5 spectra for speculative knowledge design

[Last weekend, I joined the inspiring, interdisciplinary Ecotopian Toolkit gathering hosted by Penn’s Program in Environmental Humanities. (How lucky was I? We even got a sneak peek at the Pig Iron Theatre Company’s stunning symphonic meditation on the Anthropocene, A Period of Animate Existence, which will premiere in Philadelphia later this year.) What follows is a short talk I gave on the last day of the conference. The beginning of it is stuff you may have heard from me before. An augmented, footnoted, slightly more sober version is bound for an edited collection by Martin Eve and Jonathan Gray, on the “past, present, and future of open access.”]

Today, I want to ask how we might realize digital libraries, archives, and museums as more socially just and hopeful (maybe even “Ecotopian”) knowledge infrastructure. Three threads from Afrofuturism are woven through this talk. They take form of a question and a set of twinned assertions. The geopolitical and environmental inflection-points that have been the subject of this conference demand that we answer the question in the affirmative, and that we actively encode the assertions—these two key Afrofuturist assertions I’ll share—into the very weft and the weave of our digital libraries: from the deep structures in which we store, deliver, protect, and preserve cultural and scientific data; to the ontologies and metadata systems through which we produce information and organize, rationalize, and make it interoperable; to those surface platforms and interfaces for discovery, contemplation, analysis, and storytelling that must be forevermore inextricably algorithmic and humane. What do I mean, humane? I mean predicated on decisions, understandings, and ethical, empathetic engagement with communities understood both locally and (as they say) “at scale.”

So first you’ll get the question from me, and then the assertions. And it’ll be in their light that I want to present five spectra along which I think digital cultural heritage and open science platform-designers must more self-consciously work, if we mean to do our part in the project that has brought us together this week—that is, if we want to contribute basic knowledge infrastructure for toolkits to meet present challenges and far-future, global and interpersonal responsibilities. 

Mark Dery, then styled a “cyberculture” critic, both coined the term Afrofuturism in 1994 and posed the question that remains at its heart—at the heart of the speculative art, music, fiction, poetry, fashion, and design that meet in this rich and longstanding nexus of Black diasporic aesthetics and inquiry. The question is this: “Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for legible traces of its history, imagine possible futures?Afrofuturism’s answer has been an unequivocal yes, and that clarity inspires me, particularly in our fraught American context. But, as we know, descendants of the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade are only one of many communities marginalized by archival absence and subject to… well, “library problems”—problems of misrepresentation, thwarted agency, and structural neglect.

My professional community includes stewards of primary sources, research data, and scholarship—and designers of cultural heritage systems meant to serve the broadest cause of social justice and the public good. Our responsibility is therefore twofold: not merely to address that first, daunting task—the provision of “legible traces” of the past through more broadly accessible special collections, archives, and archaeological, environmental, and aggregated genetic datasets. We also need to enable the independent production, by our varied and often marginalized constituencies, of community-driven, future-oriented speculative collections. This means visions for change and social uplift that originate in archival material, yes, but also the introduction of novel ontologies and epistemologies for those libraries and archives: inventive assemblages, recovered cultural structures, and new knowledge representation. Can—for instance—digital knowledge infrastructures challenge Western, progressive notions of time as a forward-moving arrow and a regularly-ticking clock? Can they counter the limiting sense our library and museum interfaces too often give, of archives as incontrovertible evidence—the suggestion, reinforced by design, that the present state of human affairs is the inevitable and singularly logical result of the accumulated data of the past; that our repositories primarily look backward to flat facts, not forward to imaginative, generative, alternate futures or slantwise through branching, looping time? These questions build on the core problem Dery articulated, of whether speculative futures are even possible to generate from obliterated or co-opted pasts.

Now, the assertions. Two of them. The first comes from jazz saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings as a distillation of the message of musician and performer Sun Ra. As Hutchings puts it, “communities that have agency [are] able to form their own philosophical structures”—in other words, they don’t just receive and use information within epistemological bounds defined by those in authority (scholars and teachers, legislators and corporate overlords, librarians and technologists), but instead actively shape knowledge in ways reflected in the very design of storage and delivery mechanisms over which marginalized people typically have little control. This is the deceptively simple idea that the fundamental marker of liberty lies in a people’s ability to build independent knowledge infrastructure. (And in truth, this idea motivates everything I do at the Digital Library Federation, lately.)

The second assertion comes from theorist and artist Kodwo Eshun. Eshun conceives of historical, archival and archaeological sources—including intangible kinds of cultural heritage, such as language and song—as functional and generative, not as static content, there merely to be received, but as active technologies in and of themselves. (This is found all through Eshun’s work, and beautifully demonstrated in a documentary I highly recommend, John Akomfrah’s The Last Angel of History.) To Eshun, the objects of cultural heritage are still-running code and tools that hum with potential. Our historical repositories and even the vaults of the archaeological earth contain active instruments—artifacts waiting to be used, and transformed even as they are played back—just as surely as a scratch artist makes productive dissonance from records on a turntable. So, not for playback and reception—for activating. For use.

Okay. How might Eshun’s technological reframing of that longstanding historiographical concept of a “usable past” combine both with Hutchings’ location of liberation and community agency in the capacity not merely to access information but to create independent philosophical infrastructure, and with Dery’s summation of the speculative, alternate-future goals of Afrofuturism—to become informing principles for the next generation of future-oriented and liberatory digital libraries, museums, and archives?

I dunno. What I do know is that we need more design experimentation to figure that out, and that we might run these experiments along certain fruitful axes or spectra. So, here’s my non-exclusive list. In no case are the ends of any spectrum I will present self-cancelling notions; we may usefully imagine malleable, overlapping systems and oblique slices. The goal of an exercise in digital library design run along these spectra would simply be increased awareness of their relevance to the concerns I started with, and their impact on individuals and communities and ecologies: the possibilities they welcome or foreclose; the dangers they ward against or fail to see; their fundamental generosities and what they hold back.

Enlightenment vs. Afrofuturist Structurings. Library organizational schemes are still largely Enlightenment-era crystallizations of a singular, dominant understanding: the best that a rational society accepts and knows. It is no accident that we appeal to “authority files” in creating metadata and often present information in stemmatic, patrilineal relationships of “inherited properties.” We create it through the little boxes of tabular forms. But new possibilities bring us closer to actualized community agency in digital knowledge infrastructure—alternate naming and finding schemes, practical models for intersectional logic systems, linked open data that melds multiple taxonomies and inheritances—an extension of the content-creating revolution of the Web to meaning-making. This is fundamental liberty that would reach its fullest expression in grassroots, independent and interdependent, broadly accessible, machine-readable philosophical framings—interoperable knowledge infrastructure beholden to no-one. We might invest in such a thing.

However—in an era of derogated scientific and scholarly expertise, climate data denial, rising white supremacy, Breitbart and InfoWars—isn’t it also our responsibility to construct libraries that reflect and prop up structures for truth-seeking that the academy has spent so long evolving and optimizing—namely the forms and methods of our (admittedly problematic) sciences and disciplines? So, what’s the place of the resistant or subaltern premise in digital library design? How do we honor and elevate indigenous knowledge structurally, without simultaneously providing a platform that can be instantly colonized for political disinformation and ideologies of hate?

Historico-evidentiary vs. Speculative Orientation. I also want design experiments that address the basic temporal and evidentiary alignment of our libraries. Present interfaces too often suggest a singular, retrospective or historical orientation toward the material they give access to, and fail to allow community-driven and multiple, speculative, futurist visions to emerge from our collections. So let’s ask: do our digital libraries present their contents as flat fact, or as hypotheses and fodder for interpretation? Do they allow us to look backwards and ahead? Do they adequately indicate gaps and absences and the conditions of their own assemblage, or do they present (as I described before) archives as evidence?

To answer these questions in the form of prototype designs requires us to delve beyond the interface layer in digital knowledge infrastructure, and into the fundamental nature of our archives. Wendy Duff and Verne Harris, in seeking a new basis for archival description, argue against positioning “archives and records within the numbing strictures of record keeping… which posit ‘the record’ as cocooned in a time-bound layering of meaning, and reduce description to the work of capturing and polishing the cocoon.” Instead, they call for “a liberatory [descriptive] standard… posit[ing] the record as always in the process of being made, the record opening out of the future. Such a standard would not seek to affirm the keeping of something already made… [but rather] open-ended making and re-making.”

In considering the orientation of our libraries toward digital objects as evidence, we should also heed Anne Gilliland and Michelle Caswell’s call for increased attention to the “archival imaginary:” those absent (perhaps missing, destroyed, merely theorized or wished-for) documents that traverse aporia and offer “counterbalances and sometimes resistance to dominant legal, bureaucratic, historical and forensic notions of evidence that… fall short in explaining the capacity of records and archives” to move us. Designing for such imaginaries would counter “strands of archival theory and practice [that] maintain an un-reflexive preoccupation with the actual, the instantiated, the accessible and the deployable—that is, with records that have… evidentiary capacity.” How might such “differing imagined trajectories of the future” emerge from records both present in and absent from the past?

Assessment vs. the Incommensurate. Concerns about “archives as evidence” lead us to the hyper-measured condition of the contemporary library. How could things be otherwise? Our digital knowledge platforms are made up of counting machines situated in the neoliberal academy. And indeed, thoughtfully designed and well-supported metrics can help us to refine those systems and suit them better to the people who must inhabit them. Their development is also a necessary, pragmatic response to straightened circumstances. In the face of information abundance, increasing service demands, and limited financial and staffing capacity, assessment measures are instruments through which open access advocates and cultural heritage professionals can make the case for resources and show where they are wisely applied.

Measurement is not going away. The challenge for systems and interface designers is to enable humane and ethical quantification of behaviors and of objects that are by nature deeply ambiguous and even ineffable. These include (of course) users’ complex interactions with information and each other in digital spaces. But we’re also talking about the instantiated cultural data itself: digitized and born-digital objects—records continually remediated as they are delivered or displayed—fundamentally fungible, organic, fluid, and incommensurate, one with another.

Transparency vs. Surveillance. Patron records have long been among the most closely-guarded and assiduously expunged datasets librarians hold. Responsible 21st century digital knowledge design must keep privacy concerns paramount. This is because technologies of sharing and of surveillance are a single, Janus-faced beast. It is up to us to create and fiercely guard mechanisms that protect users’ rights to read, explore, and assemble information unobserved. Our designs must also respect individual and community agency in determining whether historical or contemporary cultural records should be open to access and display in the first place—ideally fostering and encouraging local intellectual control. But here, again,  the contradictory challenge is to build infrastructure that can shield while also opening up. We need our digital library platforms to contribute to watchdog and sunlight initiatives promoting transparency, accountability, and openness in government and corporate archives—while simultaneously upholding cultural and individual rights to privacy and local control.

Local vs. Global Granularities. I see the fundamental paradox of the Anthropocene as our struggle to hold local unpredictability and planetary-scale inevitability simultaneously in mind. Add to that the fact that, somehow, we now must understand humankind as both infinitesimally small and fragile, and as a grim, global prime mover. Can our digital library systems help us to bridge those conceptual gaps? They must, if we want to fashion futures that use both science and empathetic understanding to their fullest extent, integrating big-data processing with small-data interpretation—understanding broad, systemic thinking and local application as part of a unified endeavor, and helping us identify trends even as we tell stories of exceptional experience.

These have been a quick and dirty five among many possible vectors for design thinking that might open 21st century digital knowledge infrastructure to broader community ownership, richer scholarly application and space-time sensitivity, and more creative, speculative ends. I picked these by starting at a place of great respect for Afrofuturist thinking, but other theoretical frameworks and ways of knowing might take us elsewhere. (Many of those have been usefully articulated at the Ecotopian Toolkit conference this week.) May they loop our libraries backward into stories not yet told and forward to every better future we can build.