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The DH Delusion

[Brian goes to a dark place after reading Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom and Jaron Lanier’s “Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism” for UNL’s Digital Humanities Seminar.]

Evgeny Morozov examines the Internet’s relation to authoritarian states, arguing there is a Western misconception, rooted in the Cold War, that the Internet, and information systems more broadly, create political change. This “cyber-utopianism,” as Morozov dubs it, assumes that the Internet inherently favors democracy and works against oppressive governments. Morozov warns that cyber-utopianists, combined with a misguided strategy he calls “Internet-centrism” creates the “Net Delusion,” a misunderstanding of the Internet that does not promote democracy and freedom, but rather threatens to harm global efforts on their behalf.

Jaron Lanier’s essay arguing against collective thinking, though already largely outdated, hits on a similar misguided notion of Utopianism. Lanier says, “A core belief of the wiki world is that whatever problems exist in the wiki will be incrementally corrected as the process unfolds.” Like the Net Delusion, this Wiki Delusion (he calls proponents “wikitopians”) promotes the idea that technology, or perhaps more accurately the use of technology, can solve any problem.

Like Morozov and Lanier, I find a similar Delusion, though one more academically minded, let’s call it the “DH Delusion.” The DH Delusion begins with a similar sort of cyber-utopianism. I remember the excitement of my first Digital History course in which it seemed not only possible, but probable that in a matter of years most scholarship would be produced in the digital medium. The Internet seemed to be promote the sort of intellectual freedom and scholastic democracy that could topple an oppressive and outdated structure of academia.

However, just as Morozov points out that photocopies and radio programming did not cause the collapse of Communist Europe (broader structural issues did) and the Internet will not overturn oppressive governments worldwide, the Internet will not revolutionize scholarship without structural changes. Though the Internet has been influencing scholarship for quite a long time (see the Valley of the Shadow’s 20th reunion panel at the AHA) academic structures remain largely the same. Academic credit for digital scholarship, particularly in terms of the tenure process, seems to have remained a contentious issue even at some of the most DH-friendly of institutions. The infrastructure for publishing and peer reviewing digital scholarship still remains largely undeveloped.

Likewise, Lanier’s argument against wikitopians raises potential pitfalls the DH community should avoid. As Lanier says, “The illusion that what we already have is close to good enough, or that it is alive and will fix itself, is the most dangerous illusion of all.” Just because there is a community that identifies as DH, does not mean DH will change academia. More people accepting DH as an identifier does not necessarily correlate to DH’s power to transform scholarly structures. In fact, if people content to maintain or replicate the scholastic infrastructure identify as a DHer, the power of the digital to remake academia lessens. I do not mean to bring up the debate of who’s in or who’s out, but rather hope to translate Lanier’s warning against the hive mentality to academia. Just because collective thinking holds potential, that does not mean it will live up to that potential. Just because DH holds potential, does not mean it will live up to that potential.

Published in Digital Humanities

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