Week 5: More Questions Than Answers

Remarkably for such a central part of our lives, we stand for the most part in formal ignorance of the social and moral order created by these invisible, potent entities. Their impact is indisputable, and as Foucault reminds us, inescapable…Each standard and each category valorizes some point of view and silences another. This is not a bad thing—indeed it is inescapable. But it is an ethical choice, and as such it is dangerous—not bad but dangerous.

What kind of ethical choices are we making and/or what kind of ethical questions should we be asking ourselves?

I think that this is a very important question to ask when assigning / creating metadata to digital objects, as the ethical implications of our decisions are at once subtle and simultaneously so significant. Whether it is the language used in our descriptions, the keywords we choose to associate with certain artifacts, or the very artifacts we choose to digitize — all of these decisions have an impact on the way this digital material is understood, accessed, and organized. The type of questions that I believe we should be asking ourselves are: what does this description privilege or choose to foreground? Does the description not only accurately reflect the content of the piece, but is the information included relevant to a diverse audience with disparate interests? Do the keywords or subject terms allow for a wide range of access? Are they targeted solely at an academic audience or would a member of the community who is not a part of that discourse be able to search for and discover these materials? Disrupting notions of “classification” as a form of science or a matter of absolute precision is key in understanding the ethical implications of this process. This is not Linnaean taxonomy or the logical hierarchy of C++ (both of which have their own implicit ideological underpinnings) but seemingly a much more subtle, complex system in which to work. It is difficult not to view this process as “dangerous” and therefore implicitly “bad” — but rather, in asking these questions and attempting at the very least to answer them; in incorporating those answers into our process; in checking and rechecking that process as it develops: all are measures to improve our work, diversify our language, and disrupt the own hierarchies of information that we ourselves have valorized, allowing those “silences” to perhaps speak.

I think the biggest pitfall that I have encountered thus far is a question of “vocabulary.” Emblematic of this is the question of what to call the events that transpired in Watts in 1965 (though is it really fair to ascribe those events to Watts specifically; was this not really Los Angeles incident?). Watts Riot, Watts Uprising, Watts Revolt, Watts Rebellion and the ever-popular Watts Upsurge — all of these at one point or another have gained traction in popular parlance. “Watts Riot,” though we understand that this is a problematic characterization of the events, is the most widely-used and popular of the phrases. Would it not therefore stand that this should be our preferred keyword or tag, as it would more than likely be the way that the majority of accessors would search for this material? Or rather should we eschew it in favor of more sympathetic, complex phrases like “Watts Uprising” or “Watts Rebellion” (interestingly, the latter has a presence on Google Trends while the former does not) at the risk of limiting access or visibility? Further risks include (the deliberate avoidance of) editorializing — by appearing to be neutral are we implicitly denying our own biases and agendas inside of this process? And further to this, are we doing the SCL a disservice by allowing the material to “stand on its own,” as Youssef has consistently emphasized the need to relate this material to our contemporary moment? How this relates to generating tags or keywords or producing metadata might seem tangential, but I do believe that we must ask ourselves these questions as we work through this process.

I believe self-reflexivity and an openness to criticism / feedback are essential in improving my work on this project. I think that while all of us take pride in the work we do, that sense of intellectual security cannot come at the expense of creating a functional, open, well-sourced and well-index archive of material. I think that in incorporating a multitude of voices in the feedback we receive, we are more likely to make “materials findable to multiple audiences.” The differences in the ways that we speak / think / organize information / develop associations and connotations will ensure that our metadata is exposed to a multitude of voices and opinions. The question of accuracy is problematic and one that I have struggled with when generating metadata for the digital material. Am I the arbiter then of what is “accurate?” Though many of the digital objects did in fact have locatable titles, authors, and dates attached to them, those that did not were assigned names and creators that I ascribed to them. This process was one informed by the material, but it was still one predicated on the decisions I made. Deconstructing a stable notion of what is “accurate,” checking and rechecking the material, consulting with my peers, and allowing the objects to “speak” for themselves as much as possible would all be helpful steps in improving the quality of my work.

Leave a Reply