A More Expansive Role for Digital Humanists
by Abraham Liddell, Mellon Graduate Student Fellow for the Digital Humanities 2020-2021
See the trailer for The Social Dilemma on Youtube.
Since its Netflix release on September 9 of this year, the documentary film The Social Dilemma has driven some critical conversations about social media, algorithms, and the ability of technology companies to influence their users. The premise of the film is rather straightforward: social media platforms, as they are currently constructed, are a danger to the well-being of the individuals that use them and, at scale, entire countries. The film lays out a litany of issues related to social media platforms and the algorithms that drive them – misinformation, propaganda, and the resulting hyperpolarization, are just a few. The problems the directors explore are timely and important. But the filmmakers oversimplify a complex issue by laying too much blame at the feet of a few giant tech companies and glossing over nuanced social and historical problems. As some journalists have highlighted, focusing on social media alone leaves out vast swaths of the internet and misses all the other platforms that don’t rely on algorithmic recommendations in the way that Facebook does.
The Social Dilemma raises important questions about the complex relationship between humans, technology, and history that I feel digital humanists are well-equipped to answer. While most of our work is centered on using new tools to enhance humanistic scholarship for specific purposes, I feel that critiques of technology and its limitations (beyond the scope of our studies) are also well within our purview. The development of new technology is, after all, very much a social and humanistic endeavor. Indeed, the last few years have seen an increase in criticism directed at algorithmic recommendations, social media, and the use of big data. Algorithms of Oppression, written by Safiya Umoja Noble, for example, explained how Google’s search engine reinforced racist and sexist notions about Black girls and women – contributing to what Daniel James (Cyber Racism: White Supremacy Online and the New Attack on Civil Rights) called a “white racial frame.” Other works such as Weapons of Math Destruction (written by data scientist Cathy O’Neil) have criticized the use of big data and the ways large technology companies capitalize on user information and further enforce societal asymmetries. These critiques, and others like them, provide fresh and necessary looks at new technology and its impacts on society. The digital humanities, I feel, should play an important role in these conversations going forward.