, writing, “The digital is the mechanism of negation, of the confrontation of the ‘two’” of breaking with the present state of affairs” (Galloway). He goes on to say, ‘digital’ is both a term to describe the contemporary infrastructure of power, but also a term of art meaning cut or distinction. In this way, the digital is both the site and the stake in any contemporary struggle…” (Galloway). Further: “The digital is where capital exploits labor. The digital organizes technologies, bodies, and societies” (Galloway). I’m interested, then: with these concerns that Galloway raises, what should digital scholarship look like in practice? How does digital scholarship move us away from the analog and into the digital? And what baggage does that carry?

I situate these questions through the exigence of digital scholarship because of Thomas III’s article, “Writing A Digital History Journal Article from Scratch: An Account.” In this, Thomas III responds to the experience he had creating “The Differences Slavery Made,” an alphabetic text and website, functioning as a piece of digital scholarship in the field of history. Thomas III wants us to explore the questions surrounding digital scholarship that we might use it and make it better. But, I do wonder: what does digital scholarship give us? And how does the transference of medium change the message, as McLuhan is (relentlessly) quoted as saying?

Looking at “The Differences Slavery Made,” a 2001-3 project, in conjunction with a more recent collaborative project Thomas III is involved with, “O Say Can You See” is fascinating. We’ve focused on a lot of archives this semester. Does Thomas III see this project functioning as an archive? As digital scholarship? Both? Or is there a distinction? Further, what does “O Say You Can See” do that “The Differences Slavery Made” didn’t or couldn’t? And how does it create a network?

Considering Thomas III’s retrospective article on “The Differences Slavery Made” was published in 2007, I’m particularly interested in asking him if digital scholarship has, in fact, become more defined for him: if there is a genre, or genres, if we should be practicing more of it, if we’ve gotten better at it, if some of his concerns have been addressed, and, especially concerning Galloway, what problems have we not/must we begin addressing, and can digital scholarship account for them?

My own experiences with digital scholarship are limited. As a student of rhetoric and composition, I am familiar with Kairos, an online journal of rhetoric, technology, and pedagogy. Kairos is open-access and hosts only “‘webtexts,’ which are texts authored specifically for publication on the World Wide Web” (“What is Kairos?”). As we move into tomorrow, I’ll be thinking about my engagement with Kairos, the way it performs digital scholarship, and what it may do well or not so well. And, reflecting on the semester, and our theme, I’ll also be wondering: how does digital scholarship avoid and/or participate in colonial data sharing practices? Whose voices does it privilege or silence? Does it emulate hierarchical, exclusionary models of labor, publishing, and knowledge production? And, as Thomas III reminds us, with digital scholarship being new territory, how might it act as an opportunity to build something special, from scratch, with these questions in mind?

Webinar: Humans and (Global) Networks

Friday, April 12, 12:00-1:15 pm
Strozier Library, R&D Commons

For its final meeting of the academic year, Digital Scholars is pleased to co-host a webinar on the broad topic of “Humans and (Global) Networks,” featuring Alexander Galloway (Protocol 2004; The Exploit 2007; The Interface Effect 2012; Laruelle: Against the Digital 2014) and William G. Thomas III (The Iron Way 2011; OSCYS 2015; Anna 2018; Ordeal for Freedom forthcoming).

To help focus the discussion, Galloway and Thomas will each ask us to reconsider one concept that has likely been taken for granted in an era of hypervigilance and neoliberal thinking: (1) digital, along with its alliterative counterparts digitality and digitalism; and (2) historical imagination. Through rethinking these concepts, Galloway and Thomas will help us converse about the dilemmas that interest us, vis-à-vis the pervasiveness of networks as interpretive tools, powers, and trusts. The conversation may reach into other domains, as well, including the ability of networks to illuminate generative cases and narratives, the utility of networks as spaces that enable social critique, and perhaps even the futility of networks as paradigms for shaping a more globally conscious citizenry. Galloway and Thomas may or may not agree on all points, and we may or may not agree amongst ourselves or with them, but all webinar participants can expect to come away from the session having offered or received a unique consideration from their own work or study. Both physical and remote attenders will be encouraged to submit their questions in real time.

This webinar is the third and final event in an inaugural series on “People in Data,” co-hosted with the Demos Project, and open to any members of the FSU, FAMU, and TCC communities, as well as greater Tallahassee, the state of Florida, and beyond. The Demos Project at FSU fosters and supports scholarship involving structured data around people (the demos) and their environment. It considers the representation of individuals, communities, and cultures in data, asks and answers questions about data in society, and applies humanistic thinking to data-driven problems.

Relevant details follow below:

Friday, April 12 – 12:00-1:15 p.m. EDT
“Humans and (Global) Networks”

Alexander R. Galloway (New York University)
William G. Thomas III (University of Nebraska, Lincoln)

Advanced Reading or Browsing
Webinar participants are invited to read and/or browse the following in advance of the webinar and the discussion:

Please register at https://app.livestorm.co/florida-state-university-2.

Attending and Connecting
Webinar participants in Tallahassee are welcome to join us in person in the R&D Commons, basement level of Strozier Library, or to connect remotely via LiveStorm with other attendees. Through the interactive features of our LiveStorm platform, remote attendees will have the opportunity to submit questions and participate in group chat.

Connection Requirements
Remote attendees should ensure or secure the following:

  • Web browser (Edge, Chrome, Firefox, Safari version 10 or greater)
  • Adobe Flash Player version 10.1 or greater
  • Internal or external speaker
  • (recommended: headsets or earbuds for optimum sound)

This webinar is made possible through the generous support of FSU’s Office of Research.

We hope you can join us at this event,
— Tarez Graban
— Allen Romano
— Sarah Stanley
— Judith Pascoe

Concerning a Puzzling Aspect of A Data Feminist Epistemology

In Data Feminism (2019), Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren Klein make the case that, whatever the task, it should be informed by intersectionality, and concerned primarily with power, by way of its concern with intersectionality. I quote: “The concept doesn’t simply describe the intersecting aspects of any particular person’s identity… it describes the intersecting systems of power— the systems of privilege, on the one hand; and systems of oppression, on the other—that determine that particular person’s experiences.” (https://bookbook.pubpub.org/pub/dgv16l22).Thus, when they later give an explicit definition of data feminism as “a way of thinking about data and its communication that is informed by direct experience, by a commitment to action, and by the ideas associated with intersectional feminist thought,” they seem to mean a data science, or a theory that understands data—which they define in Chapter 3 as any information that can serve as the input to a computable function (https://bookbook.pubpub.org/pub/rykaknh1) —as information generated in and relevant to a particular epistemic situation, that situation determined by the intersecting structures of power a person finds themselves in the teeth of.

The authors claim to be committed to a standpoint theory explicitly in Chapter 4, “Unicorns, Janitors, Ninjas, Wizards, and Rock Stars”, though it is not clear what they really think a standpoint consists in. They define a standpoint in one paragraph as “a situated, embodied locations in the world,” and the next they seem to accept the characterization of them given by sociologist Patricia Collins Hill, as group-based experiences; a combination of opportunities and constraints specific to a particular identity group in general. Now why this is all unclear to me is this: the first claim seems to simply be the general claim of all feminist epistemologists, that all knowers are situated knowers, while the second seems to be much more substantial, and indeed more closely resembling the definitions of standpoint given by other standpoint theorists (cf. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminism-epistemology/#standpoint).Why does this matter? It might not, if they weren’t so adamant about being intersectional.

What they have made very clear is how important personal experience and first-hand knowledge are for their account, going so far as to say “Now, any self-respecting feminist would be the first to tell you that personal accounts should matter as much as any meta-study.” What they are equally clear about is that we should understand intersectionality as determining the experience of individuals, and not necessarily groups. This is essentially Crenshaw’s point in “Beyond the Margins” (cf. Crenshaw 1989): because intersectional identity exists at all, there is nothing that there is to have a woman’s standpoint, or a queer standpoint, or whatever. The culmination of all of a person’s identity group memberships are necessary to account for when trying to understand their standpoint, and to treat two women without the same intersectional identity as having the same standpoint undermines the point of treating identity intersectionally at all.

The obvious reply would be that the claims they are making about standpoints are not that substantial, and to interpret their talk about standpoints in the weaker way as being really just talk about situated knowing. If one of the two—intersectionality or standpoint theory— must be jettisoned, it must be a robust standpoint theory; to reject a commitment to intersectionality would be for them to give up the game. But for us to equate their talk about standpoint with situated knowing is problematic also, for two reasons: (1) the citations to people like Patricia Collins Hill seems to be evidence for understanding their claims about standpoint to be stronger than claims about situated knowing, and (2) if it were the case that they were just discussing situated knowing, then the question of what sort of epistemology to adopt may be left unanswered.

I would personally prefer to be able to do data feminism, whatever it may end up being, while keeping my empiricist commitments, and I think that an empirical epistemology is well-suited for what D’Ignazio and Klein are attempting to do here. Observation is commonly understood to be “theory-laden”, and fallible, following from the large influence that Quine had on Feminist Empiricism (cf. Quine 1963; cf. Antony, Louise, 1993, “Quine as Feminist: The Radical Import of Naturalized Epistemology”, in Antony and Witt 1993), two desideratum for data that I understand D’Ignazio and Klein to be expressing in their book, and its common insistence on being pragmatic I would think to be similarly appealing to them.

At least I hope it is appealing; as of now I see no viable alternative. This is something I’d like to explore more in future posts. For now I resign myself to waiting in eager anticipation of a reply from the standpoint feminist among you.

Personography, Relationships, and Data Activism: What Does Data Feminism Look Like?

This last Friday, FSU Digital Scholars and friends of FSU Digital Scholars met to reflect and respond to the conversation started at Wednesday’s webinar with Sadie St. Lawrence and Lauren Klein. As we talked, several issues emerged. One of the most provocative questions, for me, had to do with praxis; more specifically, what does feminist praxis look like in data, what are its goals, and what does feminist data activism look like?

We began exploring these questions through the texts that we had read to prepare ourselves for the webinar: specifically, we referred to Drs. Klein and D’Ignazio’s Data Feminism throughout the conversation. Together, we mined these texts for examples of data feminist praxis. Klein and D’Ignazio’s Data Feminism notes that feminism “is about who has power and who doesn’t, about the consequences of those power differentials, and how those power differentials can be challenged and changed” (“Introduction”). Because feminism is about power, one thing we can do as data activists is challenge platforms to be more transparent and inclusive, especially as they trace people through data.

In order to visualize this, we looked at three archives during our meeting: Virtual International Authority File, WorldCat, and SNAC (Social Network Archival Context). Our goal was to see the ways in which these archives do or do not represent people. We looked at three women pedagogues, tracing their representation across each platform to see the ways in which their work, lives, and connections were networked. Of these platforms, we noticed several key issues.

First, humanists too often trace and treat people like texts. One of the threshold concepts for me in this meeting was “personography,” a word offered to us by Sarah Stanley at the meeting. Sarah explained personography as a way to trace what relationships occur in the world, a reframing that does not allow us to look at people like stable text objects. Tracing these relationships also fulfills another element of data feminism: to “recognize… labor, emotional as much as physical” (D’Ignazio and Klein). It became apparent that as we looked at these three platforms, various types of knowledge production and relationships were privileged. VIAF, for example, showed us the texts that these women had produced, but only those that had been published through traditional means: books or articles in journals. Further, though SNAC’s about page says it aims to “discover biographical and historical information about persons, families, and organizations that created or are documented in historical resources (primary source documents) and their connections to one another,” the means through which these linkages are made are not apparent. In privileging and recording only certain kinds of labor and knowledge production, we lose a myriad of ephemeral and interpersonal connections.

Ensuring this labor is represented is integral to data feminism and activism. The way our databases and archives privilege labor and knowledge production results in various forms of institutional silencing. This silence is malicious; it’s what allows us to forget the “secret” history of women in coding, and it maintains reductive classification systems.

A conversation that arose from this, though, was the risk of loop of critique. How do we employ criticism so it isn’t just for the sake of critique? How can critique lead to tangible change? Are these solutions blatant and obvious?

Sadly, there are not always clear solutions. But as we model expressions of our own subjectivities and encourage archives, databases, and people in data to do the same, gaps and silences are far easier to uncover. Once it becomes clear what data are not being represented, what has to be “scrubbed” in order to be seen, or what is being privileged in grand narratives, sources of knowledge production, and more, alternative systems can be built, current systems can be urged to change, and our data will get better. This isn’t always easy—power likes to maintain itself—but it’s important work.

D’Ignazio, Catherine, and Lauren Klein (2019). “Introduction” to Data Feminism, MIT Press.

D’Ignazio, Catherine, and Lauren Klein (2019). “Chapter Three: What Gets Counted,” in Data Feminism, MIT Press.


Thompson, Clive (2019). “The Secret History of Women in Coding,” The New York Times Magazine. February 19.