Forcing the Question


Willard McCarty, the Obi-Wan Kenobi of the humanities computing world, pushed at some real questions and problems about what it is that digital humanists do, and asserted that there is a profound mismatch between the algorithms created by coders and programmers and the data “normal” to the humanities–normal data like books, characters, historical events and personages, plots and themes, eras and epochs, documents and relia. Words. Where do these algorithms come from? From a symbolic language? From symbolic mathematics? Where are the data points stored? How do we liberate them from the digital silos where they are hoarded? What is the reality of the data, and what realities do the data point back to? What are some major ontological and ethical issues raised by DH?

Here is a start:

Located in northern New Mexico, Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) is a multi-mission national security science Laboratory, responsible for monitoring the safety and reliability of the U.S. nuclear stockpile, defense against all things nuclear, energy security, and scientific discovery. It is the senior DOE National Laboratory and the most productive scientifically. Its Research Library (SRO-RL) is a leading DOE digital library, providing state-of-the-art information technology tools to our research community and developing innovative web technologies to further information availability, accessibility, and digital preservation. We are seeking an individual with the vision, leadership, creativity, and entrepreneurial skills to direct and inspire its world-renowned Research Library team.
(Job posting is from the Digital Library Federation (DLF-Announce) email list)

I am from New Mexico. Los Alamos National Labs is the site of the Manhattan Project, and it was at Alamogordo’s Trinity Site that they blowed it up good. What does weapons research have to do with “information availability, accessibility, and digital preservation?”

New Mexico’s national labs face significant questions about funding for the coming year, newly appointed Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz told reporters during a visit to Sandia National Laboratories on Tuesday.
“We’re all suffering under a lot of uncertainty on the budgets,” Moniz said at the end of a day of visits to Sandia and Los Alamos labs.
Among the biggest unsettled questions are a proposed budget increase for the labs’ work refurbishing the nation’s B61 nuclear bombs and funding for upgrading the buildings at Los Alamos used to do the research and manufacturing work with plutonium, a radioactive metal used in nuclear bombs.

(Albuquerque Journal, 4 September 2013).

When McCarty observed about the digital humanities that “the moral seems clear enough: that computing belongs in the humanities because it accords with their final project. . . not to solve problems, but to make them worse” (1224), it seems that this sticky wicket is exactly the sort of thing that is making it worse:  that digital humanities is a philosophical and ethical pursuit that begs the same questions as any other ethical pursuit. While the traditional humanities approach seems to be one of book, notebook, pencil (or maybe book, laptop, keyboard), the digital humanities require more. The laptop uploads programs and coding to a server, that runs the code, applies data sets, and generates results. Some of the supercomputers that allow for these computations are housed in research laboratories like LANL that receive funding for the manufacture and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction that could soon send us to the post-technological, post-apocalyptic, post-nuclear world of the monks in A Canticle for Leibowitz.

Let’s trouble our own digital humanities water: the ethical problems are ones raised by our participation in a system that has its origins in DARPA, the Department of Defense, and weapons funding. The ontological questions that come into existence then are these: if the resources to do our work come from less than peaceable places, is the scholarship that we generate disrupting the reality of the weapons research labs? What is the nature of our scholarship’s existence, if its beginnings and continued existence owe less to the money generated by NCAA sports, and more to plutonium pits?

Digital humanities and humanities computing are more than coding, more than interesting plot and affectation charts, more than bar and line graphs, more than codices and concordances, more than GIS and more than imaging, more than online libraries with dirty OCR and inexpertly applied TEI. Digital humanities demand a theoretical approach and a metatheory to allow us to make our problems worse and more complex, not solve them.