[Humanist] 27.426 datagate

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sat Oct 12 07:37:17 CEST 2013


                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 27, No. 426.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                       www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org



        Date: Thu, 10 Oct 2013 16:57:29 +0200
        From: Domenico Fiormonte <domenico.fiormonte at gmail.com>
        Subject: Datagate: do we care?


Dear Willard, what follows is a *very* late (and mixed up) comment on
your 23rd of January response to my "Waiting for Godh" message.

I've been mulling over this sentence for months, and also discussed it
with a number of colleagues and friends. I gathered here few loosely
related excerpts from these conversations, but I'm trying to write an
essay or more articulated blog post on it.

Here it is:

"When walking through the British Museum or into the British Library I
reflect on the fact that I am enjoying the fruits of empire. The same
would be true of a stroll into the BNF, the Vatican Library, the New
York Public Library, the great library in St Petersburg, once the
Alexandrian Library and so on. I'm moved to reflect that all money is
blood money, and without that money there would be no such libraries.
Thinking further on it I am amazed that we have any such libraries at
all. Would we if scholarship anywhere at any time did not serve empire
or could be used for the purpose?"

It seems here that you are embracing the West's beloved argument "if
there weren't slaves, we would not have the Pyramids". And it's as if
you were tacitly saying, "hey, now it's our turn to spill blood and
conquer the world! let's face it", etc. etc.

Of course I know you don't mean this, but I found the implied argument
dangerous and misleading at the same time. First, it's easy to notice
that we don't know what the human race would have been without blood
money (or bloodbaths in general): who knows, maybe we would have done
just fine without libraries or the Coliseum. But this is not the
point. The point is rather to reject the equation of "human
sacrifice", disparity, injustice, inequalities, etc. etc. with any
form of social and cultural progress. This equivalance has been
demystified and deconstructed, I think, by almost half a century of
post-colonial philosophy, anthropology, ethnography, sociology, etc. I
don't dare even to touch on any of those arguments, because I don't
want to embark on another endless theoretical debate about "cultural
criticism".

Instead, I'd only like to discuss other important and more practical
issues. But before that, I'd like you to remember that there could be
another way of looking at knowledge production and its connected
cultural processes. According to the Ancient Indian wisdom (not
"philosophy" in the Western sense), "innovating means to expand our
consciousness of what reality is and has never ceased to be" (Torella,
Il pensiero dell'India, p. 18). This is an interesting "extracting",
not-accumalitive idea of progress (expanding consciousness, not
accumulating books or building monuments, etc.) that may help us also
to think about scholarship (and science in general) in a new way. I
know this would mean abandoning our Romantic idea of the Humanities,
i.e. that even if we are cruel human beings we have still created
beautiful Art, Poetry, etc. Honestly, I think Humanities needs to go
beyond that.

But coming to the main subject of my email, recently I came across
this interview:

http://www.lanacion.com.ar/1600674-glenn-greenwald-snowden-tiene-informacion-para-causar-mas-dano

English translation:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jul/13/reuters-article-dead-man-s-switch

It has been a while since I wanted to raise this issue: is there
anybody who thinks that the so-called "datagate" scandal affects not
only us as global citizens, but our DH community as well? After these
revelations, can we still do our work as before?
I can't help thinking that something has radically changed. We can't
even argue that we did not know this was happening. In 2011 the
OpenNet Initiative reported in the conclusions of its Regional
Profile: "With respect to surveillance, the United States is believed
to be among the most aggressive countries in the world in terms of
listening to online conversations"
(https://opennet.net/research/regions/namerica). And after all since
2006 we knew that the US intelligence was spying on us:
http://www.europarl.europa.eu/committees/en/studiesdownload.html?languageDocument=EN&file=79050).

Of course this is not about Digital Humanities, nor just about
cultural differences, colonial or hypercolonial studies. This is about
freedom. Besides, as I noted elsewhere
(http://infolet.it/2013/09/19/informatica-e-diversita-culturale/), it
seems that governments, food multinationals and IT multinationals are
becoming allies in reducing diversity and increasing their control
over us. Their instruments are patents and restrictive copyright laws
(i.e. SOPA and PIPA in USA, ACTA in UE, etc.): from seeds to software,
from food to knowledge. Their continual strategy has been to limit and
control freedom of speech, knowledge sharing and food security.
I think we can't just turn our backs on this global picture: as
digital humanists we have the responsibility to uncover and discuss
these connections, and to propose solutions and alternatives (both
theoretical and practical) to these disturbing trends.

How does it affect our role as researchers and teachers to know that
the NSA taps into user data of Google, Apple, Facebook and other
internet giants? Is there anything we can do about it? Or is our DH
job just to build tools, theories, and eventually criticize them? Is
there the space for some concrete action that would go beyond the mere
intellectual exercise of criticism?

The great environmental activist and Commons global movement leader
Vandana Shiva speaks rightly of Seed Sovereignty (Beej Swaraj), Food
Sovereignty (Anna Swaraj), Water Sovereignty (Jal Swaraj) and Land
Sovereignty (Bhu Swaraj). We need also to struggle for *Knowledge and
Culture Sovereignty*. The Commons movement in general considers
knowledge as a "shared social-ecological system", so I think KCS
should include our private communications, our scholarly products, our
software and digital resources, etc.

Domenico Fiormonte





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