I wanted to make something sweet
The blood inside the maple tree
The sunlight trapped inside the wood
Make something goodI wanted to make something strong
An organ pipe in a cathedral
That stays in tune through a thousand blooms
Make something goodIt’s gonna take a long, long time
But we’re gonna make something so fine
Local Networks: Toward a Decolonial Map of Pullman has been a project which began not with a question, but by rejecting what has become the default answer. In eschewing discourses of measurement, and reconceiving answers to “where am I,” or perhaps “where are we?” in a decolonial way, the project has in the process opened itself up (and I have opened myself up) to the importance of place, the deep itch of colonial discourses, and the importance of the question, of process, and of iteration. This headspace, the desire to make something good, birthed the project–not the working environment of ArcGIS or the multimodal affordances of Scalar. In my career as a graduate student, I have tended to work in the opposite way with digital projects, getting to know a tool and then finding something to do with it. Beginning with a cultural question of reframing for this project has brought me to a different place.
I began by reframing current maps of Pullman within their colonial contexts. The project then engaged with a critical aesthetic: what do maps look like if/when they no longer avail themselves of colonial discourses? The first answer only imagined the map as a tool. It was a sketch on paper, an experiment in how to represent space without asserting the authority of the plat map. It lacked depth, and perhaps just as importantly, it lacked utility. The next iteration recognized the centrality of people and culture to any question of understanding and using space, especially in resisting colonial legacies. The social media map idea was an attempt to show that digital mapping tools like ArcGIS could be made to be technologies of recovery, and work to continually reveal injustices and reinstate humanity in our systems of knowing.
To me, the social media map is an excellent example of a digital humanities project which is able to bring theory and practice together, and to create something new and accessible. In resisting colonial discourses, however–in being people-centered and useful–it is severely limited. Had this project begun with the Public Information mapping layer, as an interesting tool with which to work, the end result of the project would ultimately be disappointing: the social media map was ultimately constrained to produce a skewed, primarily capital-driven view of the Pullman area. Through making the social media map, though, I learned that I was not content to make an end product which would be a display piece. Maps are meant to be used. Related to this realization was the idea that This realization led me to a new approach.
Instead of being excited about the technological opportunities of populating ArcGIS with Tweets and Instagram photos, I found myself in recent weeks consumed with the idea of making something good–something that might be of use to Native students at WSU. The tool fell away as a focus and became, well, just a tool. Similarly, a multimodal project was a natural consequence of the discourses that I had chosen to challenge, not a project goal unto itself; I am comfortable with this state as a natural part of scholarship, which only reinforces what Jessop has asserted about the established place of visual arguments within broader scholarship (288). The iterative nature of the project also allowed me to pause and read several seminal works on postcolonial mapping and geography.
In working with Native Programs, I was pleased that I could begin working with people. I realized that the social media map had been distant, algorithmic, even sterile. In working directly with Native students on campus, I found them reshaping the project yet again–my concept of the Pullman space, of their backgrounds and experiences, was limited by the theory I sought to employ, by the goals of the course and the environment of Scalar. Bringing people into the equation, centering them, set me on a new course, one which harnesses the idea of process–a yearly fluctuation as students come and go–in order to make something good.
In the coming months and years, I hope to remain involved with Native Programs as we help them to set up a mapping station with ArcGIS. In this way, the project will continue to iterate, but it will do so out of my hands. Rightfully so: if a network is one alternative to a colonial map which seizes power, then it should leave the hands of any one person and become the possession of a community in order to be effective.
The Digital Humanities should not trace only a history of shiny tools. If we are, according to Jones, “developing a new “consensual imagination about the role of the network in relation to the physical and social world” (para. 3), then that is a people-centered endeavor by its very definition. If an eversion is changing humanity’s relationship to its technologies, then digital scholarship must follow suit by beginning with the human, and with community, not excluding it.
Humanists begin with questions, and later, perhaps much later, they seek out those tools that will best aid them in a quest for answers. Though they wonder, they are not scientists; though they make, they are not engineers. Perhaps they are philosophers, occultists, or theorists. To Tara MacPherson, digital humanists have been artists. She traces a new history of the digital humanities in A Feminist in a Software Lab:
An alternative origin story for the digital humanities might begin not with experiments in text markup but instead with various engagements with the expressive audiovisual capacities of electronic screen culture…rather than plumb the possibilities of text, [early] collaborations investigated how artists might contribute to technological development while also producing new technologically rich aesthetic experiences.
The digital humanities must be, by this definition, concerned with aesthetics, experimental, and deeply multimodal. Earlier this year, I pointed out that “by arguing for new types of projects, [MacPherson] is allowing for the modes of communication (linguistic, visual, aural, spatial, etc.) to influence, react to, and complement one another.” However, importantly, she also “argues for the same types of moves in content.” Multimodality complements process and iteration, and defies an impulse to “bracket off” issues in a kind of scholarly tunnel vision. MacPherson’s idea of “the cut,” which focuses on one issue but not at the expense of all others, is thus extremely appropriate for an iterative online project–one sees her reasoning driving the success of Vectors, and now Scalar, as platforms. In fact, such an approach is crucial for Gannon’s recovery and Duarte’s reframing, and can only be supported by a process-based view of what it means to do digital work, in which the cut is made and remade ad infinitum. Graduate students and established scholars alike must take stock of digital project holistically: people, culture, methods, evidence, tools, and art must remain in the remix of new iterations. If anything is truly new about the era of digital scholarship, it is our ability to embrace this process-based view of knowledge creation. The questions and answers have always evolved over time, with new information. Now we have no excuse but to keep pace with that change.
For my teaching in DTC 101, that means continually foregrounding digital technologies with people and cultures. It requires that I re-write my course so that each discussion of a tool or method is tied directly to questions about class, race, power, gender, and community. In fact, it requires that we begin with these cultural paradigms, and then find their expression in digital technologies. One example in UX/UI design might be that we begin with the question, “what do people need to navigate a system?” and imagine a diverse population of people who will be using a given piece of software.
Emphasizing empathy as the initial step on the path of design thinking is crucial to all discussions of the built world, but empathy should therefore also be present in units on data and archiving/curation. An example for data might be starting with privacy and disproportionately harsh tracking of racial minorities online, before moving on to discuss the nuts and bolts of technology which allow for such tracking. With archiving and curation, we can begin with the question of “what things are worth saving?” and talk about the values of different cultural artifacts within various cultures, foregrounding any work with specific archives, their designs, or the acts of curation which make them available (or acts of selective curation, in the case of Mukurtu, which protect them). In these ways and more, I hope to continually foreground people and culture as we study digital technologies.