Thoughts on ‘Low-tech’ Digital Humanities

[Note: This article first appeared in the 4 April 2022 edition of the Talking Humanities blog at the School of Advanced Study, University of London.]

Last year I visited the Waste Age exhibit at the Design Museum in London. I will never forget my immediate sorrow at seeing a massive bottle-top chain made with collected waste from beaches in Cornwall in only a few weeks in winter 2015 by the Cornish Plastic Pollution Coalition, alongside the various small exhibitions of what the curators deemed our Throwaway Culture.

Through a powerful combination of data visualisations, multimedia exhibits of waste, art works, and educational material, the Waste Age exhibit provided ample reminders that an insatiable desire to consume, innovate, and profit is helping to destroy the natural world. But it also made clear that digital technology is not innocent in the matter: there is not only planned obsolescence in the tech industry, but also failed recycling initiatives and an innovation-at-all-costs attitude.

Every technical decision we make requires energy. Digital technology would not be possible without oil and minerals—even the so-called ‘cloud’ is powered by raw materials which need to be mined. Every phone we buy, computer we use, email we send, Google doc we create, Zoom call we hold, digital project we curate—these all rely on physical and virtual infrastructure that are still largely dependent on fossil fuel consumption. The Internet consumes a huge amount of resources, ranging from labour, electricity, and infrastructure costs. Much-hyped new technologies such as machine learning, artificial intelligence, and blockchain technologies require as much energy as some small countries. All data transfers in this data-saturated world require electricity, which creates carbon emissions — and this contributes to climate change and accessibility issues in the Global South.

What can digital humanities researchers do to resist this techno-utopian, innovation-hungry, carbon-intensive technological trap? As we digital humanities practitioners often like to say, being involved in the digital does not necessarily mean that we believe that more technology will solve all of our problems. This is where the humanities bit comes in: one of our roles in DH is to question prevailing practices and feature creep in digital research, and to educate people about the gains and losses of using certain technologies. Along these lines, for example, we have seen important work from Shoshana Zuboff, Roopika Risam, Safiya Umoja Noble, Carl Benedikt Frey, and Alex Gil that show how technology serves as a mirror of societal defects ranging from surveillance capitalismracism, techno-determinism, and income inequality. Yet there is still more work to do to show how digital humanities can answer to the climate crisis.

Minimal computing offers an important set of thinking tools to make responsible and low impact digital decisions. As Jentery Sayers has written, ‘a minimal approach reduces the need for not only substantial storage and processing power but also a reliance on middleware, databases, peripherals, and substantial pieces of hardware. Such reduction should increase access while decreasing technology’s environmental effects (eg, by reducing waste and energy consumption).’ Minimal computing is a set of practices that aims to reduce barriers to access, engagement, and critical nuance. By focusing on sharing content without bells and whistles (ie software dependencies independent of content), users will have a better chance to access the essential data that a project curates. The label ‘low tech’ does not mean unsophisticated—it means efficient and more accessible.

At the Digital Humanities Research Hub, one of our values is responsible and low-impact technology. This value aligns with a variety of climate interests, including minimal computing, green computing, and agile and collaborative computing. Low-tech solutions can reduce data transfer by up to 70 per cent in comparison to regular, database-driven websites by identifying only the most necessary components for communicating research online. In this respect we are inspired by Low Tech Magazine, which operates an entire web site with a solar panel situated in Barcelona.

The DH Hub is actively developing and supporting low-tech and minimum viable product-oriented solutions for digital research. For example, when I teach Digital Scholarly Editing courses at the London Rare Books School, I not only show students how to create minimalist data models for their projects but also give them a range of options for responsible and low-maintenance publishing options. One of the research projects I work on, the Herman Melville Electronic Library, also uses minimal computing principles for its web site, which I discussed during our 2021 seminar series. And finally, the DH Hub is leading a working group to develop a tool-kit, Sustainable Digital Technologies for the Arts and Humanities, which will be released this summer through the Digital Humanities Climate Coalition. These activities reflect our commitment to equip researchers with the tools to make more informed decisions about the environmental consequences of their technological choices.

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