The University of Canterbury Digital Humanities program hosted an afternoon of lectures on November 12, 2015, entitled The Frontiers of DH: Humanities Systems Infrastructure. It featured speakers Alan Liu, Paul Arthur, and James Smithies who provided their perspectives and insight on the looming issue of infrastructure in the Humanities, which is easy to ignore but shouldn’t be. The following are some notes from Smithies’ lecture.
Towards a Global Systems Analysis of the Humanities – James Smithies, Senior Lecturer in Digital Humanities at the University of Canterbury
The Politics of Cyberinfrastructure
The American Council of Learned Societies’ “Our Cultural Commonwealth” report (2006) looked at opportunities for computationally intensive Humanities research. Models were based off of STEM and big dollar projects. Geoffrey Rockwell’s “As Transparent as Infrastructure” Open Stax CNS (2010) asked, do we really need expensive new infrastructure? Patrick Svenson’s “From Optical Fiber” DHQ 5.1 (2011) asked, what about people, spaces, and laboratories? Miriam Posner’s “What’s Next: The Radical, Unrealized Potential of Digital Humanities” (blog post July 27, 2015) asked, what about gender and race and inclusivity? Susan Leigh Star’s “Infrastructure and Ethnographic Practice” Scandinavian Journal of Information Systems 14.2 (2002) said that infrastructure isn’t boring; it’s political. Water, pipes, bridges, and playgrounds: these are worth fighting for. Ethnography gives us an interesting, nonboring way to look at infrastructure.
What is the current state of infrastructure? Wires, boxes, etc. Sciences have a good idea about what it means to them (telescope, databases, etc.) – do we?
Towards a Systems Analysis
Robert Lilienfield’s “Systems Theory as an Ideology” Social Research 42.4 (1975) shows that people talk about systems today but wouldn’t have in earlier centuries. Looking at the history of ideas, you can see that we were not always using terms like bureaucracy, managerialism, and neoliberalism. Once you put something under a microscope and examine it, you can start “pulling levers” and manipulating it as you see fit.
T. P. Hughes’ “Technological Momentum in History” Past and Present 44.1 (1969) reviews the history of technology and systems vs. technological determinism. People aren’t just determined by technology. Smithies gave the example of a NASA control room. It has computers, but there are people and weather conditions controlling it.
Jenny Chan’s “A Suicide Survivor” The Asia-Pacific Journal 11.31.1 (2013) and “The Politics of Global Production” The Asia-Pacific Journal 11.32.2 (2013) look at the ethics of infrastructure, labor market ethics, and corporate values and the classroom. There is an irony in a History teacher using an iPad made in the Foxconn factory in China (where people committing suicide because of working conditions has made the news in the West several times) to teach students about factory production.
There are four layers of infrastructure:
Layer 4: Application (websites, blogs…)
Layer 3: Transportation (TCP, UDP…)
Layer 2: Internet (IP address…)
Layer 1: Link (Ethernet…)
Humanities are still at the fourth layer. But meanwhile, issues around Open Internet/Net Neutrality are important because of the potential for companies to throttle at lower levels. We like to theorize (a la Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus) about non-linear structures, but this doesn’t do much practically.
Humanities cyberinfrastructure should not be just like STEM’s. It is much more capacious and deals with sectors like Government, NGOs, Non-Commercial, and Commercial. All of it is enclosed within a model/framework of metadata.
Smithies then showed an interesting diagram/model that tried to visualize how the infrastructure currently out there is related to different sectors and open/closed access. He emphasized that his model is grounded in engineering, but that we really need hundreds of these models to show how they’re subjective and diverse. Having a model is a more mature way of having a discussion about infrastructure with others. It’s difficult to demonstrate the value of systems analysis to Humanists. How do we measure uses in the different sectors? The diagram really shows us what we don’t know.