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Towards a Global Systems Analysis of the Humanities by Dr. James Smithies

The University of Canterbury Digital Humanities program hosted an afternoon of lectures on November 12, 2015, entitled The Frontiers of DH: Humanities Systems Infrastructure. It featured speakers Alan Liu, Paul Arthur, and James Smithies who provided their perspectives and insight on the looming issue of infrastructure in the Humanities, which is easy to ignore but shouldn’t be. The following are some notes from Smithies’ lecture.

Towards a Global Systems Analysis of the Humanities – James Smithies, Senior Lecturer in Digital Humanities at the University of Canterbury

The Politics of Cyberinfrastructure

The American Council of Learned Societies’ “Our Cultural Commonwealth” report (2006) looked at opportunities for computationally intensive Humanities research. Models were based off of STEM and big dollar projects. Geoffrey Rockwell’s “As Transparent as Infrastructure” Open Stax CNS (2010) asked, do we really need expensive new infrastructure? Patrick Svenson’s “From Optical Fiber” DHQ 5.1 (2011) asked, what about people, spaces, and laboratories? Miriam Posner’s “What’s Next: The Radical, Unrealized Potential of Digital Humanities” (blog post July 27, 2015) asked, what about gender and race and inclusivity? Susan Leigh Star’s “Infrastructure and Ethnographic Practice” Scandinavian Journal of Information Systems 14.2 (2002) said that infrastructure isn’t boring; it’s political. Water, pipes, bridges, and playgrounds: these are worth fighting for. Ethnography gives us an interesting, nonboring way to look at infrastructure.

What is the current state of infrastructure? Wires, boxes, etc. Sciences have a good idea about what it means to them (telescope, databases, etc.) – do we?

Towards a Systems Analysis

Robert Lilienfield’s “Systems Theory as an Ideology” Social Research 42.4 (1975) shows that people talk about systems today but wouldn’t have in earlier centuries. Looking at the history of ideas, you can see that we were not always using terms like bureaucracy, managerialism, and neoliberalism. Once you put something under a microscope and examine it, you can start “pulling levers” and manipulating it as you see fit.

T. P. Hughes’ “Technological Momentum in History” Past and Present 44.1 (1969) reviews the history of technology and systems vs. technological determinism. People aren’t just determined by technology. Smithies gave the example of a NASA control room. It has computers, but there are people and weather conditions controlling it.

Jenny Chan’s “A Suicide Survivor” The Asia-Pacific Journal 11.31.1 (2013) and “The Politics of Global Production” The Asia-Pacific Journal 11.32.2 (2013) look at the ethics of infrastructure, labor market ethics, and corporate values and the classroom. There is an irony in a History teacher using an iPad made in the Foxconn factory in China (where people committing suicide because of working conditions has made the news in the West several times) to teach students about factory production.

There are four layers of infrastructure:
Layer 4: Application (websites, blogs…)
Layer 3: Transportation (TCP, UDP…)
Layer 2: Internet (IP address…)
Layer 1: Link (Ethernet…)

Humanities are still at the fourth layer. But meanwhile, issues around Open Internet/Net Neutrality are important because of the potential for companies to throttle at lower levels. We like to theorize (a la Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus) about non-linear structures, but this doesn’t do much practically.

Humanities cyberinfrastructure should not be just like STEM’s. It is much more capacious and deals with sectors like Government, NGOs, Non-Commercial, and Commercial. All of it is enclosed within a model/framework of metadata.

Smithies then showed an interesting diagram/model that tried to visualize how the infrastructure currently out there is related to different sectors and open/closed access. He emphasized that his model is grounded in engineering, but that we really need hundreds of these models to show how they’re subjective and diverse. Having a model is a more mature way of having a discussion about infrastructure with others. It’s difficult to demonstrate the value of systems analysis to Humanists. How do we measure uses in the different sectors? The diagram really shows us what we don’t know.

Digital Humanities and Critical Infrastructure Studies by Visiting Professor Alan Liu

The University of Canterbury Digital Humanities program hosted an afternoon of lectures on November 12, 2015, entitled The Frontiers of DH: Humanities Systems Infrastructure. It featured speakers Alan Liu, Paul Arthur, and James Smithies who provided their perspectives and insight on the looming issue of infrastructure in the Humanities, which is easy to ignore but shouldn’t be. The following are some notes from Liu’s lecture.

Against the Cultural Singularity: Digital Humanities and Critical Infrastructure Studies – by Visiting Professor Alan Liu

Liu opened with a fitting quote from Eliel Saarinen: “Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context – a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.” [I believe this could also apply when thinking about teaching. As Liu said in a previous lecture, the Humanities are supposed to be building a human being. Shouldn’t we be considering where these students will end up after they leave the classroom? It might seem fine to continue in an analogue style without acknowledging changing technology or skills students will need, but this neglects considering where the human being will be in the larger world context of the Digital Age.]

The latecomer status of DH after cultural criticism and theory (hack vs. yack) during the development of the Humanities has posed a problem and tension within the field. “Culture” has become “Infrastructure”. Electricity grids, internet connectivity, etc. are now part of how we operate. Movies like Blade Runner and Mad Max foregrounded infrastructure to set up their atmosphere, culture, and dystopian setting. Infrastructure (or lack thereof) is culture. Theorists (ex. Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, and Donna Haraway) going forward must start to include infrastructure in their critiques of discipline, gender, and cyborg/hybrid identities.

What Would DH Infrastructure Critique Look Like?

Method 1:

  • Agile
  • Scrum development: The All Blacks’ rugby analogy/metaphor is actually not very good; quilting one is better (see Trello which looks like a pattern).
  • Lightly anti-foundationalist
    • James Smithies’ “postfoundationalism” DHQ 8.1 (2014)
    • Michael Dieter’s “critical technical practice” differences 25.1 (2014)
    • Bruno Latour’s “compositionism”
    • Ackbar Abbas and David Theo Goldberg’s “poor theory”
    • These critics are okay with not being totalizing, instead providing just-in-time critique.
    • We’ve avoided being tactical because we think it’s too close to IT.
  • DH should treat infrastructure not as a stable foundation and thus allow Critical Infrastructure Studies to be a mode of Cultural Studies.

Method 2

  • LTS approach, Thomas Hughes’ Networks of Power (1983)
  • Star/Bowker’s information ethnography approach
  • Neoinstitutionalism (from sociology and organizational studies)
  • Social constructivist and adaptive structuration approaches to organizational technology (from sociology, organizational studies, and information science)

DH, more than New Media Studies (which has been more activist and not a paradigm of the library), has focused on intramural changes and directed energy (sometimes militant) to institutions (breaking down pay walls, changing pedagogy, etc. has been the equivalent to storming administration buildings in the 1970s). Can that drive be harnessed to go outside the institution too?

[Another science fiction reference came up!] Liu mentioned that insect hives are really popular in science fiction these days. The neoliberal environment is remodeling culture to its corporate structures (workers in hives, etc.).

Liu is exploring the crossover between academic and scholarly infrastructures and extra-academic infrastructure.

He is the only Humanities faculty on a board looking at different software choices (for example: Microsoft 365 and Google Apps for Education). [Many other organizations are also constantly going through these debates over which software package to go with, even without having a full understanding of the implications down the road.] What are the long-term implications or going with either one? Are we locking ourselves in by choosing one? Shouldn’t we be on these committees?

Azar Nafisi and The Power of Literature at the Sydney Opera House

I am glad I discovered that Azar Nafisi would be speaking at the Sydney Opera House during my time in Sydney before I bought tickets to the opera Turandot (although I’m sure that would also have been enjoyable). Her talk on July 5, 2015, was so timely to everything I have been experiencing at a university in crisis, which pours money into STEM and sacrifices the Arts, and enrolls students who would rather stare at their phones than read a book.

She reminded me why literature is so important, and why it is one of the first things to be banned in authoritarian states. I immediately wanted to re-read her book Reading Lolita in Tehran and soon after the talk bought and devoured her new book, The Republic of Imagination.

It wasn’t easy taking notes in the cramped environment without a desk, but I didn’t want to forget some of her best points:

  • Books are irrelevant? What would a post-book world look like and would we want to live in it?
  • iPhones change every year but books don’t.
  • We need a wonderland to go to in order to refresh ourselves. We can transcend reality’s limitations. This helps us transcend tyranny of humanity and time.
  • “Irrelevance of the humanities” by the elite ignores that humans like stories, mythologies of creation.
  • We live in society that segregates science and technology and the humanities. Passion of scientist and precision of poet (quote).
  • 30-year-olds in Silicon Valley forget that creating a visual representation of water is not the same as actual water.
  • Power of curiosity. Margaret Atwood described how she saw a cleaver that “needs to be investigated” and this is how many authors come to write their stories.
  • All religious texts begin with a story.
  • In American, we box everybody.
  • Book wither and die if there are not new readers. Shakespeare, Moliere, Homer are validated when they’re translated.
  • Basis for empathy is curiosity.
  • Culture takes you to worlds you have not been to (would be great if our leaders did this).
  • Crisis of vision (not just crisis of economy, politics) since 2008. The Rein of Ignorance is threatening us.
  • In criticism, there’s an element of respect. You think they should know better. (Idea that FGM [female genital mutilation] is ‘just their culture’ is ridiculous and demeaning.)
  • Every culture has something to be ashamed of. Society is more sophisticated than the regime (pro- and against veil argued since 19th century).
  • Clinton, Palin, and Obama are all Christian, but who is more Christian? (same as her grandmother with the veil and her mother without it, but both are Muslim).
  • Immigrants bring new and alternative perspective.
  • Brutality is obvious in authoritarian countries. And authorities know the power of imagination to challenge authority. Engineers are not sent to jail; writers and artists are. Art shows us that we are all the same…we all fall in love, etc… Insidious and complex are threats to freedom that are less obvious in the West. We want to be laid-back, be entertained, let things go by (Kim Kardashian kind of thinking).
  • If you love your country, what kind of American do you want to be?
  • Can democracy survive without a democratic imagination?
  • American only had its newness to offer (Huck Finn and American literary independence).
  • Danger is complacency. How violent conformity can be.
  • As readers, we need to start conspiring, where we ask basic questions that our leaders are not.


  • Recommendations for authors to read:
    • Dick Davis, British poet and translator of Persian
    • Ferdowsi’s “The Book of Kings”
    • Faces of Love (translator Dick Davis)
    • My Uncle Napoleon
    • Mage Publishers (Iranian Persian literature)
  • They demolish you because they can’t understand there can be other people who are different. (I think referring to terrorists and extremists.)
  • Monsters don’t come to you in monstrous shapes (lesson learned from Lolita).
  • Commercializing the imagination (Google, FB) is a bad thing. And our compliance, we’re buying this stuff.
  • With expanding canon, would minority writers be as popular? Reading Sojourner Truth in Tehran. (I think she said, she wouldn’t see why not.)

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