Kimberly Christen Withey’s “Centers and Margins: Access and the Ethics of Openness in the Digital Humanities” ~kn2


Kimberly Christen Withey opened her keynote address, “Centers and Margins: Access and the Ethics of Openness in the Digital Humanities,” by asking us to reflect on “the “cultural logics of digital technologies, and out interactions with these tools” – specifically those of search engines. The large-scale projects devoted to digitizing, curating, and analyzing knowledge that dominate digital humanities offer exiting new possibilities for information circulation. Withey’s talk acknowledged the exciting potential of such work – but argued that the ethical questions such projects raise are being seriously neglected.

Withey used the UCLA 2009 manifesto as an example of the way digital humanities treats total openness of information access as a given universal good. In fact, she pointed out, we in fact constantly practice selective openness throughout our lives – personally and professionally –  and have been doing so since long before digital landscapes came into the picture. Treating universal knowledge access as the ultimate goal of the digital humanities, she said, blinds us to the political and cultural implications this openness has for others.

Correcting this blindness, according to Withey, begins (appropriately) with an examination of the assumptions DH currently projects about the act of “looking.” She reminded us that looking is an act deeply embedded in our work and our culture, and one that has a profoundly ethical dimension. “Our practices of looking,” she said, “tell us more about how we understand the world that what we are seeing.” As such, DH scholars need to be interrogating the ethical implications of technology’s intersects with practices of looking.

Withey saw the results of failing to do so firsthand during her work as a grad student with the Warumungu, an indigenous Australian tribe. Upon seeing pictures of dead relatives and sacred sites displayed freely on a digital archive, a Warumungu member said with dismay that “there must be a better way.” In their culture, information sharing ethics are based on a spectrum of openness, affected by many factors such as death, ritual affiliations, kin group and gender. The interrelation of these factors dictate knowledge access. Partial seeing, or not seeing, is itself part of the way cultural connections between people are made and expressed, as it’s a reflection of one’s place in the community and culture as a whole. Rather than viewing info as wanting to be open to all, as DH assumes, they see knowledge as grounded in specific contexts. Seeing sensitive tribal knowledge circulation with total freedom, therefore, was a direct violation of these values.

This idea – that digital tools could be used to enable a “better way” of circulating tribal artifacts – became the center of a collaborative project between Withey and the tribe to build a site that circulated knowledge digitally in keeping with the Warumungu’s cultural values. The resulting site is organized by place, to emphasize the grounded nature of knowledge. At first, navigating the site feels the same as any other, but as visitors move through the site they encounter moments where there looking is blocked – an obscured image, a blank-out in a video or audio track. These interruptions are coded directly into the site’s info display protocols, so that every visitor experiences interruptions, and is directed to a textual “learning protocol” about the Warumungu’s information circulation practices. This emphasizes that being denied information is not necessarily a technical issue, but can (and sometimes should) be a cultural one as well.

The project ultimately led to an open-source tool designed specifically for indigenous groups to organize and share their knowledge – Murkutu. The idea of the project is  to digitally support knowledge circulation practices that encourage relationships and dialogue (especially between different generations). Murkutu’s “heart and soul,” according to Withey, is its protocols for knowledge circulation, and the interaction between those protocols and the communities that use them. By allowing communities to choose the protocols that best reflect their information ethics, Murkutu seeks to bring digital information tools into ethical harmony with  culturally specific circulation practices. Through a collaboration with Mira, one of the largest digital collections of aboriginal artifacts, Murkutu is working to spread that harmony to as many indigenous communities as possible – as well as those who seek to learn about them.

The lesson of this, Withey said in closing, is that as digital scholars we need to be open to multiple and even conflicting views of “knowledge and its value for the many different publics we engage with.” We can’t assume our narrative of digital freedom and openness is an absolute reflection; we must continually look for perspectives, like those of the Warumungu, that challenge that narrative.

“What I’m suggesting here has little to do with technology, and more to do with crafting alternative ways of  knowing and learning – whatever forms of modalities those take,” said Withey in her final remarks. “The best parts of the humanities are about crafting relationships that unite us around commonalities while always respecting our differences – and therefore in the end, enlivening and expanding the humanities for all of us.”


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