Digital Humanities and Critical Infrastructure Studies by Visiting Professor Alan Liu

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 Liu’s lecture.

Against the Cultural Singularity: Digital Humanities and Critical Infrastructure Studies – by Visiting Professor Alan Liu

Liu opened with a fitting quote from Eliel Saarinen: “Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context – a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.” [I believe this could also apply when thinking about teaching. As Liu said in a previous lecture, the Humanities are supposed to be building a human being. Shouldn’t we be considering where these students will end up after they leave the classroom? It might seem fine to continue in an analogue style without acknowledging changing technology or skills students will need, but this neglects considering where the human being will be in the larger world context of the Digital Age.]

The latecomer status of DH after cultural criticism and theory (hack vs. yack) during the development of the Humanities has posed a problem and tension within the field. “Culture” has become “Infrastructure”. Electricity grids, internet connectivity, etc. are now part of how we operate. Movies like Blade Runner and Mad Max foregrounded infrastructure to set up their atmosphere, culture, and dystopian setting. Infrastructure (or lack thereof) is culture. Theorists (ex. Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, and Donna Haraway) going forward must start to include infrastructure in their critiques of discipline, gender, and cyborg/hybrid identities.

What Would DH Infrastructure Critique Look Like?

Method 1:

  • Agile
  • Scrum development: The All Blacks’ rugby analogy/metaphor is actually not very good; quilting one is better (see Trello which looks like a pattern).
  • Lightly anti-foundationalist
    • James Smithies’ “postfoundationalism” DHQ 8.1 (2014)
    • Michael Dieter’s “critical technical practice” differences 25.1 (2014)
    • Bruno Latour’s “compositionism”
    • Ackbar Abbas and David Theo Goldberg’s “poor theory”
    • These critics are okay with not being totalizing, instead providing just-in-time critique.
    • We’ve avoided being tactical because we think it’s too close to IT.
  • DH should treat infrastructure not as a stable foundation and thus allow Critical Infrastructure Studies to be a mode of Cultural Studies.

Method 2

  • LTS approach, Thomas Hughes’ Networks of Power (1983)
  • Star/Bowker’s information ethnography approach
  • Neoinstitutionalism (from sociology and organizational studies)
  • Social constructivist and adaptive structuration approaches to organizational technology (from sociology, organizational studies, and information science)

DH, more than New Media Studies (which has been more activist and not a paradigm of the library), has focused on intramural changes and directed energy (sometimes militant) to institutions (breaking down pay walls, changing pedagogy, etc. has been the equivalent to storming administration buildings in the 1970s). Can that drive be harnessed to go outside the institution too?

[Another science fiction reference came up!] Liu mentioned that insect hives are really popular in science fiction these days. The neoliberal environment is remodeling culture to its corporate structures (workers in hives, etc.).

Liu is exploring the crossover between academic and scholarly infrastructures and extra-academic infrastructure.

He is the only Humanities faculty on a board looking at different software choices (for example: Microsoft 365 and Google Apps for Education). [Many other organizations are also constantly going through these debates over which software package to go with, even without having a full understanding of the implications down the road.] What are the long-term implications or going with either one? Are we locking ourselves in by choosing one? Shouldn’t we be on these committees?