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It’s not just about scholarly work: digital infrastructures, transnationalism, and Europe

by Toma Tasovac. Average Reading Time: about 4 minutes.

Infrastructures are installations and services that function as “mediating interfaces” or “structures ‘in between’ that allow things, people and signs to travel across space by means of more or less standardized paths and protocols for conversion or translation.”1 A digital research infrastructure is no different: it’s a mediating set of technologies for research and resource discovery, collaboration, sharing and dissemination of scientific output.

Infrastructures, however, are also strong cultural and political symbols.

From electricity systems in the 1920s, to coal trains in the 1950s, through to the gateways and bridges on Euro notes in the present decade, infrastructures have been mobilized repeatedly in broader spheres as symbols and metaphors for broader forms of modernization, integration and co-operation. (Badenoch and Fickers, 2)

Infrastructure projects have always been seen as motors of change propelling society into a better and brighter future. Yet precisely because those “human-built material links between nations and across borders in Europe… predated, accompanied and transcended the ‘offical’ processes of political and economic integration” (ibid., 1), it would be all too tempting — and all too easy — to approach the question of digital research infrastructures uncritically by getting caught in the moment and embracing the master narratives of efficiency and progress without discussing the larger and more complex implications of institutionalizing networked research. A digital infrastructure is not only a tool that needs to be built: it is also a tool that needs to be understood.

The entire field of digital humanities is evolving against the backdrop of global capitalism in its electronic mode, the so-called “eEmpire”, which is sustained by “a loose assemblage of relations characterized by… flexibility, functionality, mobility, programmability, and automation.”2 It would be naive to think that our field is immune to economic and ideological tensions that characterize information capitalism. It would even more naive to think that we can build expensive, transnational digital research infrastructures that will function in some abstract networked space unburdened by politics and ideology.

Digital research networks à la DARIAH are part of a transnational history of materializing Europe. Which means that their importance extends beyond strictly scholarly work. I would therefore like to suggest some general, non-technical questions that those of us who are in one way or the other involved in the creation of digital infrastructures should try to keep in the back (and, occasionally, the front) of our minds.

1. What is the political capital of a digital infrastructure? What is the extent of its sovereignty? And how can we make sure that the digital infrastructure — not even the one one we are trying to build now, for ours are baby steps, but the future one, the one we hope to see built one day — does not turn from being a power grid into a grid of (hegemonic) power?

2. Infrastructures, in general, have a tendency to disappear out of sight: once the novelty of their implementation wears off, they tend to become invisible or self-evident, inscribed as “a kind of objective unconscious in our lives.”3 As we build our digital infrastructures today, we need to prepare for their “disappearance” tomorrow. We need to think about what type of inherent cultural values and what type of control mechanisms we are programming into digital infrastructures as public institutions before we start taking them for granted.

3. The logic of infrastructures is the logic of industrial society: it is based on normativity, mass production, serialization and, ultimately, social discipline.4 As we build a digital infrastructure for the humanities, how do we make sure we don’t end up locking ourselves in, disciplining ourselves to the point that technical protocols become our only destiny, the limits of our intellectual horizons?

4. When infrastructures remain visible, they usually do so by their absence: in places where they do not exist and where their lack is a very clear indicator of large-scale social inequalities and injustices. We should ask ourselves about the implications of digital infrastructure projects for the dynamics between those who are in and who are out. Can we create a truly European infrastructure? When will be a good time to start thinking beyond Europe? What are the actual, physical limits of a scientific infrastructure?

I do not mean to imply that we should engage in collective navel-gazing to the point at which we can’t actually build anything. I just think we shouldn’t shy away from making things slightly more difficult for ourselves.

Show 4 footnotes

  1. Badenoch, Alexander and Andreas Fickers (2010), ‘Europe Materializing? Toward a Transnational History of European Infrastructures’, in Badenoch, Alexander and Andreas Fickers (eds.), Materializing Europe: Transnational Infrastructures and the Project of Europe (Basingstoke, Hampshire; New York: Palgrave Macmillan), 11.
  2. Raley, R. (2004). eEmpires. Cultural Critique 57, 132.
  3. Van Laak, D. (2001). Infra-Strukturgeschichte, Geschichte und Gesellschaft, 27(3), 367.
  4. K. J. Beckmann (1993), Vom Umgang mit dem Alltäglichen. Aufgaben und Probleme der Infrastrukturplanung, Karlsruhe 1988; B. Mettler-Meibom u. C. Bauhardt (Hg.), Nahe Ferne -fremde Nähe. Infrastrukturen und Alltag (Berlin).

One comment on ‘It’s not just about scholarly work: digital infrastructures, transnationalism, and Europe’

  1. [...] Infrastructure projects should be as much about technology as they are about people who use the technology. Unless a great deal of thought (and let’s face it — investment) is given to education and outreach, digital infrastructures will always run the risk of fossilizing before even gaining momentum. [...]

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