Digital Humanists’ Responses to Surveillance

Recently, I made a plea that the digital humanities community direct its collective expertise, both as humanists and technologists, to respond to the revelations about the NSA's surveillance, a post inspired, in part, by my feelings of frustration and anger (justified and righteous, I believe) at our constant status as objects of surveillance and potential analysis.1 Clearly, many others feel the same way. Another part of my inspiration was that, during my daily talking, reading, and working on digital humanities and library things,2 I often think to myself: "We have such a wealth of talented thinkers, writers, builders, teachers, et al. who make up the digital humanities community, and we could do something. We should do something."


A discussion ensued via various media that I'm gathering together here for anyone interested, but who missed the original exchanges. The exchanges on Twitter were insightful and surprising; they covered DH meta-discussion and definitions (again), the place of politics in the humanities, the possibly apolitical nature of DH, the role of scholars in the public sphere, and other topics that are still developing. In many cases, I think the tweets say more about the affordances and distortions of the platform than convey the ideas of their authors with any semblance of accuracy. Matthew Kirschenbaum notes of these modes of communication 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).

The fleeting, casual nature of Twitter lacks room for nuance, shades of meaning, or elaboration, which makes it better suited to the exchange of links to longer form materials where discussion may take place as comments, in longer written responses, or even in person (which also serves as prophylactic against surveillance). Ted Underwood writes of attempts to converse via Twitter:


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

Along these lines, see also, Mark Sample's “Twitter is a Snark Valve”. All this is simply to say: I urge you to read the full comments and consider the context of all the excerpts below. That caveat said, here is a Storify of the Tweets I was able to capture, which I have attempted to organize by thread. There are many more responses in the Storify than I have included in this post, so do go read it if you want to catch up.

Shortly after I tweeted a link to my post, Kirschenbaum subtweeted3 that I was both “adorbs” and “bizarre” (two adjectives I am happy to have applied to me!) for speaking out and urging others in DH to do the same:



David Golumbia chimed in with a series of tweets decrying what he sees as a lack of interest in political engagement that afflicts the digital humanities:



Underwood remarked, of the role(s) left politics in academic play:


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.


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.

But let us return to the original topic: surveillance and DH. Josh Honn commented on his experience teaching and discussing these issues:


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.

Scott Weingart related some of his knowledge about the need for humanists in the war-fighting and defense contractor industry:



Elijah Meeks mentioned to me once that if you really want to see some expert social network analysis, you should watch the YouTube videos of military commanders explaining it. I have known people working at defense contractors (with terrifyingly ominous names) where, to have heard it told, scary men direct the development of software that ships with bugs that can cost war fighters' lives. On some floors, these businesses might design tools for the more effective analysis of social networks. On others, they may research and test self-driving weaponized drones. The intersection of corporate desires with military technology and human lives, for example, would comprise a compelling object of study for someone in critical code studies, among other possible approaches.4

And then there is Alan Liu's response on Twitter, a pitch perfect invitation to expansive dialogue on key issues that could lead us to a sustained critique of the NSA et al.:


Bethany Nowviskie captured the sense of awe and appreciation I felt when I read Liu's wise words:



So, yes, please, let us have these conversations and soon! To effect change on these matters will, I fear, require a mobilization of the populace. In which case, they need to be educated by respected and influential figures. You see where my thoughts go...


I did make an error in taking my frustration (however tempered) with our collective situation out on a community5 with which I identify. I also skipped, in my haste and brevity, some important steps, which Liu rightly pointed out. Even so, I'm so glad that what I wrote compelled some respected and well-known people to respond. I posted, in part, in an attempt to persuade more people to share my passion for this fight, to galvanize, and to provoke. And there was a contingent who responded “YES!”, nodded their heads in agreement, or simply retweeted,6 to whom I extend my thanks.7


We are allies as citizens and a community by our professions, if nothing else. We are also, I would argue, well-positioned to make a difference, to help fight back against what we all now clearly see happening. And I so hope we will fight back. I cannot speak for the DH community, but I can speak to it. I can try to be a thorn in the side, an uncomfortable reminder, and fulfill my sense of obligation to speak as a citizen in the public sphere. News reports have come out in the past days that reveal yet more of the extent to which the NSA is incapable of following the boundaries even the secret FISA court placed upon its activities. Surely, humanists have something to say about the ways power—particularly secret, unaccountable power—tends toward abuse. Others, who have an understanding of email transmission protocols could discuss the NSA's inability to separate targeted suspicious (itself a judgment than needs interrogation) messages out from innocuous ones, storage procedures for those captured data, and the rest of the processes involved.


This exchange, across some of the very social media being harnessed against us, also shows the potential neutrality of the technology; it's what we do with it and about it that counts. Consider, as example, the role of social media in the Arab Spring, where the ephemera of the digital messages that helped organize and document it may serve as a model of tactics for decentralized resistance. Mark Sample's narrative and algorithmic experiments, digital art projects (again, search HASTAC) of parody, fictionalization, and fantasies of the surveillance world, Ted Underwood's concerns and skepticism, etc., are further models of engagement. For my small part, I intend to pursue this topic more in future posts that this ongoing conversation has inspired me to write. I hope others will join me.



1 The studies about the psychological toll the mere knowledge of constant surveillance places on people are relevant here.

2 Metadata and search are, for some reason, big things in libraries; who knew?

3 Subtweets in form, if not intent. My assumption is that he was being kind by not naming me directly, rather than sneaky. From the question he posed on DHAnswers asking whether it is ethical to accept funding from defense or military sources to his contribution to a forthcoming special issue on “matters of DH critique” that I look forward to reading, it is clear Kirschenbaum is equally concerned with these matters and, I suspect, took exception more to the genre and rhetorical stance of my post than to the content.

4 Imagine an alternate universe where every government contractor and department has embedded humanists with cross-disciplinary expertise to serve as advisors with actual authority.

5 The DH community is something for which we will never define satisfactory boundaries or taxonomies, but which nevertheless exists. We can feel it.

6 Does not imply endorsement.

7 I love to see the spike in my site traffic. Everyone is watching everyone else, no?


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Last modified Tue, 10 Sep, 2013 at 14:45