What’s in a Name?

What’s in a Name?: A Response to Blog Themes

Deadlines! November 04 was the date for our first blog post, indeed for our first piece of submitted work in the DHC year.  As a class we had created a Facebook group, during the day classmates posted the URL of their blogs.   It is outside the periphery of this blog post to respond fully to such a vast array of interesting discussions;  instead I will need to limit myself to exploring a theme that both Nora and Annie addressed in their posts: defining the field.  At the evolution or outset of a new movement the struggle to name and establish principles and parameters is one of the overriding concerns of the birthing process.  The definition it accepts or accords itself has a huge bearing  on how it is perceived and the tasks with which it occupies itself.

Defining Digital Humanities
Defining Digital Humanities

The struggle for definition.

I recognised Nora’s struggle to explain to friends exactly what the Digital Humanities module of her PhD constituted. My reading on this particular anxiety had centred around the work of Liu, Panapaker and Svensson  – the texts assigned for our first DHC class.  The various viewpoints mentioned in the articles ranged from the view of DH as outré and a danger to the humanities to casting DH as the saviour of the humanities, a transformational discipline.
I believe a definition should include a nod to how the discipline can contribute to reducing the inequalities in society and how the splicing together  of Technology and the Humanities can enhance that contribution.  An article in Friday’s Guardian bemoans the lack of awareness around this issue by many of the proponents of the digital at the WebSummit.  Although I concede that some of the points are fair, I feel it fails to acknowledge efforts of some developers at the summit.  I sat mainly at the content stage where a number of the speakers did emphasise the relevance and importance of technologies to the underrepresented.  Of particular relevance is Blippar founder Ambarish Mitra who, quoting the figures that 1/7 of the world can’t even read and write and 2/7 have only basic literacy, contends that the next mass communication movement will be the visual and sees Blippar and Augmented Reality as going some way towards reforming the education system for those who cannot read.  If DH is to be understood as a democratising force then we must make every effort address underrepresentation.

Crowdsourcing is dead-Long live Citizen Humanities!

Annie tackled the issue of Crowdsourcing, another area that struggles with its definition. Annie offered a critique of the definitions posited by Merriam-Webster and by Stuart Dunn.  To this I’d like to add Simon Tanner, who in his blog takes issue with the roots of the definition, he advocates a move away from the task centred definitions offered by Howe and others and posits a desire to kill the ‘NeoLibralistic’  roots of the definition of crowdsourcing. He proclaims “Crowdsourcing is dead -Long live Citizen Humanities”
There certainly is a concerted effort to change the name by which the movement is commonly known. Jeff Howe’s Wired article of 2006 is often creditied with coining the neologism, however even he tries to disown it! On crowdsourcing.org Howe claims to have hated the word from the start, claiming it was just a working title and “It was so pandering, so typical of Silicon Valley.” In any case the general consensus amongst the community is that the definition is no longer relevant.
In true collaborative form the speakers and organisers of the Citizen Humanities Comes of Age Conference posted a collective message:  “The models of participation discussed at the symposium could not be further removed from the notion or the application of the term famously coined by Jeff Howe in 2006…. ..‘citizen humanities’, like ‘citizen science’ has connotations of investment, participation and belonging – or rather choosing to belong.”
The very process of citizen humanities or crowdsourcing can be hugely beneficial,  especially when it comes to the cultural heritage sector.  Surely one of the benefits of cultural heritage crowdsourcing is in getting people to access the archives, the stacks or the artefacts; essentially to engage with the collection while tagging, digitising or enhancing it.  This point is elucidated by Trevor Owens “Transcripts and other data are great, but when done right, crowdsourcing projects are the best way of accomplishing the entire point of putting collections online.” Rather than just consuming, there is a process of enhancement and engagement.
 So why do the negative associations persist with the changing of the name? Despite the insistence by proponents  that they are a world away from outsourced labour and exploitation it cannot be denied that digital innovation does create new forms of inequality, as Astra Taylor puts it “we are witnessing not levelling of the cultural playing field, but a rearrangement with new winners and losers”.
The Internet reflects real-world inequalities as much as it reduces them. Cultural products are primarily valued as opportunities for data collection, while creators receive little or no compensation for their efforts.

The Ghosts in the Digital Machine

As an example,  let’s look at Amazon’s  Mechanical Turk (MTurk). This crowdsourcing tool, sometimes offering payment,  was amongst the tools discussed in our crowdsourcing lecture – we picked the words from an image map in the lecturer’s slides.  A definition from Wikipedia is perhaps appropriate, given the topic at hand: “(MTurk) is a crowdsourcing Internet marketplace that enables individuals and businesses…. to coordinate the use of human intelligence to perform tasks that computers are currently unable to do” MTurk as a crowdsourcing tool warrants a closer look;  lets examine  a recent media article  from the LA Times :

It transpires that companies hiring workers through MTurk can “reject any work without explanation. And if they reject any part of a project, they’re allowed to keep all the remaining, completed work …” A response to the blind spots around the exploitation of crowds comes from Lilly Irani, an assistant professor in communication at UC San Diego in the form of  Dynamo:

” regarding labor rights for digital workers ..she collaborated with colleagues at Stanford on a project called Dynamo, an anonymous forum launched in late 2014 where workers can propose, discuss and vote on specific collective labor actions.“Dynamo is more like a virtual union hall, a worker-only safe space where workers can post ideas about activist actions anonymously,”
Is crowdsourcing exploitative?

Digital Sharecropping?

Astra Taylor warns against allowing the economic value of culture to be concentrated in the hands of those positioned to unequally benefit from the efforts of the collective.  Striving for a definition that adequately conveys the principles of a discipline or movement is an onerous task and  no matter how robustly one tries to express the guiding philosophy and principles by naming and setting parameters around an area, there is no guarantee that the boundary will hold.  Crowdsourcing, Cloud-labour, call you what you will, there are those who believe that it has its roots in the Sweatshops and is an area open to exploitation.  Owens offered the warning “Be wary of anyone who tries to suggest we should trick people or entice them into this work. We can offer users an opportunity to deeply explore, connect with and contribute to public memory and we can’t let anything get in the way of that”  We need to generate a strong definition of what the collective effort offers and then strengthen our Cultural Commons and our labour laws for the virtual world, a system left to the free market will not deliver the transformations promised by this new digital culture.


Taylor, Astra. The People’s Platform Taking Back Power and Culture in a Digital Age Taylor. London: 4thEstate, 2014. Print.
http://dh-at-tcd.tumblr.com – Annie’s blog

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