I did not enjoy the readings for this week as much as I have the others up until this point and so discomfort is where I begin my discussion. I thought I’d found an inroad where Greenfield describes other ways we augment our perception of interacting with movements through time and space–listening to music or wearing sunglasses. Yes, sunglasses. This would be how I would find a commonality with people interested in augmented reality. But then I thought more on it and sunglasses are something I use to protect myself–I think about the Uruguayan rugby team in Alive, fashioning sunglasses out of materials scattered around the fuselage of their plane to prevent snowblindness, how sunglasses were integral to preserving their vision so they could escape a frozen hellscape.
And this is where my real feelings start to coarse closer to the surface…to choose to augment your reality is the epitome of privilege. Greenfield discusses the ongoing wearable computing project of Steve Mann and I feel not awe but contempt that this man has become dependent on a device of his own making. Why should I feel contempt for stranger and scientist Steve Mann? The only person he is harming is himself. Underneath it all I’m afraid of what this technology holds, the way it will be used to control people, the dependence it will create. In the short story, By His Things You Will Know Him, Purnell says: “But you know what Douglas Adams said: everything invented before you were born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything after your fifteenth birthday is new and exciting and revolutionary. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.” I’m not yet thirty-five but maybe I’m aged beyond my years. This aspect of the digital fills me with dread and worry. And just like pedestrians being coaxed into traffic by Pokemon playing on the other side of a busy intersection, I wonder what will lure the next generation of AR users into danger, what is waiting for them that only they can see, that the network has wrought into existence.
In thinking about how the IoT can reinforce dominant cultural norms–specifically about the transmission of Western values to the rest of the world and the dominance of the Global North–I came across an example of companies that have found great success doing the opposite. I went down the rabbit hole while looking for articles about African alternatives to smartphones after hearing a broadcast on NPR about how Netflix is redesigning their service for the African market and how most users on the continent access the internet with their phones. It turns out African cell phone users aren’t jumping at the chance to own smartphones because of economic and infrastructural limitations and so the feature phone reigns supreme there. And the most successful feature phones are being designed by a Chinese firm: Tecno. The thing that was the most interesting to me is how they’ve redesigned the user-facing camera to adjust the light do compliment darker skin, resulting in superior selfies. What the global players like Apple and Samsung have failed to cater to–the utility of the feature phone in a world without omnipresent wireless and the desire for Africans (like all people) to see themselves reflected in technology–are a symptom of the homogeneity of their design and programming teams. Tecno’s success is not in having designed a product at home that has taken off abroad but in looking for the things that make the African market unique, in realizing the distinct user needs of African customers (Tecno does not sell phones in the Chinese market). That Netflix is creating African content is another huge sign that the West is beginning to take the African market seriously and knows it cannot sustain itself on exporting Western content alone. But is this progress, for the digital to envelop the developing world? Is it inevitable? The United States has done little to protect its citizens from data-mining corporations, will countries in the developing world have the resources to intercede as their populations are colonized by the digital? And what does it mean for places with a dark legacy of Western colonization to be further exploited by multi-national corporations born in the West?
“Technology is nothing but humanness.” -Marisa Parham (Dinsman 2016)
The Marissa Parham interview was my favorite reading for this week. It helps that Parham is a professor at Amherst College and Director of the Five Colleges Digital Humanities Project and I studied at UMass as an undergrad [Umass is one of the five colleges in the consortium] and her interests overlap with my own [her published and in-progress books make my heart flutter]. I went and looked up the Five College DH Project and was happy to see two librarians on the steering committee–in DH, and especially in this class, I’m always looking for the librarians and trying to find myself and my place in the work.
The line of questioning regarding the digital making the humanities relevant reminds me of the tension in librarianship between cataloging and metadata–the saying “metadata is cataloging for men” which underscores the historic and current gendered profile, stereotypes, and assumptions about the profession and the ways in which metadata has brought new (and sometimes unwelcome) interest to the field–and I think this same tension exists between humanities purists/critics of the DH (like Timothy Brennan, see: The Digital-Humanities Bust) and DH scholars and also within DH. I took a detour while reading the Kirshcenbaum to check out Benton/Pannapacker’s Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go and Just Don’t Go Part 2 it was in Part 2 that this caught my eye: “Such a bargain should particularly alarm women, who are now the majority of graduate students in the humanities and the overwhelming majority of adjuncts”. Parham and Dinsman discuss the lack of women in DH and so my question is, is DH Humanities for men? Not to say that the Humanities didn’t enjoy a long history of being shaped by and catering to the interests of men but as women have come to supply the overworked, underpaid labor force for traditional DH are the scarce and coveted DH positions within academia reserved for largely men? Is this because they are actually more technologically savvy (because of biases in training/recruiting/education) or because we are conditioned to equate the digital with the masculine? According to the DH Manifesto 2.0, DH is supposed to be subversive–rooted in counter-culture movements–but is it as radical as it imagines itself to be? What would a radically inclusive DH look like?
As a note: I was excited to see that the original contributor for the Digital Humanities Wikipedia page is Elijah Meeks, architect of my favorite Digital Humanities project Orbis: The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World.