The Master Switch

[This post is a reading reflection written for UNL’s Digital Humanities Seminar. This week’s reading was Tim Wu’s The Master Switch.]

Tim Wu contextualizes the Internet in communication technology’s long history of optimism. Like Lawrence Lessig and Evgeny Morozov, Wu suggests the free and open Internet may not always remain that way. With increasingly powerful companies such as Facebook, which virtually operates as an online ID card now, and Google, which has amassed an absurd amount of information on which many people daily rely, the Internet does run the risk of bowing to private corporate interests. Even if the Internet is too large, too international to fully control, the corporate influence in politics could allow businesses de facto control over a nation’s access.

However, what does Wu’s examination of “Information Empires” mean for the digital humanities? Most DHers use, promote, and build open tools, though the dominance of private business is undeniable. The obvious example may be the Google Books or Google Scholars projects, which have become indispensable resource for scholars. However, my own experience in the digital humanities has placed me at the mercy of Google. By using Exhibit, a tool developed by MIT that relies on Google Maps, I place the sustainability of my visualizations in the hands of a company, which probably cares very little about my small digital project (understandably so).

What struck me most about Wu’s look at the optimism of new technologies in respect to the digital humanities, however, was how much this technological optimism has hurt the digital humanities. Many scholars, historians in particular, recoiled at the suggestion that the Internet or e-book would replace the printed book. In many respects, this unfounded fear (books will be a vital part of scholarship for the rest of my life at least) has built irrational resistance, though it seems to be lessening in most corners of academia, to developing new methodologies with these new technologies.

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