Politics of Mass Digitization

This weekend I read and really enjoyed Nanna Bonde Thylstrup’s The Politics of Mass Digitization (2018). The book considered the approaches, implications, and politics behind the early 21st century move to mass digitization. Thylstrup unpacks the responses, for example, to Google Books from the European Union and their Europeana portal or platform to the various shadow libraries that emerged to provide access to collections overlooked or paywalled by conventional digitization schemes. It is a sophisticated, but accessible primer to the main issues surrounding mass digitization from a range of perspectives and theoretical paradigms. It’s good.

As someone who has thought a good bit about digitization in archaeology – although certainly not at the scale of Google Books, for example – and is alternately drawn to the potential of large scale digital collections and worried about the ways in which these collections tie archaeologists to ways of thinking, working, and interpreting, the book offers some useful observations. 

There are four that I found especially compelling:

1. Assemblages. Thylstrup emphasizes that the work of digitization is far more than simply a technical challenge or even economic or legal one. Instead, a wide range of pressures, technologies, systems, social expectations, rules, governments, and objects interact to shape mass digitization projects. This cautions us from reading mass digitization as simply a technical challenge that must be overcome or a set of legal or political challenges that will invariably give way to progress. It was particularly interesting to understand how various project – particularly the European, Europeana project – situated itself as a response to Google Books – and, as a result, showed the imprint of this formation on how it sought to preserve and disseminate European culture. At the same time, different European copyright laws, priorities, and the organization of cultural institutions, also gave Europeana a distinct character.   

2. Standardization. Anyone who has read this blog knows that standardization is something that has fascinated me over the last few years. The need to prepare archaeological data in such a way to make it susceptible to linked open data standards, for example, links standardization of data with certain expectations of use. Thylstrup noted that the need to standardize data in mass digitization, however, resisted the rigidity of the Fordist assembly line and instead promoted interoperability. This interoperability promoted the “free range of actions” and “innovation” that are so central to neoliberal ways of thinking. In other words, standardization is a method of displacing and decontextualizing information that allows for it to exist within a world that values the flexibility of use and reuse over the restrictive notions of context. This has obvious relevance for archaeology as it seeks to leverage both the potential of largescale linked datasets and the tradition of provenience and context.  

3. Labyrinths, Flaneurs, and Serendipity. One of the more intriguing sections of the book considers the models of discovery present in mass digitization projects. In particular, Thylstrup considers the the social context for serendipitous discover or the leisurely and unstructured encounter of the flaneur who invariably is a white, able-bodied, male. The labyrinth, in contrast, speaks to intimidating character of the digitized and seemingly infinite library that always is expanding. The need for the ambivalent figure of the disinterested flaneur to tame the terror of the always expanding labyrinth presents a compelling counterpoint to the economic and cultural imperative for standardization and the need to create digital objects that can freely mingle in the service of innovation. This is a subtle but fascinating critique that suggests that the very structure of the digital world serves to simultaneously intimidate and liberate, to make information useful and to promote serendipity, and to ultimate to reinscribe the control within a new space of digital encounters.

For an archaeologist, this reality should give us pause. After all, the importance of context and structure to the archaeological encounter motivates most of the fundamental positions in disciplinary ethics from the need to maintain and preserve an archive to our understanding of repatriation and provenience. By presenting data as both susceptible to the unconstrained ambivalence of the flaneur as well as the structured world of fragmented data, we’re creating a tension that challenges some of the basic professional expectations of our work.       

4. The Politics of the Digital World. Finally, Thylstrup’s work emphasizes in both the micro and macro level the role of politics in shaping mass digitization projects. While there is always as risk (as she herself notes) of using the word politics so broadly to undermine its very meaning, by recognizing the political character of the assemblages responsible for our digital repositories, she offers a useful lens through which to consider the power relations that even the most utopian mass digitization projects create and reinforce. 

This reminder that our digital world is fundamentally political is not new, but its always a useful reminder in an age where it becomes so easy to use and celebrate the potential of digital tools and data without much critique.

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