Note: This post was written by a student in the course and reposted here. Source: SOVEREIGNTY, AUTONOMY, CONTROL AND THE POTENTIAL FOR TRULY POSTCOLONIAL DATA.
I, like most all of my classmates, grew up in a time of technological excess. I learned how to properly type on a QWERTY keyboard when I was 11. Now at 22 I cannot imagine writing a research paper without the help of Google Scholar (heck, I can’t even imagine checking the weather without the help of my weather app). It’s an objective truth that I spend too much time looking at the tiny screen of my phone. But even though I have spent so much of my first 22 years experiencing adolescence online, it never occurred to me to spend time thinking about the digital worlds that were being built and destroyed all around me. This class has asked me to think critically about the worlds that we create online—and specifically the power structures that are built into these worlds.
…I have spent so much of my first 22 years experiencing adolescence online…it never occurred to me to spend time thinking about the digital worlds that were being built and destroyed all around me…
Throughout the semester as we dove deeper into postcolonial digital humanities, Indigenous cultural heritage, Black digital humanities and feminist data culture we learned more about the power struggles involved in asserting the inherent human-ness of data and restoring humanity to communities that have been historically dehumanized. I signed on for this class thinking that I would be learning about technology, the humanities, and the ways that they shape each other. I didn’t expect to learn as much as I did about sovereignty, autonomy, control and the concept of truly human data.
We were substantively introduced to the subject of digital humanities through the radical lens of Roopika Risam’s New Digital Worlds text that asked us as readers to imagine a post-colonial digital future where the stories we read and shared didn’t have to comply with hegemonic structures for knowledge building. She introduced us to the idea that data about people was undeniably human (something we also got to see Week 1 in the incredibly endearing Dear Data project).
In Chapter 4 of the text, Risam wrote directly about how the digital cultural record will always be incomplete—”ruptured by the politics of empire” as she writes—because it hadn’t been built to include the stories of the colonized (New Digital Worlds 48). Creating a postcolonial world online requires a rare form of intentionality that asks institutions and individuals to outright reject the colonial power structures that demand cultural data be separated from its human sources. For colonized and formerly colonized communities, according to Risam, access to cultural heritage data gives them the opportunity to meaningfully shape the dynamics of cultural power and reclaim the history that was buried by colonial narratives. Through Risam’s work, I learned that creating an online world that welcomes complex cultures, stories, and forms of knowledge requires a commitment to radical decolonization.
…creating an online world that welcomes complex cultures, stories, and forms of knowledge requires a commitment to radical decolonization…
In our unit on Black digital humanities we focused on the humanizing potential of data practices—and specifically of recovery as a humanity-affirming act. In the traditional sense, recovery deals with the reclamation of “lost or non-canonical and difficult to locate texts” (Gallon, “Making a Case”). In her article “Making a Case for the Black Digital Humanities” Kim Gallon pointed specifically to the power of recovery within Black digital humanities to restore humanity to Black communities. These recovery projects, especially those that are led by Black scholars, point to the potential that digital humanities has for pushing us to reëxamine our understanding of power.
While learning about Indigenous cultural heritage, we focused on storytelling and, specifically the stories that data can tell. We also touched heavily on the process of repatriation and different concepts of knowledge creation. Through conversations, readings, and video lectures about the idea of repatriation (and digital repatriation) we also talked more directly about the ways we think about sovereignty (and data sovereignty). Indigenous cultural heritage is not meant to be preserved, organized, and shared through colonial knowledge frameworks.
Jim Enote, in his Keynote Speech opening the After the Return conference in 2012, spoke about the relationship between indigenous communities and the institutions that hold indigenous cultural heritage objects and information. He pointed to the reality that many indigenous communities feel a sense of hopelessness whenever they are asked to work with institutions (especially those that are connected to colonial powers that have violently silenced them for so long). Postcolonial indigenous cultural heritage work requires extraordinary collaboration between scholars and community members for many reasons; one of these reasons is because cultural heritage data is precious. Repatriation is so vitally important because it returns ownership of objects, places, even human remains to their communities of origin. Sovereignty extends to all areas of cultural heritage data, but it’s especially applicable within indigenous cultural heritage as means for decolonizing both institutions and data ontologies.
Source: Feminist Data Manifest-No
Another vital element of postcolonial digital humanities is celebrating identities and personhood. The only way to do this effectively, while respecting the autonomy and the sovereignty of communities, is to refuse the separation between data and person. The Feminist Manifest-No (shown above) is a body of work by Marika Cifor and Patricia Garcia that makes refusals and commitments outlining an intentional, feminist, and postcolonial data culture. The most striking element of the Manifest-No read, “We commit to understanding data as always and variously attached to bodies.” This commitment, to me, encapsulates a lot of what we’ve been learning throughout the semester. Cultural heritage data is always and inextricably connected to its human and community origins. Postcolonial data culture values the individual, even if the individual is captured by a single data point.
The common thread throughout this semester was thinking about postcolonialism and its potential for restoring humanity to communities that have been historically dehumanized. The study of digital cultural heritage data is relatively new and shapeable. For students, instructors, and contributors to the culture of digital humanities the most important lesson from this semester is that data is inherently human. Data is valuable and it should not be separated from its origin. Building a postcolonial digital world that celebrates diverse knowledge structures and resists simplistic schemes for organization requires a radical understanding of humanity, data, and cultural heritage. Thoughtful data practices and extraordinary collaboration with its communities of origin will help scholars to create a digital world that lives up to its own potential.
This expectation calls us to always pose the questions: who is in control of this data and the related practices? Whose humanity is attached to the data being used? If the answers to these questions aren’t the same, changes need to be made.
“‘4. Making a Case for the Black Digital Humanities | Kim Gallon’ in ‘Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016’ on Manifold.” Debates in the Digital Humanities, https://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/read/untitled/section/fa10e2e1-0c3d-4519-a958-d823aac989eb#ch04. Accessed 9 Dec. 2020.
“Feminist Data Manifest-No.” Feminist Data Manifest-No, https://www.manifestno.com. Accessed 9 Dec. 2020.
Network, Sustainable Heritage. DRKeynote2012_Enote. 2017. Vimeo, https://vimeo.com/210674945.
“THE PROJECT.” Dear Data, http://www.dear-data.com/theproject. Accessed 9 Dec. 2020.
Risam, Roopika. New Digital Worlds: Postcolonial Digital Humanities in Theory, Praxis, and Pedagogy. Northwestern University Press, 2019.