Digital Humanities Infrastructure Workshop: Part Three

Digital Content Analyst Lucy-Jane Walsh, continues her discussion of the UCDH Cyberinfrastructure with a summary of Alan Liu’s talk:

Against the Cultural Singularity: Digital Humanities & Cultural Infrastructure Studies ­– Alan Liu

Alan Liu began his talk with a quote from Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen: “Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context”.  With this in mind, he chose to focus on Digital Humanities cyberinfrastructure as a sub-domain of Humanities infrastructure, and to look at how Digital Humanities can support traditional Humanities fields.

Liu argued that the Digital Humanities has a tradition of critiquing infrastructure, which is not only unique to the field, but the best mechanism for supporting traditional modes of criticism. This is because infrastructure has the same impact on individuals and communities as culture – it makes up our environment and how we interact with each other. Liu used dystopian films as an example, pointing out that whole cultures in these films are dominated by the infrastructure that is available to them. In Blade Runner, for example, flying cars make up the environment, where as in Mad Max the world is driven by fuel. Today culture could be said to be shaped by smart phones, social networking, and big data. By critiquing these systems, Digital Humanists can add to the larger debates surrounding culture while remaining in the digital sphere.

According to Liu, the current style of Digital Humanities critique is “lightly anti-foundationalist”. He cited James Smithies, Michael Dieter, Bruno Latour, Ackbar Abbas, and David Theo Goldberg as examples of this, arguing that while Digital Humanists believe in the potential for known and trusted digital tools and methodologies to provide new insights in the field of humanities, they are also distrustful of them. This is evident in Digital Humanists’ tendencies to ‘hack’ – where hacking in this context means using the skills and tools one understands and has at hand rather than investing in more formal forms of infrastructure. To Liu ‘hacking’ gives the Digital Humanities a unique perspective: it allows the field to be efficient and flexible, and to get close enough to systems to understand their weaknesses without being vulnerable to them.

In order to move forward, Liu suggested that Digital Humanities should adopt what he calls ‘Critical Infrastructure Studies’, the formal study of academic infrastructure in its relation to larger society, which he sees as the Digital Humanities’ mode of cultural studies.  Liu suggested two approaches to Critical Infrastructure Studies: the Neoinstitutionalist approach to organizations in sociology, which explores how institutional structures and norms influence the decisions and actions of individuals in the institutions; or Social Constructionist (especially Adaptive Structuration) approaches to organizational infrastructure in sociology and information science, which would investigate how the interactions and connections between people can construct beliefs and understandings of the world, and how these interactions can affect our perceptions and use of particular technologies. Liu believes that these approaches would help Digital Humanists to create new academic programmes and roles, and to advocate for the creation of national collaborative infrastructures, opening up research data to wider audiences.

Revisiting the quote from the beginning, Liu suggested that the work that Digital Humanists put into shaping academic infrastructure will have a bearing on other organisations and the community at large. This is where Liu’s title for this talk – Against the cultural singularity – comes into focus, for he argues that the current neoliberal capitalist thinking is creating a ‘cultural singularity’. He defines this as an environment where all parts of cultural are capitalized and brought under a corporate framework.  Liu argues that society would be stronger if institutions adopted their own metrics of value and success, and used these metrics to make decisions about infrastructure. He believes that by critiquing infrastructure, Digital Humanists can resist the neoliberal model and offer alternatives.