Nanna Thylstrup: Hi. My name is Nanna Thylstrup and I’m happy to present the key takeaways from my book The Politics of Mass Digitization for this modified keynote for your event. So obviously I’m sorry to not being able to be with you in person for the conference, which I’ve been looking very much forward to. But in lieu of me, I’m at least happy to be able to present you with this small online lecture that I hope that you will get something out of.
So basically I’ll be talking a little bit about the key takeaway points of my book, and I’ll also offer you a sample chapter of my book to go along with it. So, my book The Politics of Mass Digitization which came out on MIT Press in 2019 seeks to understand mass digitization and its place in digital culture and cultural memory, asking questions such as why did mass digitization become a moral imperative? That is, why do we have this sense—institutions and politicians—like, we have to digitize on a massive scale?
I also was interested in why do we digitize on a massive scale? What is it that we get out of it? What are the cultural imaginaries of the potentials and challenges of mass digitization. And I was interested in what are the political logics that govern and underpin mass digitization projects. So overall, what I was interested in…what are the new questions that we have to ask to cultural heritage as it’s undergoing mass digitization.
So the basic premise of my book is that mass digitization is a political phenomenon. So not only a technical phenomenon but a political phenomenon that ties together local, national, supernational, and global infrastructures in ways that both reproduce but also profoundly alter the politics of cultural memory.
When I started writing my book, the predominant mode of speaking about mass digitization was in technical terms. So that’s either questions that revolve around the software and hardware required to do it. There’s a question about the technicalities of copyright legislation. Sort of all these technical issues that could either support or undermine the mission to put cultural heritage online.
As political practice however, mass digitization raises significant political questions. So one question is what works and institutions should be selected, and how should they be represented. Another question is what infrastructure should uphold these mass digitization projects. And the final question is what rights should the author and the user have. Not to speak of the people who work with bringing cultural heritage institutions online.
So this for instance is a PDF of my own book hosted in a shadow library that I also write about in my book called Monoskop. So what I found so fascinating about mass digitization is that on the one hand they’re driven by classic archival heritage institutional motivations. Sort of this archival drive to collect, preserve, accumulate and organize knowledge.
But on the other hand they’re also motivated by that much newer logic that we understand as big data or datafication. So indeed we might speak of a big data gold rush in the field of cultural heritage.
Often big data is driven by non-situated discourse, sort of an apolitical phenomenon premised on the idea that data just magically appear and we can mine data. Even often that big data is apolitical, that is that it can do away with the biases of the human nature.
But as anyone who is involved with mass digitization projects knows, digitizing books is a very intimate and laborious affair, both on the corporeal level of scanning, but also on the much broader level of working with cultural heritage online.
So as this ideal of mass digitization filters into different global empirical situations, the concept of mass digitization also attains a very differentiated hue. While all projects formally seek to have this one mission to bring mass digitization of cultural heritage online, they’re in fact infused with much more diverse and often conflicting political, commercial motives and dynamics. So the same mass digitization project can even be imbued with different and contradictory investments, and they can change purpose and function over time—sometimes even rapidly.
So mass digitization projects then are highly political. But they’re not political in the sense that they transfer the politics of analog cultural heritage artifacts one-to-one into the digital sphere. They’re also not political in the sense that they liberate cultural heritage artifacts from the constraints of analog politics. Rather, mass digitization presents a new political cultural memory paradigm. One in which we see strands of technical and ideological continuities combined with new ideals and opportunities. A political cultural memory that’s arguably even more complex, or at least appears to us right now as more messy than that of analog institutions whose political situations we’ve had time to get used to.
In order to grasp the political states of mass digitization projects, not either as a continuation of existing cultural heritage institutions or projects, we need to approach mass digitization instead as an emerging phenomenon that introduces new forms of cultural memory politics. And to gain insight into mass digitization and to make out these social infrastructures, their territorial intentions and their power dynamics, my book delves into three different case studies. So one is Google Books, one is Europeana, and one is this phenomenon that I call shadow libraries, based on a number of theorists and practitioners in the field.
So my final chapter in the book then tries to gather the lessons from these analyses of different territorial assemblages and tries to understand on a more fundamental level what the politics of mass digitization is.
So I really hope that you enjoy reading the sample chapter, and I hope that this brief introduction made sense. And I’ll be happy to take any follow-up questions by mail or you can even call me by phone. So, some people are tired of the computers now and you’re more than welcome to dial me up. So I hope that you have a good online experience at this conference and I truly hope to be able to meet you in person as well, someday. Thanks so much.
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