Thursday, January 12, 2012

MLA 2012: Debates in the Digital Humanities

Hacktivism and the Humanities: Programming Protest in the Era of the Digital University
Elizabeth Losh, University of California, San Diego

In June 2009, Cathy Davidson wrote a blog entry for the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC) soliciting applications for a Program Coordinator. In her recruitment, she described HASTAC as a “voluntary network” of scholars who reach beyond academia to expand what the digital humanities could and should be. In doing so, Davidson defined its sphere of influence in broad moral and political terms that included “the role of science and technology and the state of our planet” and “issues of equity and ethics.” However, she concluded her post with a different kind of call to action from her initial “help wanted” message, one that spoke directly to hackers wanting to topple the Iranian regime that had just crushed pro-democracy protests and had shut down the microblogging and text messaging services.

Davidson alerted her audience that Western digital rights advocates had “received an SOS from pro-democracy activists in Tehran asking us all to use basic hacking tools to flood the propaganda sites of the ruling regime with junk traffic in order to bring them down and thereby open Twitter channels again.” Accordingly she reposted the following orders for electronic civil disobedience:

NOTE to HACKERS - attack - pls try to hack all iran gov wesites [sic]. very difficult for us,? Tweets one activist. The impact of these distributed denial of service (DDOS) attacks isn?t clear. But official online outlets like,, and are currently inaccessible. (Jardin)

What is the connection between Davidson’s eloquent defense of a broader notion of the digital humanities and her reposting of a rushed message that is peppered with misspellings, abbreviations, and infelicities of style? In both cases DH functions as a site of political activism, recognizable as being in the tradition of campus protests about civil rights or anti-militarism that defined how political commitment and dissent were staged in the built environment of the university in the past while also being part of a new vanguard of networked cultures in which protests in temporary autonomous zones could be rhizomatic, sporadic, and even ironic in their rhetorics.

By urging readers to launch distributed denial of service attacks aimed at the Iranian state, Davidson links HASTAC with another frame of cultural reference, that of “hacktivism” or the writing of code to promote or subvert particular political ideologies. In addition to protesting human rights violations, hacktivists have used their programming skills as a form of civil disobedience to promote free and open software, privacy, free speech, freedom of movement, governmental transparency, information ethics, political self-determination, environmental protection, and a range of other online and offline causes. However, because hacking tends to be a virtuoso performance by seasoned programmers, the ability to wield tools that expose vulnerabilities in security, privacy, or accurate data representation is often seen as the sole purview of an elite group of highly computer-literate cognoscenti very different from the print-cultured readers of her blog.

In thinking about the relationship between “hacktivism” and the humanities, it is worth noting that some academics are already risking tenure and even arrest because of their acts of electronic civil disobedience. To understand these phenomena that test academic freedom either to bring politics into academia or academia into politics, I argue it is helpful to examine theories of “hacktivism” or the nonviolent use of digital tools in pursuit of political ends. In the context of the digital humanities, I argue that hacktivism theory can broaden and deepen our understanding of the use of digital tools and of the politics of that tool use and to question the uncritical instrumentalism of so many DH projects.

Of course, some might argue that Davidson’s appeal for hackers to bring down Iranian government sites shows a naïve understanding of how human rights discourses function in the era of the Internet. In practical terms, denial of service attacks on state-run online media may only intensify suspicions that outside agitators are interfering with the internal politics of a country with a long history of unwelcome intervention. Furthermore, such attacks on the state’s propaganda infrastructure do little to promote the work of activists who bear witness through channels independent of the authoritarian state or provide evidence with persuasive power rather than just disruption of user experience.

In response to the Iranian situation, some digital humanities projects took a fundamentally different approach from the cyber-attacks promoted by Davidson. HyperCities, an initiative that describes itself as “a digital research and educational platform for exploring, learning about, and interacting with the layered histories of city and global spaces,” supported the efforts of UCLA Iranian-American graduate student Xarene Eskandar to create a collection of geotagged social media artifacts that documented Iranian election protests with markers on electronic maps, online videos, links to microblog postings, and explanations of the significance of a range of other digital ephemera from Tehran. More recently, the group created Hypercities Egypt, which included a Google map of Cairo that pinpointed a new anti-government tweet every four seconds. HyperCities director Todd Presner maintained that this retasking of a mapping tool designed to teach about urban history in ancient Rome or Weimar Berlin was completely consistent with the project’s mission, because “HyperCities Egypt gives users a sense of living — and reliving — history.”

Such software also shares information about rapidly unfolding events organized by smart mobs in the present with future participants. Although the HyperCities team sees disseminating real-time data as continuing the scholarly work of building digital archives, such tools may also become of interest to those outside academia who hope that visualized trends could also be deployed to try to predict the future. This is precisely the situation that Laila Shereen Sakr, a.k.a. VJ Um Amel, a USC graduate student has found herself in once the State Department took interest in her project, R-Shief, a suite of tools designed to visualize the shifting real-time patterns of popular opinion in the Middle East to provide “real-time analysis of opinion about late-breaking issues in the Arab world.” By using aggregate data from Twitter and the Web, R-Shief attempts to dissect phenomena such as how people in Egypt are reacting to the latest changes to the constitutional process, how Libyans perceive the presence of NATO forces, what Bahrainis think about the presence of Saudi military, and how pro-regime supporters in Syria are using social media. Being able, literally, to picture such complex social and political interactions could encourage more meaningful dialogue about democracy and civil society both in and about Arabic-speaking countries Shereen Sakr argues. She also embraces open-ended methods of inquiry that recognize contemporary means of communication as “technically mediated, messy, real-time, and fast” and notes that it is already challenging to write a “history of the present,” because “distance is critical to be critical.” Yet through tech@state now she has also been asked to engage in futurecasting so that public diplomacy efforts could maximize rhetorical impact and minimize security risk. Shereen Sakr might seem to be an unlikely ally to the nation-state, given her interest in hacking and hacktivism as part of the USC Critical Code Studies group and her public promotion of the Occupy Data movement, but with a paucity of regional experts and trained analysts of social media, her digital humanities projects have become of great interest to government agencies far beyond the N.E.H.

New uses for digital testimony and evidence even puts the digital humanities in dialogue with movements for decriminalization and political abolitionism. For example, Sharon Daniel’s “Public Secrets” and “Blood Sugar” websites about imprisonment and addiction were created with programming resources from the online journal Vectors and thus partially funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Yet many NEH competitions specifically forbid endorsing any particular political point of view and would seem to promote a form of technocratic neutrality antithetical to the ethos that I am describing here.

At its most extreme, outright electronic civil disobedience could be described as the most militant form of political resistance in DH . Many scholars date theories of electronic civil disobedience in the academy to the early work of Critical Art Ensemble as an artist-activist collective. Electronic Disturbance Theater put many earlier principles of the CAE into digital practice with a series of “virtual sit-ins.” For example, EDT organized digital protests on the virtual real estate of official websites in Mexico, the U.S., and the European Union. No actual damage was done to the infrastructure of the sites or to their security mechanisms; the intent was merely “to disrupt access to the targeted website by flooding the host server with requests.”
Nonetheless, after EDT member Professor Richardo Dominguez held a well-publicized virtual sit-in on March 4, 2010 to protest tuition hikes that used computer servers owned by his employer, University of California, and targeted websites of the UC Office of the President, he found himself under investigation and at risk of losing his recently earned tenure. While faculty and students marched on the state Capitol building, Dominguez had instructed some four hundred EDT supporters to help occupy the domain. Because of the timeline of accusations, some claim that it was actually the development of the controversial “Transborder Immigrant Tool” or TBT that caused Dominguez to face possible disciplinary consequences for expropriating public resources and criminal prosecution for violating existing computer law. After all, Fox News was running stories explaining “hacktivism” to their viewership soon after reporting that Dominguez’s group was helping illegal immigrants by recycling cheap mobile phones and equipping them with new software to guide them in making the risky trip across the border to water caches left by humanitarian groups.

The use of computing resources in more conventional digital humanities projects may seem less obviously open to debate, but Dominguez’s case should function as both a cautionary tale and as an aspirational story to those operating in the mainstream of this emerging area. In other words, projects involving text encoding, archiving, or G.I.S. generally use university computer resources as well, and controversies about ownership, access, and control may have consequences for DH projects also. Although the battles over who uses a given server and under what circumstances may seem less contested for a database of Jane Austen novels than a database of covert water caches in the desert, academics involved in all kinds of projects must grapple with the politics of combative IT funding situations.

According to a story in The Chronicle of Higher Education about a new cohort of “digitally incorrect” professors determined to flout convention in defense of hacktivist principles, such misunderstandings may occur more often now that the university must assimilate “the first generation of new-media artists who migrated to academe.” These faculty dissenters use tools of tactical media as imagined most broadly by theorists like Geert Lovink to include not only software, but also other kinds of small-scale media appropriation, such as “pirated radio waves, video art, animations, hoaxes, wi-fi networks, musical jam sessions, Xerox cultures, performances, grassroots robotics, cinema screenings, street graffiti” (Lovink 189).

At the 2011 annual convention of the MLA, noted humanities scholar Alan Liu made a plea for more political engagement within the digital humanities and specifically for taking hacktivism and tactical media activism more seriously: “In the digital humanities, cultural criticism–in both its interpretive and advocacy modes–has been noticeably absent by comparison with the mainstream humanities or, even more strikingly, with “new media studies” (populated as the latter is by net critics, tactical media critics, hacktivists, and so on).” Liu argues that these predictable catalogues of digital humanities products (“tools,” “data,” “metadata,” and “archives”), modes of institutional membership (“associations,” “conferences,” “journals,” and “projects”), and stock issues (“the digital divide,” “privacy,” and “copyright”) add up to little critical thinking about neoliberalism at best and collaboration with for-profit educational outsourcing at worst.

Davidson and Liu are certainly closer to the center of the digital humanities as it is currently defined, and Shereen Sakr and Dominguez are probably located farther away on its peripheries, but they all argue for the formation of new modes of institutional critique, particularly – in Liu’s case – as impersonal and dehumanized distance learning threatens to transform public education for the worse. Yet the history of the digital humanities told by Tara McPherson describes founding fathers who turned to humanities computing not because they were in love with the aquarianism of Ted Nelson, but because were in full retreat from race, gender, and class in the post-free-speech academy. Nonetheless, the history of new media more generally is now filled with stories of gender and race, since even supposedly neutral algorithms and computer chips were shaped by material culture and the labor practices of female programmers and Native American workers, as N. Katherine Hayles and Lisa Nakamura have explained.
In addition to opening up blackboxed systems of nation and sexuality, many hacktivists also tinker with the materiality of technology and the contingent character of current consumer comforts. For example, CAE and EDT hacktivists have created projects on genetically modified food and nanotechnology in cosmetics. Digital humanists may be similarly incorporating criticism from studies of material culture, social practice, or media archeology, but I would argue that hacktivism pushes this consciousness raising further.

Perhaps it is not heretical to say that the digital humanities is more about bit rot and obsolete file formats than it is about “clean” data and perfect visualizations. As Matthew Kirschenbaum has observed in a recent NEH White Paper, DH maintenance and preservation practices are “localized and idiosyncratic,” much – as I would argue – hacker practice is. Furthermore, because digital humanities projects force scholars to care about mundane matters like maintaining servers and replacing routers, this peculiar breed of academic must also come to understand the instability and materiality of the archive not its permanence and abstraction. Even digital files in the “cloud” exist somewhere in time and space, and high-tech satellites or data barges are built and decay in systems of property and territory. As more digital humanities projects, such as the recent Digging into Data challenge, require international collaboration, the geopolitical, legal, logistical, and material risks are even greater.

In the end, both the hacktivist and the more mainstream digital humanist must be sensitive to the vulnerability and imperfection of digital knowledge systems to pursue their avocations on a day-to-day basis. As Galloway and Thacker argue “the exploit” lets us understand procedures and protocols. In considering the need for supporting a truly hacktivist digital humanities, perhaps we can imagine both new forms of activism and new publics for DH, and in thinking about the relationship between forms of symbolic representation that humanists care about and forms of political representation that activists care about, perhaps we all need to break some systems to understand how they should be built.

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