hacktivist digital humanities and bots of conviction

Hi all– I’m writing at the tail end of a 14 hour day, so I hope you’ll forgive any incoherence!

This week I took a look at Elizabeth Losh’s Debates in the Digital Humanities chapter on “Hacktivism and the Humanities.” In it, Losh makes a distinction between mainstream, seemingly apolitical digital humanities (focused on hacking) and digital projects, like the Transborder Immigrant Tool, that put politics front and center (the hacktivist digital humanities). Her discussion foregrounds the often precariously position of activist digital scholarship within institutions (as well as its importance). [Of course, with the firing of Prof. Salaita, this is something we’re quite familiar with on our own campus.]  A key question that Losh’s piece brings up for me is: To what extent is it possible situate activist practices within institutions like the modern university? To what extent is it possible to really operate outside of institutionalized power relations? (Roderick Ferguson’s The Reorder of Things strikes me as incredibly relevant to this line of thinking about hacktivist dh.)

Thinking back on last week, I was reminded of some of Mark Sample’s writing (which I mentioned briefly last week) on building protest bots and was struck by some of the parallels with Losh’s article. Like Losh, Sample draws a distinction between mainstream bots – those that are becoming part of a ‘bot canon’ are often those that are “are surreal, absurd, purposeless for the sake of purposelessness” (i.e. @Horse_ebooks). Contrast that with protest bots, which he also refers to as “bots of conviction” and which often have an expressly political motivation (i.e. @ClearCongress). (These bots supposed to be social critics, expressly engaged in politics in a way that demands that observers also engage these issues.)  Like the hacktivist digital humanities that occupy oft-precarious institutional spaces, Sample argues that these bots are likely to be left out of the canon.

To finish (on a slightly different note), I want to highlight a line from Losh’s conclusion (emphasis mine).

In considering the need for supporting a truly hacktivist digital humanities, perhaps we can imagine the forms of activism that they both could undertake and the publics who might respond to their collaborations.

This question of “potentially responsive publics,” of audience, is something that has already come up several times in our discussions. As we discussed in class last week, often times the fact that an object is digital all to easily lends itself to the assumption that it is intended for the broadest possible audience. Indeed, most discussion around the value of the Internet and how it operates (including various discourses around memes and openness) is framed around an audience that is similarly presumed to be universal.

Although a lot of digital humanities projects describe themselves in similar terms –especially when it comes to openness– many of them actually function primarily for a specific audience, whether it is highly localized in space or providing a resource for a really specialized community of scholars. It is likely that in some cases, the true audience for a project is very small – perhaps composed only of the person(s) working on it. For example, in the case of a “conventional” Twitter bot, a case could be made that a lot of its value comes in the process of building it. [I’m reminded here of the video presentation by Matt Ratto about the Critical Making Lab that we looked at on Day 1, in which he stresses the importance of process over end product in the work they do.] In my opinion, that all of those alternatives are OK. However, in undertaking projects of our own, it is important that we consider our own potential audience rather than allowing the digitality of the objects we create assume one for us.

One more thing – sometimes the audience for this work is rather unexpected & digital humanities, especially where it overlaps with other ‘big data’ enterprises often occupies an ambiguous space. To that end, Bethany Nowviskie has an interesting piece on her blog this week where she reflects on co-authoring a chapter in a textbook on big data for national security, presented here without much additional comment except to say that the question of “to what extent” seems especially pertinent here as well.

Till (very) soon!  – Sveta