The Privileges of Data in DH

I complained (lightly in self-deprecation) last semester about the nebulousness of the common threads among our readings for last semester’s Digital Humanities selections, without yet fully realizing the diverse nature of writing about the Digital Humanities as a collective, or the difficulty of a meaningful inspection of intersectionality. I was obviously wrong in my initial take in both the nature of the complaint and in the response of complaining in front of a nuanced critical analysis—I will not make that mistake this week. My first thought upon reading these selections was very similar to my reaction last semester, though: what a diverse selection!

Filtering the readings through McPherson’s text probably creates the best lens for me to approach this theme as a unifier here: How are we roadblocking alterity?

As this week’s selections teach us, attempting to narrow our perspective (as I do with filtering these readings through the lens of alterity in the Digital Humanities) also demonstrates our privilege.

Through Tsing’s discussion of scalability, we see the common hegemonic practice of simplifying for the sake of clarity in expression—that is to say, there’s a lot that gets ignored once non-convenient data is swept aside, never considered, or misplaced for the sake of convenience. As Tsing notes, when we contextualize data, we have a very focused filter of what we can understand and compare. Data that falls out of our view is reduced in importance or ignored. Systematically, we process information in ways we’ve been taught or shown; often, this happens without regard for how those larger frameworks compartmentalize and exclude.

As my ignorance demonstrated from last semester, comprehending only those knowledge systems works to falsely reinforce our (mis)understandings of data. As Rawson and Muñoz succinctly note, “this reductiveness can feel intellectually impoverishing to scholars who have spent their careers working through particular kinds of historical and cultural complexity.” Though not always apparent within our own work, we should be aware of how our own perspectives can be intellectual dampeners while also reinforcing our own privileges; what we sometimes see as clarity also creates adjacent distortions (as we see with ULAN’s database not recognizing gender as a spectrum and short-handed representations of visual spaces). As developing scholars, these unseen and non-representative knowledges sustain a daunting influx of ignorance we have to actively practice awareness of.

In discussing UNIX last semester—a personal scholarly interest—I used McPherson as a springboard to link UNIX’s original community’s ideology to that of access and representation. Until now, I never considered what this mythologized narrative flattens: What non-Western approaches to digital access were steamrolled by the language or system barriers established by UNIX-running systems? Whose work disappeared or went uncredited in establishing open source databases? What aspects of UNIX coding fits into frameworks that favor masculine input and privileges hegemonic processes?

Even in projects with altruistic intentions, the majority of now-recognized pre-Silicon Valley programmers were white males.

Some questions to consider ahead of Stanley’s presentation:

  1. In thinking about our specific fields, interests, and research, what are the frameworks and taxonomies we deal with but rarely consider alternative approaches of? What do they downplay, hide, or misrepresent? What knowledges do they frustrate? More importantly, how can we respond to this?
  2. Even within the context of these articles (and my post), binary framings are centerpoints (i.e., voices of alterity v. hegemonic; flat v. widened views; close v. distant readings; inclusive databases v. exclusivity). What are these articles also missing in their representations and how can we respond to what they do not discuss?

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