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. 

Further Reference

DigiKult con­fer­ence web site


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