Academic journal article Visible Language

Making Culture: Locating the Digital Humanities in India

Academic journal article Visible Language

Making Culture: Locating the Digital Humanities in India

Article excerpt


The practice and theoretical shape of the digital humanities has thus far almost exclusively been determined by scholarly work done in America, Europe, and Australia, which often fails to take into account the cultural, economic, and linguistic implications of what it means to be working in the field elsewhere, especially in developing and low income economies. The inevitable lacunae formed by this absence in the Western academy has meant that historically, the discipline has often been tone-deaf to the noise made by cultural criticism in the mainstream humanities post '68 - as McPherson (2012, para. 16) writes:

Much of the work in the digital humanities also proceeded as if technologies from XML to databases were neutral tools. Many who had worked hard to instill race as a central mode of analysis in film, literary, and media studies throughout the late twentieth century were disheartened and outraged (if not that surprised) to find both new media theory and emerging digital tools seem indifferent to those hard-won gains.

However, as the discipline matures, Liu advocates that digital humanists should become sharper critics of "how the digital humanities advances, channels, or resists today's great postindustrial, neoliberal, corporate, and global flows of informationcum-capital" (2013, para. 5). Recent work in the field is increasingly self-reflexive about the resource-heavy and expensive nature of digital humanities projects and how there is a need to address this to ensure the discipline is not exclusionary. Concepts such as minimal computing (Sayers & Simpson, 2014) dwell on the dichotomy of choice versus necessity built on the understanding that computing resources in the developing world are not necessarily high performance and that much can be done by streamlining low-cost single board computers, such as the Raspberry Pi, for use in these contexts. Events such as digital humanities hackathons and THATcamps, which are held internationally, create spaces for faculty, students, and often practitioners from the GLAM sector to discuss, incubate, and even implement small projects by building upon or hacking existing resources.

Thinking and doing are crucial verbs that necessarily define the digital humanities agenda as digital resources, cultural products, and artifacts that we build have the potential to "both reify knowledge and communicate it" (Ruecker quoted in Ramsay & Rockwell, 2013, para. 6). If one of the aims of the digital humanities is to create resources that help perform the act of cultural criticism, there must be recognition that the vision guiding such resources is necessarily circumscribed by cultural specificity and particularity. These concerns operate both at the level of content and interface: for example, until relatively recently, much humanities work in Indic languages has been impeded by the lack of optimised character recognition software. Similarly, Reinecke and Bernstein's (2013) seminal work on how cultural perceptions influence our sense of design has shown how Google's struggle to get a foothold in the Korean market was due to local preferences for more colourful and graphically populated interfaces compared to the search engine's stark white background.

Consequently, the discipline needs to be transposed to fit these different local exigencies; this article will consider two examples to demonstrate the role design might play to accommodate these needs. The first is an examination of jugaad, an indigenous form of hacking that differs from its western counterpart in its ubiquity, precipitated by economic constraints and lack of resources. The second is a case study that considers the creation of an "Indian" videogame within a certain design context, comprising of a cultural critique of the digital game (or videogame) in India as well as how the medium itself can be leveraged as a vehicle of cultural criticism and the decisions that influenced its interface and interactions. …

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