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October 8, 2018

Access to Digital Humanities: a critique

October 8, 2018 | By | No Comments

With the invention and advancement of the digital humanities, anthropology is in a unique position to be inclusive to the populations that are being studied. We as curators of digital archives have the opportunity to help enable access to a societies cultural heritage but is access always equal? Hypothetically, access to the digital humanities should be equal but in practice, this may not be true. The most obvious reason for unequal access is technological availability. According to Internet World Stats, which provides information about internet usage worldwide and collects data from various sources such as the United Nations and the International Telecommunications Union, on average, only 55.1% of a given geographic regions population has internet access. When this figure is broken down further, access to the internet is unequally distributed across the globe with North America (95%) and Europe (86.1%) having the most regular access and Africa (36.1%) and Asia (49%) having the least. The perception of everyone having access to computers or the internet is clearly rooted in a western bias and needs to be addressed when considered when creating a digital archive. Without this consideration, who are we presenting for besides ourselves and a general Western audience? What is considered the “public” needs to be addressed and reevaluated.

Another potential problem is a linguistic one. If I were to create a website or digital archive that displays 3D models of Peruvian projectile points with descriptions, I would most likely write everything on the page in English. Because Peru is a Spanish speaking country, I would be excluding everyone who isn’t multilingual. I am not asserting that Spanish speaking citizens of Peru would not have access to translation software but there is also no reason that I should only post my work in English. It is the cultural heritage of Peru I am curating, not my own. In general, it should be a unspoken rule that if a project is centered around a particular society, the end product should be available in multiple languages. This assertion creates more problems because of the association of language and identity and how does the anthropologist choose what languages should be available for translation. The most widely spoken languages should be prioritized first. This help to provide access to the largest amount of people but stopping here could reinforce colonial sentiments and perpetuate already established power structures. I suggest that somewhere on the website or page there should be a clause that states that if somebody from the community is interested in translating the digital archive into another language spoken in the studied society, they should contact the systems administrator. This could lead to possible problems of doublespeak and purposeful mistranslation but the effort should be put fourth to be inclusive as possible. Another potential problem could be the overuse of jargon or the under use of “sophisticated” language. Using too many specific terms can alienate segments of the population that are not versed in deep anthropological thought. The opposite type of language can be misleading as well. Using “simple” language as a crutch almost assumes that your audience won’t understand what you’re attempting to communicate. The people that will access your publicly available archives may not be professionals nor will they be completely ignorant of the information that is being presented. Know your audience and expectations.

My final critique is about how do we decide what to digitize. The obvious problem is placing value on different aspects of cultural heritage. Who are we as an outsider or as a member of society to decide what is most important to a group as a whole? These judgements will obviously be influenced by a variety of factors that include: the physical and social environment, our own enculturation, and the completely random aspects of human perception among many variables. It should be  stated as to why the different aspects of a given societies cultural heritage was chosen over others and it should be understood that inherent bias plays a vital role in the selection process during project creation. Other questions such as: what is cultural heritage, what is culture and how is it defined, and what can’t be included in digital processing but is still important to society should be considered.

Digital humanities is a powerful tool that can be used in positive and malicious ways. Digital methodology does not inherently have morality nor is it conscious of what is it being used for. The hand that holds the tool does have a set of embedded conscious and unconscious biases that shape the final outcome of their product. Digital anthropology can create stronger links between the academic world and society or it can perpetuate existing differences by being another tool of exclusivity. There is always room for improvement but projects like CHI can create strong foundational bases to further the field of digital humanities and anthropology.

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