Fare ricerca al tempo del datagate

Mentre Angela Merkel denuncia di essere stata spiata dalla NSA e in UK infuria lo scandalo GCHQ (il vorace big brother britannico), nel segreto (si fa per dire) delle nostre coscienze si consuma il funerale delle magnifiche sorti e progressive della rete come strumento della “libera” ricerca, del “libero” scambio di idee, ecc. Ripropongo qui sotto una riflessione inviata alla lista Humanist che non ha prodotto nessuna reazione pubblica dai colleghi anglo-americani.

La mia riflessione partiva da una mail vecchia di un anno inviata da Willard McCarty:

“When walking through the British Museum or into the British Library I reflect on the fact that I am enjoying the fruits of empire. The same would be true of a stroll into the BNF, the Vatican Library, the New York Public Library, the great library in St Petersburg, once the Alexandrian Library and so on. I’m moved to reflect that all money is blood money, and without that money there would be no such libraries.
Thinking further on it I am amazed that we have any such libraries at all. Would we if scholarship anywhere at any time did not serve empire or could be used for the purpose?”

Willard, it seems here that you are embracing the West’s beloved argument “if there weren’t slaves, we would not have the Pyramids”. And it’s as if you were tacitly saying, “hey, now it’s our turn to spill blood and conquer the world! let’s face it”, etc. etc.

Of course I know you don’t mean this, but I found the implied argument dangerous and misleading at the same time. First, it’s easy to notice that we don’t know what the human race would have been without blood money (or bloodbaths in general): who knows, maybe we would have done just fine without libraries or the Coliseum. But this is not the point. The point is rather to reject the equation of “human sacrifice”, disparity, injustice, inequalities, etc. etc. with any form of social and cultural progress. This equivalance has been demystified and deconstructed, I think, by almost half a century of post-colonial philosophy, anthropology, ethnography, sociology, etc. I don’t dare even to touch on any of those arguments, because I don’t want to embark on another endless theoretical debate about “cultural criticism”.

Instead, I’d only like to discuss other important and more practical issues. But before that, I’d like you to remember that there could be another way of looking at knowledge production and its connected cultural processes. According to the Ancient Indian wisdom (not “philosophy” in the Western sense), “innovating means to expand our consciousness of what reality is and has never ceased to be” (Torella, Il pensiero dell’India, Roma, Carocci, 2011, p. 18). This is an interesting “extracting”, not-accumalitive idea of progress (expanding consciousness, not accumulating books or building monuments, etc.) that may help us also to think about scholarship (and science in general) in a new way. I know this would mean abandoning our Romantic idea of the Humanities, i.e. that even if we are cruel human beings we have still created beautiful Art, Poetry, etc. Honestly, I think Humanities needs to go beyond that.

But coming to the main subject of my email, recently I came across
this interview:


English translation:

It has been a while since I wanted to raise this issue: is there anybody who thinks that the so-called “datagate” scandal affects not only us as global citizens, but our DH community as well? After these revelations, can we still do our work as before? I can’t help thinking that something has radically changed. We can’t even argue that we did not know this was happening. In 2011 the OpenNet Initiative reported in the conclusions of its Regional Profile: “With respect to surveillance, the United States is believed to be among the most aggressive countries in the world in terms of listening to online conversations” (https://opennet.net/research/regions/namerica). And after all since 2006 we knew that the US intelligence was spying on us:

Of course this is not about Digital Humanities, nor just about cultural differences, colonial or hypercolonial studies. This is about freedom. Besides, as I noted elsewhere
(https://infolet.it/2013/09/19/informatica-e-diversita-culturale/), it seems that governments, food multinationals and IT multinationals are becoming allies in reducing diversity and increasing their control
over us. Their instruments are patents and restrictive copyright laws (i.e. SOPA and PIPA in USA, ACTA in UE, etc.): from seeds to software, from food to knowledge. Their continual strategy has been to limit and control freedom of speech, knowledge sharing and food security. I think we can’t just turn our backs on this global picture: as digital humanists we have the responsibility to uncover and discuss these connections, and to propose solutions and alternatives (both theoretical and practical) to these disturbing trends.

How does it affect our role as researchers and teachers to know that the NSA taps into user data of Google, Apple, Facebook and other Internet giants? Is there anything we can do about it? Or is our DH job just to build tools, theories, and eventually criticize them? Is there the space for some concrete action that would go beyond the mere intellectual exercise of criticism?

The great environmental activist and Commons global movement leader Vandana Shiva speaks rightly of Seed Sovereignty (Beej Swaraj), Food Sovereignty (Anna Swaraj), Water Sovereignty (Jal Swaraj) and Land Sovereignty (Bhu Swaraj). We need also to struggle for Knowledge and Culture Sovereignty. The Commons movement in general considers knowledge as a “shared social-ecological system”, so I think KCS should include our private communications, our scholarly products, our software and digital resources, etc.