Dr Usama Gad, classics and papyrology lecturer at Cairo’s Ain Shams University, calls on scholars to overturn tradition and harness the power of new digital tools to include the voices of the whole human family.
The digital culture of digital humanities, in my case in the field of Greek and Roman studies, is more welcoming than its print counterpart. However, it is still predominantly Western, and, at least as it concerns Egyptian and other non-Western scholars and students, dare I say, it is exclusionist. This doesn’t apply only to those who live in the peripheries and/or the fringe of the Western world, but most importantly to those who live within its national and transnational boundaries, whatever these boundaries are in the present moment.
This statement might be shocking, if we consider the openness of the digital space, but it is, according to my experience in the past two decades, sadly the reality until the present moment in training, teaching, research and the overall composition and makeup of the field. The way forward needs more openness towards the mechanism of exclusion as well as sincere efforts to overcome unjust legacies in these disciplines upon which the digital humanities of today builds its advancements. It requires also statistical analysis, and continued revision, of the digital landscape in the respective fields.
We do not have any systematic analysis of the digital landscape of antiquity-related fields, in contrast to what we have about construction and composition of papyrology and other fields (see also Classics in Arabic). But it is instructive to have a look at the tools that are available for training, research and teaching as well as the composition of digital humanities projects and initiatives to discover that, except for a small circle of dedicated scholars, the voices, as well as the perspectives, of a wide array of minority groups in the west are not represented in the digital landscape either partially or wholly.
The knowledge about the past, represented in print or digitally, should be accessible to all human beings regardless of nationality, religion, language, or geographical location. This doesn’t mean we should be hopelessly idealistic, but it means that we should not be exclusionists ignoring the past legacies of injustices and claim that we are building a digital space that is accessible to everyone.
If you are building a digital space from the UK, US or Europe, if you have the means to include in your planning both a student from an ethnic/religious minority and a scholar from the global south, whose culture you are digitally appropriating, please do so. If you can’t, then try to localise your website to serve the underrepresented communities in your own society. Standards should be a priority here too, like any other digital humanities work. The efficiency of localisation means that we should go beyond mere translations, where the interface is, for example, in Arabic instead of English. This procedure, while it is necessary to make the project more user-friendly, is not sufficient.
Accessibility, at least to me, means that the data and the metadata as well as the core concept of the project take account of the types of questions that are relevant to users beyond the American-Anglo-Euro circles. To give just one example one could speak here of building upon the current infrastructure in papyrology to extract information about the acquisition history of papyri and other text-bearing objects from Egypt and the Middle East. Names of local antiquities’ traders, dates of transactions, involved institutions, funding agencies, tycoons and cartels, connections between academics as editors and the Western European market of antiquities as connoisseurs as well as the network of person, spaces and times where all these actions took place (mostly modern colonial and postcolonial times) and how they have shaped the current teaching and research agendas, are more possible than ever before thanks to data analysis technics, data extractions and Linked Open Data’s possibilities.
These approaches do not exhaust the endless possibilities offered by standardised localisation (see also Villages of the Fayyum, Filaha and CALCS), but if all this is not possible, please at least be as critical as you can be in serving your society (culture and heritage), but don’t take for granted the tradition you have inherited in your institution.
The interconnectedness of the world of digital humanities is, at least conceptually, on the interconnectedness of the real world of human culture, society and heritage. To let one or two persons, or certain supposedly advanced societies, to speak on behalf of the whole human family, has been a grave mistake in the history of the humanities disciplines. This should not be transferred uncritically to the digital humanities sphere.
This might be a patronising statement from a scholar of the global south, whose contribution to digital humanities is not extensive, but this is indeed the heart of the problem. If neither in our own countries, nor in the west are we represented in the digital space, then where, and most importantly when, we will be!
Dr Usama Gad (@usamaligad) is assistant professor of papyrology and classics at Ain Shams University, Egypt. He is also a columnist for several Cairo- and London-based newspapers and blogger at Everyday Orientalism and Classics in Arabic.