The Digital Humanists’ (Lack of) Response to the Surveillance State

Cyberspace: a digital, networked simulation of physical space envisioned by Sci-Fi authors like William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Philip K. Dick, Bruce Sterling, and others. The metaphor implies that, just as in the “real” world, back alleys and seedy establishments exist that you would do well to avoid, lest you attract attention from the wrong people. Today, those “wrong people” prominently include the government of the United States. The seedy locales? The obvious are online forums devoted to topics like bomb-making, terrorist methods, pirated software, and child pornography (the fact that the unauthorized copying of data can logically appear in the same list as the abuse of children and methods for mass murder says something about corporate power, doesn't it?). Less obvious and more nefarious: sending email to the wrong people (whose identities you cannot know) or sharing the wrong information (whose contents you cannot speak about). Even searching for the “wrong” keywords may lead to a SWAT team at your door.1 The recent revelations about the NSA's massive domestic spying operation that implicates nearly every major USA-based technology company that provides a service in exchange for the voluntary submission of more data about ourselves, our connections to others, and our lives make an understanding of the politics of the digital more pressing than ever. Yet, to paraphrase Alan Liu, where are the digital humanists critiquing the growing surveillance state?

The synthesis of our training in traditional humanistic modes of inquiry with our proficiency in network analysis, text-mining, metadata, and the other methods the US government uses to monitor its own people in a (I would argue, misguided) search for threats should lead to a proliferation of analyses, arguments, and action. To date, however, I have heard only quiet murmurings in the community. Kieran Healy's excellent social network analysis of Paul Revere stands as a notable and powerful exception, the type of which would be so good to see more. Another good example: "Me and My Metadata" by Ethan Zuckerman, a researcher at MIT. 

A search for blog posts that mention “surveillance” on HASTAC turns up a reasonably healthy amount of discussion (see, for example, "Why the definition of 'metadata' matters", "Questioning the Cloud", "Google's Virtual Light"), but HASTAC is not a stand-in for the DH community. Most of the bloggers there are graduate students interested in pedagogy, digital media, online learning, and the like, not scholar-practitioners of social network analysis, text-mining, and metadata, which are some of the tools of the government's surveillance.

Is there a chilling effect already in place? Are we afraid to speak out against the expanding erosion of privacy? Or are we already so reliant on Google, Facebook, and the other digital oligarchs that we have resigned ourselves to being watched by Big Brother's ever-vigilant eyes? Consider, in contrast, the brave decision by the founder of the secure email service Lavabit—used by Snowden—to shut down rather than to comply

A critically-engaged, ethical digital humanities demands that practitioners teach, discuss, and research those areas of life where they are most well-positioned to have an impact, to explain things in new ways, or to provide resources for students, colleagues, and the public so that they can understand and respond to the US government's actions, which I would argue are both misguided and paranoid. While I see my peers doing fascinating work on literature, maps, data visualization, and the entire vibrant range of projects in which we are collectively engaged, I worry that too few have heard the implicit call to put their expertise in service of educating others about the extent of the NSA and other agency's activities and—most importantly—about the history, meaning, and possible futures of these oppressive and chilling activities.

There are compelling narratives to be told, from the PATRIOT Act, to the UK's pervasive security cameras, to the revelations by and persecution of Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden, and others, a narrative that demands the skills of the humanist who is also conversant with technology, new media, social networks, data visualization, text-mining, et al. We are using the same techniques that the government uses to spy on us. Who better to explain how they work, what their limits are, how they can be misused and abused, and how to try to escape the digital Panopticon that is being built behind our backs than digital humanists? There was, rightfully so, an outcry from the community over the tragic harassment of Aaron Schwartz, who even JSTOR, the ostensibly injured party by his actions, did not want prosecuted. Now, when the stakes are even higher, and the government's abuse of its power extends beyond the individual to, it seems, all its citizens2, where is the response?

Maybe, though, the apparent lack of a sustained response from the DH community (and it's quite possible I've missed it; if so, clue me in) results less from a lack of interest than from a sense of despair towards what seems inevitable. We may use Gmail, Google docs, Facebook, Twitter, and other online services with no expectation of privacy. William Gibson, in a typically prescient Op-Ed he wrote in 2003 for the New York Times, remarks:

Driven by the acceleration of computing power and connectivity and the simultaneous development of surveillance systems and tracking technologies, we are approaching a theoretical state of absolute informational transparency, one in which ''Orwellian'' scrutiny is no longer a strictly hierarchical, top-down activity, but to some extent a democratized one. As individuals steadily lose degrees of privacy, so, too, do corporations and states. Loss of traditional privacies may seem in the short term to be driven by issues of national security, but this may prove in time to have been intrinsic to the nature of ubiquitous information.

Has the long history of predictions about surveillance from authors like Orwell, Gibson, and others made it all seem so inevitable that we despair of fighting back? I don't know. I have, as you can tell, far more questions than answers, but in the meantime, here a few resources to help you think about online privacy and to protect your own—if privacy is something you care about...

UPDATE: Here are some responses to this post.

Further Reading:

Bruce Schneier's blog posts about the NSA

EFF's Surveillance Self-Defense Project

Tools to Help You Go Private 

1. The details about this particular story may be sketchy, but the militarization of police and the routine use of excessive force is another terrifying trend. Join it with global surveillance and let your paranoid fantasies fly.

2. Supposedly, one need only be a few hops away from a suspected terrorist to fall into the NSA's digital dragnet. That's a lot of people, but still not everyone. At least we can trust the NSA to follow its own rules, right?


The digital humanities may need to develop a middle ground of inquiry in between (and overlapping with) its home domain and sociopolitical domains of information technology.  For example: perhaps the field could develop a critical branch focused on the overlap (and difference) between digital humanities and "new media," between the academic institution and governmental institutions, or between "open" information ideologies and surveillance.

Also: date your post so it can be cited?

Gladly! The date should now appear for you. Thanks for reading. I don't have much to add to your comment other than I think it's a wonderful idea and would be a fruitful expansion of what currently counts as digital humanities. If DH is only text analysis, building things, etc., well, that's interesting and valuable, but so far short of what it could be.

Thanks for this post, Michael, which, and maybe I'm wrong, but I read not as a totalizing prescription, but as a prompt for wider reflection and discussion, something that I certainly welcome, especially as this is a topic I’ve been thinking (and tweeting) about a lot lately.

As a librarian, I had no choice but to become steeped in understanding and applying metadata, and since the Snowden leaks, I've had more questions and comments about metadata than ever before. Sure, some are genuine, and some jokingly equate me to an NSA agent, but both come from what I believe to be a profound interest in trying to grapple with humanity and culture in an age of digital technology. When I work on digital projects with faculty and graduate students, one of the most empowering moments is when they *get* metadata; it’s not an easy thing for many to understand, yet it’s an often subtle but powerful actor that is very important to understand and has implications in nearly everything we do, and as many of us have long known, it can be used for wildly nefarious purposes.

So, do all librarians use their knowledge of metadata in a broader, critical way? Of course not. However, librarianship has a long, strong, and proud tradition on privacy issues, and we’ve actively cultivated that *within* our discipline and profession (and often in concert with those from other disciplines and professions). Don’t get me wrong, librarians are far from perfect on this and even less so on a whole host of other issues, especially as pertaining to technology, but it’s something we’ve both decided to engage with and *have* to engage with. There weren’t a lot of folks defending privacy post-9/11, but your librarians probably were.

To me, what underlies a lot of this discussion has to do with the importance of thinking critically about specific technologies, methods, platforms, tools, and computation itself. It’s not an easy thing and it’s often very unsettling. Rightly or wrongly (usually wrongly), a lot of uncritical faith is put into digital technology as being revolutionary, as making us somehow freer and therefore more human, despite our humanity being so ill-defined by computation. I’m speaking broadly here (at least broadly in the sense of one side of the digital divide), but, to give a DH example, let’s look at the text of Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0 and what’s published at Pando Daily and let’s talk about them both—about their language, rhetoric, ideology, etc. I am very interested in that conversation—and not to condemn DH, but precisely because I am interested, active, and invested in it—and I think the shift of wealth and power toward a very scary technocracy (Google spends more in lobbying not than Lockheed Martin) is too important to dismiss, let alone not consider.

I spend a lot of time critically evaluating digital research tools for students and scholars to then use. No doubt about it, my first goal is to evaluate a tool’s usefulness to humanities research, but I am also evaluating those tools on the criteria of who created them and how, and whether or not the decisions made by the developers and funders of those tools will constrain, elide, or shape in any way the work one wants to do with them. Those of us working in DH (however we define it, really) do know technology, do know algorithmic methods, do know tools and platforms, and I think that knowledge *is* of some broader use whether we spend our days topic modelling early modern literature or developing nonlinear, multimodal publishing platforms (I like both!).

Does every digital humanist have a duty to use that knowledge outside of their specific interests? I don’t know, but some do and have, and I’m sure many others are both thinking about it or have even been confronted about it in relation to NSA surveillance. So, why not continue the conversation? Another specific example would be Patrick Juola’s work on anonymity in literature which “broke” just shortly after we learned we might not be so anonymous as we maybe thought we were, and that it all has a lot to do with technology, algorithms, metadata, surveillance, law, ethics, and an increasingly more sticky list of things we might not always like to think about. (See also: Anonymouth.) Am I equating Juola with an NSA agent? Again, no. But is there a very interesting and important discussion to be had around that work that transcends “the literary?” I think so, yes.

Another example is a paper that was accepted and presented at DH 2013 (*the* DH conference) titled, “Are Google’s linguistic prosthesis biased towards commercially more interesting expressions? A preliminary study on the linguistic effects of autocompletion algorithms.” I’ve written about this paper here (, but to me this research brings up a whole host of additional important questions pertinent to the “what is DH” discussion and our broader socio-political realities. For instance, it makes me doubt that DH is and should only be a digitized humanities, that is, one based on remediation of texts and objects now open for algorithmic study and further close and distant reading. It makes me want to push the conversation on a broader DH that understands (as some of its practitioners certainly do) that we have, and continue to create, a massive store of born-digital humanities texts and objects that exist in a complex and mostly corporate-mediated environment online.

Maybe it’s because I’m reading Kittler right now, or maybe it’s just who I am, (or maybe—gasp!—I’m right), but I want to have these discussions and more. I want to talk about Matthew Kirschenbaum’s prompt on DH Questions & Answers when he asked, “Should DHers accept military/defense funding?” And I want to talk about a lot of other things: all things #dhpoco, gender and technology, the history of digital technology as a byproduct of military industrial complex, Silicon Valley, cyberlibertarianism, techno-uptopianism, solutionism, issues of media and structures of power, and, yes, corporate and governmental surveillance.

I want to talk about these things because I want to talk about them and because they *seriously* matter; but also because I truly believe my place in DH and my history with technology has provided me with something to say on these issues, a way of understanding them and critiquing them; and, in turn, dealing with those issues has made me a better (says I!) librarian, technologist, and humanist.

Again, here’s me without any answers, but open to the conversations, many of which I have on a daily basis with folks on Twitter and across various blogs and with an amazing group of graduate students and faculty across the a wide range of disciplines at my institution and beyond. But, I’m also the guy who thinks most of the stuff at the The Dark Side of the Digital conference this year in Milwaukee is and should be considered DH, which either makes me an imperial agent or a total radical, and the truth surely lies somewhere in between and I’m open to discussing it.

Thank you, Josh, for this rich addition to the conversation. I feel very similarly to you. Even though I have only worked professionally in DH for a short time, I have been steeped in computing most of my life and have had a broad range of experience with technologies of many flavors. That knowledge, joined with my humanities training, leads me to feel an obligation to speak up and to provoke, in whatever small way I can, further conversation and action. Your comments and everyone else's have already given me much more to think through.

To remark on a small practical point you raise, I very much like your habit of evaluating not only a tool's usefulness, but also its source nears Critical Code Studies (or perhaps is already firmly there) and is a habit I would like to emulate in a more sustained manner. It's so easy, sometimes, to reach for the most expedient solution (paging Dr. Morozov), especially when there are time pressures, without contextualizing that solution or considering its origins.

The rest of your comment, I'm still digesting. Thanks again.

I appreciate the kind words, Michael.

That kind of in-depth, critical curation of digital research tools is hard to sustain as my job gets more and more busy and complex, but I hope, though I need to be a generalist in my position and, I guess, "my place within DH," I can continue to keep it up. I'll actually be giving a talk or two about this very issue in the coming months and I will definitely post those on my site. I think places like Bamboo DiRT have done a fantastic job enabling this kind of critical curation through the types of metadata one can work with when adding tools to its repository. 

As you know, I'm also pretty new to DH, this being the end of my second year in my position (though a bit like you have a long history with digital technology and a MA in American Studies). In a way, our newness allows us to, as Matthew said on Twitter, naively ask these questions, but my hope is that just because we might frame the questions poorly, or lack greater historical context, that instead of shutting things down, folks chime in with the things our questions are lacking. Anyone who follows me on Twitter knows I'm constantly reading and talking and am always interested in a history lesson, a reading list, whatever. Our newness, of course, also brings with it high levels of anxiety (see my Day of DH) about raising questions in the first place, so I again applaud you for starting this conversation and allowing folks the chance to further refine the prompt.

Anyway, I've spoken enough! I hope more folks will chime in on your original topic, or maybe we can make this an open thread over at DH Poco. So much more to talk about aside from the meta-conversation I'm a bit stuck on at the moment.

Back to reading . . .

Enjoyed this post, Mike; it's an important topic, and this is a thoughtful, temperate contribution.

For me this is less an issue about "DH" than about left politics in academia more broadly. It's an old, long-running debate, which I don't expect we'll resolve, but I can't resist adding one thing.

Academics tend to be heavily invested in a particular spectrum of political issues that affect them more or less directly as knowledge workers. MOOCs are one example; internet surveillance is another.

I'm not saying anything against the importance of those issues when I point out that we're less invested in other issues. 57,000 kids kicked off Head Start because of the sequester, for instance, get an order of magnitude less discussion on Twitter than a single MOOC. The National Labor Relations Board gets less discussion than Glenn Greenwald.

I understand that some academics choose to organize their political engagement around their professional identities, and I don't object to that. I see left politics as a broad coalition. Pick up whatever tools you like; go to work where you see fit.

What I do object to is when people who care a lot about MOOCs and surveillance read people with other versions of left politics as silent or apolitical. For instance, I've blogged about the NSA. But I happen to care a lot more about Head Start, climate change, voting rights, and the NLRB. I'm not going to be sounding off about those things on Twitter -- both because most of my tweeps have a different set of priorities, and because I don't think tweeting changes much. When I want to change something, I turn out, in the weeks before an election, holding a clipboard and a stack of addresses. That's where I do my politicking, not in the office --- where everyone already agrees with me (except on matters of relative priorities).

This isn't intended as a critique of your post, because your post is quite temperate and is concerned more to understand (relative) silence on certain issues than to blame it. But I do mean to critique academic politics more broadly. It's okay to be primarily concerned with issues that affect knowledge workers, but we shouldn't be so proud of that that we become blind to other versions of left politics.

And I agree, entirely, with your remarks here, Ted. I'm working now on a follow-up post that unpacks some of my motivations for this post, which is in some places too strident and hasty. And, yes, absolutely, tweeting is a poor substitute for real activism. This blog post and the ones I have planned to follow it are my attempt to begin engaging more substantially with the topics that I care about most in the hopes of sparking broader conversations. Thanks for responding.

Also: I edited your comment to honor the HTML you wanted (an href and an em). Seems there's a permissions issue I need to resolve there.

"This blog post and the ones I have planned to follow it are my attempt to begin engaging more substantially with the topics that I care about most in the hopes of sparking broader conversations."

So here's my question, Michael . . . Why didn't you call bullshit yesterday on those who took up your post in triumphalist fashion and brandished it as yet another take down of DH?

What we see now is a dynamic in which those who proclaim they are engaged in "critique" are permitted to appropriate the statements of others in ways that is precisely totalizing and prescriptive (to use Josh's terms above), but if there is a response in kind then the responders--as you know, I was one of them--are told we're defensive, we can't engage in conversation, etc. etc.

This is the thing: If you put it out there, you own it. And if you don't call foul when others make you their proxy then folks are going to assume you're good with that.

I say this because like you, I think the conversation deserves better.



Thanks for responding. I fear you won't find my answer satisfactory, but I'll do my best. First, I'm already composing a follow up to this post that clarifies, I hope, my motivations for writing it and how I intended it, which I'm afraid I did not convey as well as I could have originally. Twitter, however, is not, for me, the most effective venue for such a follow up. 

Second, while I have been very happy to see a conversation unfold on Twitter and in these comments, I've been equally happy to sit back and read the responses from people who are far more well-established in the field than I and from whom I hope to learn. Frankly, I didn't expect the sort of reaction this post received (history led me to expect no response), so the ramifying threads of conversation have been exhilarating to follow. Which leads to:

Third, I don't feel a need to police how people interpret my words. I cannot control it or even notice every time somebody takes them in a way I may not endorse. Moreover, such reactions are to be expected (and perhaps even hoped for) when we write publicly, are they not? I have this blog, where I can and will respond. I may own my original words, but I cannot own or control the spin others put on it, especially not in real-time. I can only hope that others will read what I actually wrote and come to their own conclusions. I certainly didn't intend my post to be totalizing or polarizing and I lament it if some have taken what I intended as invitation and spur to conversation as a takedown of DH (a community I love, support, and identify as a member of). But, again, they own their words and their interpretations; I own only mine.

How would you like to see the conversation proceed?

Thanks for the response, Michael, with which I take no issue, least of all with anything you say in part 3.

Regarding to your very last question, however, I will only say this: the reality is that most online "conversations" these days are composed of at least three medial strata of interactions--

(Often) an originating blog post, news item, or (more rarely) scholarly article or other discurvisve text.

A public Twitter exchange around that originary piece of writing.

A backchannel of varying degrees of insularity (DMs, email, fragmented @replies, Facebook or other platforms).

I mention this because I think acknowledging the fullness of the media landscape is incumbent upon us as people who vest themselves with a critical vantage point, and because I don't think we can, or should, aguably segment or privilege or demote any strata of that interactive model. That is, the conversation is all of those parts equally, their interactions and (as you say) ramifications.

How then to proceed? I wish I had the answer. I and others who are no dobut reading here recently contributed essays to a special journal issue addressed to these matters of DH critique. Presumably it is an opportunity for the airing of extended and nuanced statements and positions, though we will have to await publication sometime in the spring to see the particulars. Will  the sidestep to that familiar venue, the scholarly journal article, promote a qualitative shift in the state of the conversation?

I wish I could say I was particularly optimistic.


Tangential response to Matt here, if I may. I can't speak for Michael, but I can envision myself in Michael's position -- say, I blog something and it sparks a controversy on Twitter.

In that situation, I would definitely want to feel free to do nothing whatsoever. First, because it's possible I might not want to take a side. E.g., when people take positions on "DH" I usually don't want to take a side because the term means little to me.

Secondly because, in general, I feel doing nothing is often the best response to Twitter. It's great for sharing brief information, but worse than useless for debate or even serious discussion. The 140-character limit and the snowballing numbers of people involved make it less like Habermas than like the torch-and-pitchfork scene from _Frankenstein_, staged in quicksand.

So I actually think it needs to be an understood norm of 21c discourse that no author can ever be expected to govern his or her reception on Twitter. Imo, the whole medium needs to be taken with a huge pinch of salt.

Thank you Michael for linking to my HASTAC post on "Google's Virtual Light". 

You say that most of the HASTAC bloggers are "not scholar-practitioners of social network analysis, text-mining, and metadata" but that might be a bit of a misconception. Many of us would very much like to be considered as such. Many of us are no longer graduate students and are scholar practitioners.

Having said that I'd definitely would like to see more scholars who identifiy with DH to blog at HASTAC, but at the same time I'd say that a cursory glance at the last HASTAC and DH conferences reveals a healthy amount of interaction and intersections. At this point my comment is nothing but 'anecdata', but should I had the time and funding to do it, I'd happily go and look into the archives and offer some hard facts ;-)




Hi, Ernesto, and thanks for responding. You're absolutely right about HASTAC, which is a community I love and, as you know, have been a member of for years now. HASTAC 2013 was one of the best conferences I've been to in a long time. What I was trying to say, was that HASTAC covers much more than just DH and should not be assumed to be a stand-in for DH. I certainly did not mean, in any way, to denigrate the exciting and important work HASTAC Scholars, alumni, and others are doing and sharing on the site. I see HASTAC as a nexus where DH, new media studies, pedagogy, art, and many other fields can meet. If DH is a big tent, HASTAC is like a field where someone set that tent up alongside many others.

Last modified Tue, 7 Oct, 2014 at 16:01