Safiya Umoja Noble
In a time of paradigm shifts, moral and political treachery, historical amnesia, and psychic and spiritual turmoil, humanistic issues are central—if only funding agencies, media interests, and we humanists ourselves will recognize the momentousness of this era for our discipline and take seriously the need for our intellectual centrality.
—Cathy Davidson, 2008
Audre Lorde’s now-famous speech, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” delivered at New York University’s Institute for the Humanities conference in 1984, was addressed to an audience of white feminists largely unconcerned with the many missing intellectual contributions of Black women to the fields of feminist theory and practice. Lorde’s speech was part of a Black radical feminist tradition, which, among other critical Black intellectual movements, we might welcome into the field of digital humanities. These movements allow us to see how, rather than making Black life and the lives of other people of color solely the subjects of archival and preservation practice, we might also consider the degree to which our very reliance on digital tools, of the master or otherwise, exacerbates existing patterns of exploitation and at times even creates new ones. At an organizational level, digital humanists have been concerned with a number of practices that include the mobilization and shaping of the university and government financial resources and investments in DH centers, as well as a concentrated commitment to harnessing the activities of designers, engineers, and technicians in the service of DH projects. Yet, the colonial remnants of digital media investments are always bleeding into view through new neocolonial policies and discourses that meet the constantly changing conditions of twenty-first-century life. Here, the work of Kent Ono is helpful in his characterization of colonization as a process of forgetting, of an imaginary of emptiness, or a process by which a liberated stance is taken as noncolonial, which I think aptly describes the alleged “neutral” stance that many in the fields of information studies and digital humanities assert. It is through this stance of not being engaged with the Western colonial past, a past that has never ended, that we perpetuate digital media practices that exploit the labor of people of color, as well as the environment. If ever there were a place for digital humanists to engage and critique, it is at the intersection of neocolonial investments in information, communication, and technology infrastructures: investments that rest precariously on colonial history, past and present.
A Neoliberal Turn in Digital Humanities
What does the DH field know about Black studies that could forward our aims of a critical digital humanities, and what are the key intellectual drivers that might help frame what we take up in practice? In her work in the 2016 edition of Debates in the Digital Humanities, Roopika Risam introduced the field of digital humanities to Black feminism and its attendant frame of “intersectionality,” arguing that Eurocentric notions of critical theory have supplanted Black feminist contributions and the colonization of local knowledge. Kim Gallon, in that same edition, made the case for “Black Digital Humanities” by foregrounding the role that Black studies can play in recovering knowledge and in exposing the power regimes that legitimate (or not) Black life through computational processes, exclusion, or racialized hegemonies. With this in mind, we might summon additional theorists directly from the field of Black studies who are concerned with the structural conditions of oppression.
For example, Black studies historian Peter Hudson mounted an important critique of the neoliberal turn in African diaspora studies for its focus on cultural production rather than political economy and provides a compelling example of what such an expansion might yield. Hudson’s emphasis on the material conditions of Black life, which he takes to include the intertwined dimensions of race and capital, shows how such examples can enable a critique of the racialized (and, I would add, intersectional and gendered) basis of capitalist modes of production. Hudson argues that the undue emphasis on cultural production in the humanities has given us a limited, postmodern view of contemporary problems, one that obscures some of the concerns that might otherwise be taken up and intervened with differently. This critique suggests how we might revise our approach by thinking more responsibly about the material conditions that enable DH work, conditions that include labor and exploitation in the service of making digital infrastructures and systems, rather than just making sure Black representation is managed and expanded on in our projects.
Hudson’s notion of a “corporate turn” in African diaspora studies helps us move away from the relativistic analyses of cultural studies that unnecessarily limit the scope of our intellectual engagements. He argues, “Where once Black culture could be evoked for its oppositional relationship to the capitalist market, on one hand, and the racial state, on the other, now it has been defanged, denuded of dissident valence, and repurposed for the expansion of markets and the neutralization of progressive Black politics.”
The neutralization of critique is a lesson we can extend to digital humanities. To what extent might we apply this logic to the work of digital humanists? We could consider ourselves working either in the service of motivating and extending liberatory possibilities through the expansion of knowledge or moving toward a stabilized, institutionalized series of priorities that focus on initiatives, centers, and projects that have been “defanged” of any possibility for societal transformation of racial oppression. This turn or institutional shift away from the interrogation of exploitation often leads us to focus primarily on cultural production, such as collecting and curating artifacts of culture among those communities underrepresented in traditional DH work; it leads us to digitize Black culture, but not to use it in service of dismantling racist systems that contain and constrain freedom for Black bodies.
As we look at the types of DH projects that are funded and sustained, we might also consider how our emphasis on cultural preservation and access has often precluded our thinking through the complicated material engagements that buttress digitality. I am thinking here about the cost to the field of actively alienating the very kinds of practitioners who are invested in the liberatory possibility of digital humanities, exemplified by a letter written in 2017 to the field by Jarrett Drake, former digital archivist at Princeton University:
I’m leaving the archival profession to begin a PhD program in anthropology at Harvard where I will be studying how communities in the US are using memory projects in the fight against state violence. For four years, I have watched white co-workers and colleagues in this profession stay complicitly silent as state agents slaughter Black people in the streets. I cried when Mike got killed. When Tamir got killed. When Freddie got killed. When Sandra got killed. When Korryn got killed. I cried again when, in each case, the state held no one accountable. I want to cry right now as I process that yet another Black person, Philando Castile, was taken by the state yet his killer walks free. Another mother buries a son, a partner buries a partner, a daughter buries a father. State assaults on Black boys and men often have a ripple effect of impacting 3x as many Black women and girls, as is the case with Philando. The silence suffocates me in the open air; at work, at conferences, or anywhere large number of professional archivists congregate. I can’t breathe.
Drake’s compelling letter to the field of information and archival studies, and digital humanities writ large, should serve as a wake-up call. The digital humanities can profoundly alienate Black people from participating in its work because of its silences and refusals to engage in addressing the intersecting dimensions of policy, economics, and intersectional racial and gender oppression that are part of the society we live in; this engagement cannot be relegated just to Black digital humanists. We are living in a moment where Black people’s lives can be documented and digitalized, but cannot be empowered or respected in society.
We should design against—or outright resist—the exploitive forms of labor and hazardous environmental practices in which information and communication technologies are implicated, and this has to include our everyday decisions that foment erasure and silence among practitioners. We should move with intention to address whether the digital humanities is invested in making itself a new cottage industry or whether, like other humanistic projects, it could turn toward deeper engagements with social transformation. We can no longer deny that digital tools and projects are implicated in the rise in global inequality, because digital systems are reliant on global racialized labor exploitation. We can no longer pretend that digital infrastructures are not linked to crises like global warming and impending ecological disasters. We cannot deny that the silences of the field in addressing systemic state violence against Black lives are palpable. Critical digital humanities must closely align with the register in which critical interventions can occur. We need conversations that foreground the crisis at the level of the local, as Drake makes so plain for us when he describes the way digital humanities works in practice. We should take up new conversations globally, as we interrogate the role the field plays in both creating and addressing crises.
Can the Digital Be Decolonized?
DH has long served as a hub for engagement across the range of concerns faced not only by information studies scholars but also by the many fields concerned with issues of interdisciplinarity. Recall the manifesto by Siva Vaidhyanthan who, more than a decade ago, called for critical information scholarship that borrowed from other fields in order to rethink existing frameworks and imagine new possibilities. This idea of taking up both race and political economy in digital humanities is emerging, but it must now be embraced and pushed to the center of the field. Key scholars like Roopika Risam and micha cárdenas have introduced the idea of de/post/anti colonial digital humanities by using the work of Frantz Fanon and others to interrogate whether, and if so, the digital can be decolonized. Simultaneously, Tara McPherson has suggested that we must find a way to put the concerns of scholarship engaging with race, ethnicity, and critical theory in dialogue with DH scholars working on tools and digital infrastructures, and she rightly argued that the impact of whiteness often limits the influence and possibilities of DH work. Using critical race theory and critical whiteness theory is the next logical step to bolster the de/post/anti colonial DH research of Risam and cárdenas, and that usage has continued to grow. There is a burgeoning group of DH scholars paying attention to the uneven and exploitive set of social relationships that are rendered invisible through the globalized technological infrastructures that support DH work, such as the work on ICT supply chains by Miriam Posner at UCLA. I am consistently affirmed by Catherine Knight Steele as she documents the many sites of resistance to oppression that are being created by Black people, particularly Black women, in her research on “Digital Black Feminism.” What we need to do to solidify the field of critical digital humanities is to couple it more closely with other critical traditions that foreground approaches influenced by political economy and intersectional race and gender studies.
More generally, we can take this interdisciplinary opening to think about whether a shift of resources away from digital production to projects that take on issues of social, economic, and environmental inequality can allow more significant interventions to take hold. The digital humanities is moving to the fore of the academy at a moment of heightened racial oppression, rising white supremacy, anti-LGBTQ hysteria among politicians, anti-immigrant legislation, mass incarceration, and the most profound wealth and resource inequality (which disproportionately harms women and children) to be recorded in modern times. If critical digital humanists are not willing to lead the conversation about the implications of the digital on social inequality and to help develop policy that attempts to mitigate this inequality, then who can? Here, let me call attention to the important Afrofuturist work, in the tradition of Alondra Nelson, which includes Jessica Johnson and Mark Anthony Neal’s call for Black Code studies in a recent issue of The Black Scholar, which offers even more provocations about the possibilities for reimagining the digital in service of liberation.
Critical DH scholarship working in a Black studies tradition can spark increased visibility of, commitment to, and intervention in the grand challenges of social inequality and environmental disaster. We see challenges to life and to the planet in, for instance, the extraction and mining industries that fuel the microprocessor chip industry or the practices of electronics disposal (or lack thereof) that poison people and the environments. As I have written earlier, the extraction of minerals needed for digital computing technologies, the impact of conflicts over rare minerals, and the exploitive nature of the flow of global capital in and out of the regions where they are sourced have a serious impact on human rights and the environment. These processes are rarely foregrounded for users and designers of digital tools, yet these practices are racialized, in that the primary beneficiaries of most digital technologies reside in the Global North. The underbelly of networked exploitation in the Global South, from the Congo to Ghana, is typically hidden from the view of those in Silicon Valley, at cultural institutions like libraries and museums, and in the universities and research labs in which DHers teach and work. How then does digital humanities reconcile its commitments to data and computation with the very real hardships faced by those who work in the computer and electronics industries? The landscape of information and communication technology, including the tools used in DH projects, are fully implicated in racialized violence and environmental destruction: from extraction to production, and from consumption to disposal of digital technologies.
Thus, at the same time that I call on DH scholars to engage in the work of African/Black diaspora studies, I am also calling on African/Black diaspora studies scholars who do not necessarily align themselves with the digital humanities to contribute to the project of surfacing the intellectual traditions of political economy and race and gender studies in the field. Rather than think of digital humanities solely in terms of campus-based initiatives or of “big data” projects that advance historical and cultural scholarship, we might begin to interrogate how it also perpetuates the uneven distribution of information technology resources, how it sustains cultural centers that are implicated in the suppression of Black life diasporically, and how it often works in a neoliberal fashion to obscure important features of the social, political, and economic landscape. Put differently, how can we mash up or hack racial inequality, rather than big data?
A Future for Critical Black Digital Humanities
We are at a crucial moment in the preservation of our humanity, and digital humanities needs to be on the side of the future, rather than one of many contributors to a history of extinction. Largely understudied and hidden from view (or interest) of most DH scholars are the labor, extraction, and disposal processes that are contributing to massive humanitarian and ecological disasters, thereby continuing the (neo)colonial projects of the past. Arguably, the latest iteration of the neocolonial “Scramble for Africa” is over the land and labor resources that were previously marshaled to build the largess of Global North’s agricultural and industrial empires. Now that our empire is technological, much of the gratuitous exploitation is contained to the Global South—out of sight of most DH scholars. But no matter the distance, our human interdependence necessitates that we engage in these difficult issues of power, resources, and our investments in the digital tools and technology that undergird DH work.
It is not just the everyday use of digital technologies that we must confront in our work but also the public policy and resource distribution models that allow for the existence of the digital to take such a profound hold. Robert Mejia’s eloquent essay, “The Epidemiology of Digital Infrastructure,” warns of the many ways that communicable diseases are exacerbated by the materiality of electronics and communications devices and infrastructures. The disease-producing by-products of the chemical waste spun from digital technologies are profoundly harmful; Mejia documents how the “3.7 million gallons of water used per day by Intel in Hillsboro, Oregon, and the millions more used elsewhere, contribute to an ecology hospitable to infectious disease and its natural reservoirs.” His research is the kind of work that must be integrated into the emerging, interdisciplinary critical digital humanities as we call for a greater awareness of the materiality of the digital humanities and its impact in the world. For the sites of waste and toxicity are both local to the United States and global: we see toxic e-waste sites emerge in formerly pristine wetlands in places like Accra, Ghana, among other sites in the Global South. Risam’s call for using a Black feminist ethos that integrates the local and the global is thus deeply relevant.
Current DH work must challenge the impulse in digital humanities that privileges digitality and computerization, along with the related concepts of use, access, and preservation, while often failing to account for more immediate and pressing global concerns. These concerns, which include the crisis of racialized global capitalism and the environmental catastrophes from the attendant issues caused by digital infrastructures, are issues that critical DH scholars could play an active role in addressing and remedying. The field must foreground a recognition of the superstructures that overdetermine the computerization and informationalization of DH projects, so that those projects can intervene in instances of racial, economic, and political oppression. The exploitive labor and service economies that support large-scale, global communications infrastructures are part of a (neo)colonial past and present; hyperinvestments in digitality in the Global North are precariously tied to racialized capitalism—and to ecological disaster.
While we are reliant on these infrastructures and investments to conduct DH research, we need to concurrently theorize different models for doing our work. This will allow us to divest from troublesome infrastructures that include software applications, internet service providers, information repositories, server farms, and the unending multitude of hardware devices that connect us through a host of algorithms and artificial intelligence that can foment inequality and oppression through their automated decision-making systems. In this call to action, I am taking a cue from DH arguments about the broad value of digital technologies to the humanities, but am focusing on the specific contributions that the field of Black studies can make to deepening those arguments. By foregrounding a paradigm of critical engagement and activist scholarship that privileges the concerns of those living in the greatest conditions of precarity because of a combination of economic, racial, and environmental violence, we can think about the implications of DH work in a larger global context.
In our future work, models of inquiry that employ intersectional Black studies frameworks allow for a contextualizing—or, rather, a destabilizing—of our assumptions about the longevity and efficiency of our technological investments. Discursively, aspects of DH research and intervention may work from a premise of knowledge sharing and preservation, but the technological engagements they rest on are not free from political consequence. DH projects are undeniably documenting, preserving, and mobilizing the knowledges and cultures that are threatened by discriminatory public policies. We need to continue to inquire with a critical DH lens tilted toward Black studies, gender studies, ethnic studies, information studies, media studies, communication, sociology, and science and technology studies. Ultimately, humanists are uniquely qualified to understand the adverse consequences of concentrations of racialized global capital, human-precipitated environmental disaster, and social, political, and economic destabilization.
We might begin by asking ourselves at what point did we become overly invested in the digital to the exclusion of pressing social issues of racial injustice, disenfranchisement, and community transformation. Is the narrow, inwardly focused attention on institutionalizing digital humanities to the exclusion of the social, political, and economic landscape worth it? What are the boundaries that we will consider in our collective engagements? The cumulative effects of mass-scale digital infrastructures, products, and engagements require a debt of energy and resources that we cannot collectively repay to the earth or to humanity; only radical reinvestment of the largesse of these projects and company profits back into collective, public interventions on these debts has the potential for renewal and reparation.
1. Miriam Posner has directed us to several important critical digital humanities projects, making them more visible to the field, including her own call to deemphasize computer coding as the only legitimate pathway in DH, http://miriamposner.com/blog/some-things-to-think-about-before-you-exhort-everyone-to-code/. Also, see Lauren Klein’s talk at the Modern Language Association, where she acknowledges important feminist DH interventions, http://lklein.com/2018/01/distant-reading-after-moretti/.
2. See Johnson and Neal, “Introduction: Wild Seed in the Machine,” along with the other essays in that volume.
3. See Bethany Nwoskie’s 2014 speech at the Digital Humanities conference.
4. See Noble, “A Future,” 1–8.
Davidson, Cathy N. “Humanities 2.0: Promise, Perils, Predictions.” PMLA 123, no. 3 (2008): 707–17.
Drake, Jarrett M. “I’m Leaving the Archival Profession: It’s Better This Way.” 2017, https://medium.com/on-archivy/im-leaving-the-archival-profession-it-s-better-this-way-ed631c6d72fe.
Eichstaedt, Peter H. Consuming the Congo: War and Conflict Minerals in the World’s Deadliest Place. Chicago: Lawrence Hill, 2011.
Fields, Gary. Territories of Profit: Communications, Capitalist Development, and the Innovative Enterprises of G. F. Swift and Dell Computer. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2004.
Gallon, Kim. “Making a Case for Black Digital Humanities.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016, edited by Matthew K. Gold and Lauren F. Klein, 42–49. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016.
Hudson, Peter. “African Diaspora Studies and the Corporate Turn.” Association for the Study of the Worldwide African Diaspora. 2013, http://aswadiaspora.org/forums/topic/african-diaspora-studies-and-the-corporate-turn-3/. Accessed on January 25, 2016.
Lorde, Audre. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” In Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, 110–14. Berkeley, Calif.: Crossing Press, 2007.
McPherson, Tara. “Introduction: Media Studies and the Digital Humanities.” Cinema Journal 48, no. 2 (2009): 119–23.
Mejia, Robert. “The Epidemiology of Digital Infrastructure. In The Intersectional Internet: Race, Sex, and Culture Online, edited by Safiya Umoja Noble and Brendesha Tynes. Digital Formations Series, 229–41. New York: Peter Lang, 2016.
Noble, Safiya Umoja. Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. New York: New York University Press, 2018.
Noble, Safiya Umoja. “A Future for Intersectional Black Feminist Technology Studies.” Scholar & Feminist Online 13, no. 3–14, no. 1 (2016): 1–8.
Noble, Safiya Umoja. “Trayvon, Race, Media and the Politics of Spectacle.” The Black Scholar 44, no. 1 (2014): 12–29.
Ono, Kent. Contemporary Media Culture and Remnants of a Colonial Past. New York: Peter Lang: 2009.
Risam, Roopika. “Navigating the Global Digital Humanities: Insights from Black Feminism.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016, edited by Matthew K. Gold and Lauren F. Klein, 359–67. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016.
Roberts, Sarah T., and Safiya Umoja Noble. “Empowered to Name, Inspired to Act: Social Responsibility and Diversity as Calls to Action in the LIS Context.” Library Trends 64, no. 3 (2015): 512–32.
Vaidhyanathan, Siva. “Afterword—Critical Information Studies: A Bibliographic Manifesto.” Cultural Studies 20, nos. 2–3 (March/May, 2006): 292–315.