Minimal Computing and Cyclical Guilt in DH

This week’s reading, more so than other weeks, has been well aligned with many of the interests that brought me to study the digital humanities. I have been a long-time proponent of open access journals — as well as open access media in general. I thought Peter Suber did a wonderful job in outlining all the benefits to open access research articles and tackled all the tough questions that often go along with it. One of the many critiques I’ve stumbled across when it comes to OA is how it removes labor from the process of publishing academic articles. That is, by eliminating the process of sales, you eliminate the job of selling the literature. By eliminating the publisher as middleman, you eliminate the copyeditor, the proofreader, the production team, etc. from being involved in the process of creating a published work. That is, OA can be deemed “anti-labor” inherently by its removal of roles from the publishing process. I learned many retorts to this line of thinking from Suber — mainly that OA works can still live in published journals. They can still be refined and sold as parts of collections. It’s just that the written piece, in isolation, can be accessed by anyone. Much like public domain works of literature (those that predate 1923) are available to be published in anthologies or critical editions of books — which produce many jobs and are certainly pro labor — OA works can be included in their own anthologies and classroom “readers” to create new labor opportunities. I found this uplifting as a lot of what we read in DH is riddled with guilt — guilt about who DH doesn’t serve, whose voices are omitted from the field, and who cannot access the digital tools that are prerequisite to making a DH project. That brings me to my thoughts on the Risam and Gil piece on minimal computing.

I titled this post “Minimal Computing and Cyclical Guilt in DH” because after reading the Risam and Gil piece, I felt like I was taken on a whirligig tour of all the ways that digital tools can exclude different populations. SaaS GUIs require an internet connection and thus are only available to users who live in well connected areas of the world. User-friendly tools often are hosted on databases, which presents security problems as these databases are often owned by capitalistic corporate entities. I felt from reading the piece that the authors were advocating for minimal computing as a solution to these problems — but even in their writing, you could sense there was more guilt underpinning the concept of minimal computing.

To truly leverage the benefits for minimal computing, they make clear that a strong grasp of coding language is required. Making a Jekyll site is often achieved through the command line. This is a large learning curve for many. I’ve been working adjacent to computer science for over a decade and anytime I want to learn a new skillset, I have to take advantage of one of several pillars of privilege. I can take a class at an institution, which costs money and often requires being accepted into a program and having an expensive undergraduate degree. Alternatively, I can attend a bootcamp, which costs even more money per hour. If I want to save money, I can watch tutorials on YouTube, yet they require all the same connectivity as using a SaaS GUI does, which defeats the supposed altruistic purpose of learning the code if I can just use a GUI. I can purchase a textbook, which is probably the cheapest route, but it’s still expensive and I will have to rely solely on my ability to self-learn. There are dozens of other ways to gain these skills, but all of them require some form of privilege — not excluding the privilege of being smarter than I am and being able to learn complex syntax very easily — as many lucky software engineers are able to do with their computationally savvy minds.

I feel like it’s impossible to learn about any aspect of DH without going down the rabbit hole of guilting ourselves about how any approach to scholarship inherently leaves out a large chunk of the population. Studying advanced mathematics leaves out people who aren’t inherently skilled at math. But I don’t think that’s much of a topic in the introduction to linear regression. To me, minimal computing is dope. It’s cool to make lo-fi digital projects using simple forms of technology. I don’t think the reason to promote this approach to scholarship requires us to go over how WordPress is a product of neocolonialism. I feel like there’s no need to justify minimal computing — it’s justified in the fact that practitioners are able to create interesting humanities projects without relying on the hand-holding GUIs available to the greater public. That in that of itself is interesting.

One thought on “Minimal Computing and Cyclical Guilt in DH

  1. Theodore Daniel Manning (Any)

    I have a lot of comments about this, but first, a preface:
    1. This is going to include a lot of swearing because I’m quite passionate about this subject in a way only an f-bomb can convey.
    2. I was raised by ardent Communists. That is my lens.

    First and foremost, fuck labor. I absolutely am anti-labor. Why are we so worried about enabling a broken system? Sure, yes, people need to make money and we have to function within the society we exist in. However, this doesn’t have to be the way we make money! We have options. A tool of capitalism is to make its subjects feel as though they have no other option, to create a false sense of desperation. This is not the only way to survive in the system.

    Secondly, I completely understand and have experienced this feeling of guilt, and that’s actually something that’s bothered me about a lot of our DH readings thus far; for example, readings written by white folks on behalf of the Black community often contain a preface of “Black lives matter, I have privilege, I acknowledge this”. It comes off as apologizing, and furthermore kind of bowing and scraping. It also feels very performative to me. But this is a guilt that’s not exclusive to DH. I think it’s a guilt that’s been misunderstood. Pointing out where we have privilege and where others don’t is a tool that is INTENDED to create guilt, in order to create ACTION AND CHANGE, not to just… stew and make you feel awful. Now, with that in mind…

    Thirdly and finally, DH and OA as a whole are doing what we can to circumvent access issues and disparities in privilege. We must remember “there is no ethical consumption under capitalism”. Try as we might to make research as OA as possible there are still going to be nasty corporations involved and that is our unfortunate reality we have to work through. Few other fields are subject to this kind of scrutiny like DH because of our mission statement. We must work with the tools we have, acknowledge what we can’t or don’t, and move on. We ARE doing good work, and more importantly, we’re doing our best!

    We must resist the urge to feel guilty for participating in a system that we did not choose. We must remember that we genuinely are good people trying to affect change. Even if we miss the mark sometimes, oftentimes that mark is one that was moved for us, and we would’ve missed it no matter how hard we tried. It’s a sad reality, but it’s ours.

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