Thinking Histories of Race and Computation, or “Why are the Digital Humanities so White?”

Dorothea Klein tweeted a link to this excellent piece by Tara McPherson in an online book Debates in the Digital Humanities:

I wanted to quote this paragraph because it offers a fantastic critical and productive response to the problem of a-historical and a-political studies of code and computation that McPherson diagnoses:

Scholars in the digital humanities and in the emerging field of code studies are taking up the challenge of understanding how computational systems (especially but not only software) developed and operate. However, we must demand that these fields not replay the formalist and structuralist tendencies of new media theory circa 1998. This formalist turn displayed a stubborn technological determinism and often privileged the machine over the social. To end run such determinism, the digital humanities and code studies must also take up the questions of culture and meaning that animate so many scholars of race in fields like the new American studies. Likewise, scholars of race must analyze, use, and produce digital forms and not smugly assume that to engage the digital directly is to be complicit with the forces of capitalism.The lack of intellectual generosity across our fields and departments only reinforces the divide-and-conquer mentality that the most dangerous aspects of modularity underwrite.We must develop common languages that link the study of code and culture. We must historicize and politicize code studies. And, because digital media were born as much of the civil rights era as of the cold war era (and of course these eras are one and the same), our investigations must incorporate race from the outset, understanding and theorizing its function as a ghost in the digital machine. This does not mean that we should simply add race to our analysis in a modular way, neatly tacking it on or building digital archives of racial material, but that we must understand and theorize the deep imbrications of race and digital technology even when our objects of analysis (say UNIX or search engines) seem not to be about race at all. This will not be easy. In the writing of this essay, the logic of modularity continually threatened to take hold, leading me into detailed explorations of pipe structures in UNIX or departmental structures in the university, taking me far from the contours of race at midcentury. It is hard work to hold race and computation together in a systemic manner, but it is work that we must continue to undertake.

I’ve only quickly read the piece but I will definitely return to re-read it more thoroughly – brilliant.

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