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October 7, 2014

Digital Ethics

October 7, 2014 | By | One Comment

Lately, I’ve been contemplating the next phase of my digital scholarship.  Currently, I am working on revamping Imbiza (from 1.0 to 2.0) and helping test the beta-version of the KORA plugin.  But, as I’ve discussed previously on my personal blog, some people might be surprised to discover that South African football is not the focus of my own personal research, although it features prominently in my digital presence:  as, obviously, the focus of Imbiza, the subject of my blogs for Football Is Coming Home, and the specialty of my doctoral adviser, Peter Alegi.  But I’ve been seriously considering lately (maybe) slowly introducing my dissertation research (which I most commonly liken to a helpless child) into my digital presence and scholarship.

So, the short version:  my dissertation project focuses on historical constructions of Zulu masculine identity from the pre-colonial era to the present.  There’s a more detailed blurb I could give, but that’s enough for now.  At the launch of LEADR on Friday, after some conversations with a few professors, I started toying around with the idea of doing a project more directly related to my research interests.  I’ve always wanted to have digital components to go along with my dissertation, but it never really occurred to me to start producing that kind of work now.  But now I am considering it and, to be honest, this presents some challenges that I’m still grappling with how to approach.

My dissertation is going to be centered on (or, at least I hope it is) on oral testimony and local vernacular knowledge.  My training has been very focused on oral histories since my undergraduate training in history began, so the fact that my dissertation follows this same trajectory isn’t much of a shock.  But now, as I consider how and by what means, I want to make this kind of knowledge available to the rest of the world via digital platforms, I find myself asking new questions of these materials:  how do I protect the integrity of my subjects and their confidentiality when I am simultaneously aiming to make as much of their knowledge and insights publicly available as possible?

I was faced with a conundrum quite similar to this over the summer, when I was approached to participate in a massive digitization project.  While I was very excited to contribute to a project that I felt was valuable and important, I found out early on that no one had gained permission from the peoples’ whose materials would be made publicly available.  This was a total deal breaker for me and it really shocked me that the individuals associated with the project were willing to make these materials publicly available without any consent from the producers of these heritage items.  This experience has made me hyper-aware about the kind of responsibility that we, as scholars engaged in digital work, have towards the people whose heritage we are making public.

Last year, in the CHI Fellowship Program, Adam Haviland grappled with similar issues in his efforts to build Nkwejong: Oral Histories and Stories of the Lansing Anishinaabeg Community.  At first, Adam planned on using Mukurtu, a “free, mobile and open source platform built with indigenous communities to manage and share digital cultural heritage.”   Mukurtu is a really great platform for a lot of reasons, but the major draw is that it puts the control of the cultural heritage resources managed in Mukurtu squarely in the hands of individuals.  Community members choose from a variety of specific traditional knowledge licenses to determine the level of access that they wish to apply to their cultural heritage materials.  As Adam put it, the real standout feature of this platform is that it “both records and preserves knowledge for future generations but it also protects this cultural knowledge and heritage from being taken by outsiders without consent.”

mukurtu

 

Mukurtu’s attention to preservation along the community’s terms is a huge draw, but it also pulls attention to the need for thoughtful digital scholarship, not only for those of us working with the words and heritage of actual human beings living and breathing today, but for the legacies of any group.  If we treat the digital presentation of their heritage any differently than any other scholarship (from articles to monographs to conference presentations), then we are failing to do our due diligence to our subjects and ourselves.

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