I recently submitted my PhD work on the use of the dating application Tinder in Cape Town, South Africa. Given my choice of topic, I had the privilege of attending the DH2019 workshop and conference in Utrecht, Netherlands, upon the invitation and generous support of the Lorenz Center (Leiden). Coming across the announcement online initially, I was thrilled to learn about the focus on Africa and the inclusion of scholars of a continent that continues to be commonly associated with darkness in myriad ways. As an anthropologist, the theme ‘complexities’ appealed to me. Thinking of all kinds of phenomena as fluid and multi-layered was ingrained in me early on and has constituted an ever-present echo throughout my scholarly experience.
It was during the conference itself, set in the modern Trivoli Vredenburg, a music hall in Utrecht’s charming, historical city centre, that I took a moment to digest my observations. It is my instinct to look at events as social scenes. The workshop in Leiden had kept my mind occupied with insightful engagements with other scholars of and from the African continent as well as hands-on task. Thinking about interdisciplinary project ideas as part of the workshop and endeavours to expand on epistemologies created with a tilt to the global north triggered a warm sense of excitement in me. My decision to conduct research on dating apps, I thought to myself, turns out to open both conceptual and epistemological doors and windows.
A week later, however, my enthusiasm was simmering on a much lower flame. At the DH conference itself, I suddenly got a sense of disciplinary foreignness. The thought-stimulating workshop discussions, the event theme and the fact that my PhD supervisor Dr. Francis B. Nyamnjoh was keynote speaker had me expecting something different from what I happened upon. The ‘Africa’ focus began and ended with the keynote speech – apart from the workshop poster contributions. What is more, the ‘humanities’ part of ‘DH’, I felt, was only grappled with on the surface in the numerous, informative presentations. Where were the anthropologists and sociologists, the gender and politics scholars, the philosophers and artists?
The digitalisation of human experience, its means, tools and approaches were not clothed in broader questions regarding the ethics of such ventures. What does consent mean in the age of artificial intelligence? What are the politics of representation? What does it mean to freeze human experience and to use digital tools in doing so? What connotations do these tools themselves carry; what makes their value to whom and why? Who gets a say in how this is being done and who gets excluded? What stories are left out? Does access to data, through whichever tools, justify the production of a specific kind of knowledge on groups of people? What are the risks and dangers, the potential bias that form part of human-made digital tools? The list of questions goes on.
Responding to the question ‘and what do you do?’ during coffee breaks and explaining my ethnographic approach to questions of how individual dating app users perceive the self and others through them did not evoke a lot of follow-up questions. Tellingly, at the ceremonious closing of the conference in the St Catherine’s Cathedral, a fellow participant responded with a puzzled expression: ‘But what for?’, when I explained my qualitative, non-representative approach to my research topic.
Anthropologists have shown interest in technology from the early stages of the computing industry development. The, in her field, well-known and outspoken scholar Margret Mead, for instance, saw in cybernetics a prospect for cross-disciplinary thought. Overall, however, anthropologists’ contributions to the field of technology and computing have remained limited since it was considered to be separate from society and culture. Likewise, there was not much interest in anthropologists on behalf of computer scientists beyond their input into improving products. Yet, they may just be the ones to ask the right sort of questions to help illuminate a way forward with computing that encompasses more than utility and impact. After all, machines do not merely absorb input and deliver results. They also shape behaviour in significant ways.
Our reliance on digital technologies and their ability to impact realities becomes abundantly clear in the Covid19 pandemic, whether in maintaining social contact throughout strict lock-downs or in tracing infections. The health crisis also brings out fears among scholars associated with fields of ‘softness’ as large amounts channeled into funding research that grapples with its viral repercussions are invested at the expense of the social sciences. These experiences cut into possibilities of convivial scholarship as advocated by Francis Nyamnjoh, who points out that inter- multi- and trans-disciplinary dispositions are more claimed than practiced as scholars, as he puts it, stick to their spots like leopards and, like porcupines won’t let go of their quills.
Having attended other conferences, workshops and symposia in both anthropology and DH since my baptism at the DH2019 event, I have come to understand that both disciplines have a lot to learn from one another. And as I am starting to feel more familiar with the epistemologies of meta-data, the language of archiving, digitalising and quantifying knowledge, I am increasingly convinced that we as DH scholars have an obligation to continuously reevaluate the meanings the ‘H’ may hold. While anthropologists tend to be reluctant to engage with the potentials of digitally augmented realities, DH functions are too focused on technical aspects and lack depth where the ‘humanities’ component of their agenda is concerned. Inasmuch as digital spaces are living spaces, their limits and ethical questions ought to be posed in identifying the pushes and pulls within their workings. With the ways of human existence on their agenda, social science scholars, philosophers, artists and others can offer valuable contributions, but actively extending invitations toward them is necessary first step.