I’ve been thinking a lot this semester about the potential of digital humanities for growth but also for exploitation and violence. The development of new technologies opens up an incredible amount of room for innovative thinking and creativity, yet it also opens up an unregulated arena for people to run rampant in. I’m definitely not suggesting that the all-knowing “They” need to regulate each and every aspect of our lives since I don’t believe in the surveillance and policing of people, but I have to wonder if those who are pursuing digital humanities are conscious of the impact of their actions.
Historically, women’s (and especially women of color’s) work and bodies have been co-opted, erased, exploited, violated, and stolen by men who cannot believe that women are capable of making meaningful contributions. (I use the word “historically” but I would argue that “currently” is more accurate.) I must then wonder about who is producing new work within digital humanities, who has access to new tech, and who is being erased from the field. The adaptable nature of digital humanities makes it useful for transformative work and truly fits with the ground-breaking, radical nature of QTPOC activism. Digital humanities holds so much potential for exploding norms and changing the ways in which we perceive the world around us.
Since digital humanities is a relatively new field, it is also relatively unregulated. It doesn’t seem as if anyone has “branded” digital humanities yet and hopefully no one ever will. What happens when digital humanities becomes “mainstream”? Would that expand access or will digital humanities become an exclusive field in which only the rich and powerful get to play in? Will people still be able to easily print prosthetic limbs or will the high demand make companies like MakerBot jack up their prices? And when does digital humanities become dangerous?
When I was fifteen, a college aged man who was a known stalker started hitting on me. A week later my friend, who had been stalked by him at one point and was only a couple of years older than me, told him to leave her and all of her friends alone or she would cause trouble for him (in much more explicit terms). She only found out after the fact that he had started hanging around me. I bring this up because I’ve been thinking about this since we did the GIS activity. I had completely forgotten about my past proximity with stalkers until I started thinking about the potential ramifications of digital humanities and suddenly realized why our GIS activity made me so uncomfortable.
There are a couple of layer to this. For one, real-time GSP tracking via a fairly public link/platform is just straight up uncomfortable. Even though we had to install the application to access this technology, the technology itself definitely exists and there are people out there who are smart enough to hack a phone. There are also people who are enough of a creeper to install the application on a friend/significant other/target’s phone without telling them. Personally, I don’t scroll through my application list looking to see if anyone’s installed tracking software on my phone so if someone did install such an application I would not know.
Another layer to this is that as a radical woman of color and growing activist, being stalked is a legitimate concern for me. Perhaps not right now, since I’m not a highly visible person on this campus yet, but if I continue on my current trajectory I will make enemies here at UMass. After I graduate, I will potentially be making enemies on a larger scale. (When I write enemies, I mean people who disagree with my politics in a violent way.) The GPS function on my smartphone is a safety concern.
Women of color receive a disproportionately large amount of death/rape threats online. It doesn’t matter what they are writing about there will almost always be a number of people who make violent comments and threats. These threats are not taken seriously by law enforcement since it’s brushed off as trolls trolling but there are activists whose names and addresses have been published online by these “trolls.” There are activists whose children have been threatened. There are activists who are constantly afraid for their lives because every day a new person threatens to kill them.
Where does digital humanities go from here? I don’t know. I am invested in the development of a field that holds potential to change the ways in which we interact with society but I am just as invested, if not more so, in keeping people safe. How can we move forward with a critical analysis of how our actions impact the most vulnerable in our communities? Can we? There are plenty of people who care primarily about developing new technology and find critical analyses to be a waste of time or the concern of people who are “too sensitive.” I want to believe that digital humanities will evolve into a field that is accessible, transformative, and comparatively safe but I have seen over and over how people get exploited and bullied out of their fields because of institutionalized oppression.