Why is Infrastructure So Uninflected?

Why is Infrastructure So Uninflected?
Informal position paper on digital humanities
Symposium on Critical Digital Humanities
University of Westminster, London
May 22, 2017

Note: This is a slightly adapted and dynamic version of the submitted position paper. This brief statement relates to two longer pieces on infrastructure I am hoping to finish before the summer (these obviously contain more flesh and a fuller argument). Also, I discuss some of these issues in my book Big Digital Humanities (University of Michigan Press, 2016) and elsewhere.

Digital humanities has had a key role in infrastructure policy and infrastructure implementation work over the two decades that have passed since the academic ‘infrastructure turn’ began in the late 1990s (Borgman 2007; Rockwell 2010) under names such as research infrastructure, cyberinfrastructure and knowledge infrastructure (and also earlier through projects such as the Text Encoding Initiative). The American Council of Learned Societies report “Our Cultural Commonwealth” from 2006 is one example of policy making, and people from the community have been instrumental in forming part of the infrastructural vision of the European Union. Large infrastructural projects such as CLARIN and Dariah are closely aligned with organized digital humanities. One of the constituent organizations of the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations (ADHO), centerNet, explicitly strives to benefit “centers as humanities cyberinfrastructure” (centerNet website, About page) and contributes to many policy making efforts, often together with other organizations.

In roughly the same time frame (since the late 1990s/early 2000s), digital humanities (earlier humanities computing) has undergone a remarkable expansion and renegotiation. This process has been successful in realigning the field in some ways, creating a larger footprint and support, and attracting a broader and epistemically more diverse community. At the same time, there has been significant tension (some of it productive, some not), partly resulting from a broader variety of epistemic positions, and partly because it was felt that traditional digital humanities (rightly) was not concerned with important humanistic categories and ‘inflection’ (Smith 2007). I use the term ‘inflection’ to describe the epistemic, diverse, intellectual, social, and potentially radical nature of infrastructure. Among other things, this critique has concerned the role and place of categories and perspectives such as gender, race and power, and increasingly the environment, ability and social justice. There is now an existing and emerging literature on issues such as race and digital humanities (Mcpherson 2012), feminist infrastructure (Brown et al. 2016), academic infrastructure (Noble and Roberts 2017), intersectional approaches to digital humanities (Risam 2015) and the radical potential of the field (Posner 2016). There is also a related critique that suggests that the focus of digital humanities tends to be technological and methodological rather than critical, disciplinary and intellectual (Drucker 2012; Liu 2012; Prescott 2012).

The problem is that this critical awareness (and to some degree ‘making’) is not reflected in policy documents and in large-scale humanistic infrastructure building. On the contrary, it is virtually absent, and ‘infrastructure speak’ and infrastructure design are remarkably stable and have not changed in any major ways despite the critique discussed above. The point is not to add or sprinkle ‘inflection’ to infrastructure or to disregard the material aspects of infrastructure, but to let humanistic perspectives and questions drive the development of infrastructure. This is a major challenge for the field of digital humanities, but also for the humanities at large since digital humanities often gets to (and seeks to) represent the humanities in terms of ‘infrastructure thinking’ and infrastructure policy work and in concrete projects and initiatives. This is even more important at a time when humanistic infrastructure visions, policies and roadmaps are being formed in many countries and international contexts.

Infrastructures are not static – they need repair and they continue to be renegotiated – but they embed values, manifest thinking, and structure our world for the long haul. They are also epistemic machineries (Knorr-Cetina 1999). The imagining and building of new infrastructure is consequently a major responsibility. Designing humanistic infrastructure for the future is a central task for the academy. Although there is some renewed interest in infrastructure in the digital humanities and humanities more broadly, there is little incorporation of the type of inflection discussed above – including epistemic, historical, race, gender, ability, environment – in infrastructure work in digital humanities. There is also little critical work on infrastructure as a model and the limits of that model (Montoya and Leazer 2017). Humanistic infrastructure needs to strongly represent and make agentive humanistic values, questions and perspectives, and it needs to be sensitive both to the epistemic specificity of disciplines (Merz 2006) and to the larger social and cultural challenges that we face as humans and as being socio-technologically complicit (Ratto 2016). Imagining and making such infrastructures is hard for many reasons, and at the same time a once in a generation opportunity and responsibility for digital humanities and the humanities.


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