The Politics of Mass Digitization

By Nanna Bonde Thylstrup. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. 2018. 200 pages. $35 ISBN: 9780262039017

The defining concept of our time is mass digitization. The world of cultural memory, for instance, has become consumed with it. Diverse kinds of cultural memory collections are being digitized on industrial scales for diverse political and cultural purposes of access, preservation, research, control, and use. These mass digitization projects, however, are not neutral technical endeavours or processes, nor are they simple continuations of existing cultural memory politics or practices. These projects instead are new sociopolitical and sociotechnical phenomena that are altering the politics of cultural memory.

In The Politics of Mass Digitization, Nanna Bonde Thylstrup critically examines mass digitization’s implications for cultural memory. Thylstrup’s central argument is that mass digitization is creating “new ways of reading, viewing, and structuring cultural material, [and] also new models of value and its extraction, and new infrastructures of control” (133). Mass digitization heralds a new paradigm for cultural memory by fundamentally shifting understandings and uses of cultural memory artifacts, institutions, practices, and users.

This new paradigmis having three major effects on cultural memory. First, it is changing cultural works from being documents read, interpreted, and preserved by humans into digital machine-readable information to be managed, manipulated, and maintained by computers and algorithms. Second, the political economy of cultural memory is also being transformed from scarce physical objects into ubiquitous digital data flows. Third, mass digitization is changing perceptions of cultural memory belonging to national domains to political processes that, while often situated in national settings, are oriented towards global political economic agendas and systems.

The novel concepts of assemblages and infrapolitics are introduced to illuminate mass digitization paradigm and its effects on cultural memory. Mass digitization is comprised of complex assemblages of “contingent arrangements consisting of humans, machines, objects, subjects, spaces and places, habits, norms, laws, politics, and so on” (20). Rather than some unified, centripetal, stable process or system, mass digitization involves multiple, centrifugal, and flexible arrangements of diverse and disparate disciplines, interests, and forces, shaped by fluctuating transboundary public-private partnerships, driven by new forms of value creation, extraction, and use.

These highly political assemblages, moreover, are infrapolitical in the sense that they are both infrastructural and political in nature and constitution. Thylstrup states that “the politics of infrastructure is the politics of what goes on behind the curtains, not only what is launched to the front page” (134). The infrapolitical concept interestingly echoes Bradley Fidler and Amelia Acker’s (2017) concept of “infradata” in which infrastructures and data are increasingly integrated: that is, data is located within and used by infrastructures whilst simultaneously required by those infrastructures to exist and function. Similarly, mass digitization assemblages are infrastructural systems and simultaneously political processes. Infrapolitics sheds light on the underlying and often hidden assumptions about these assemblages’ designs, allowances, and values. These assemblages are thus revealed to be biased, opaque, contested, and complicated processes and not the impartial, obvious, or self-evident systems that many people take for granted.

Three case studies of different kinds of mass digitization projects–Google Books, Europeana, and various shadow libraries such as lib.ru, Monoskop, and UbuWeb–are presented through the conceptual lenses of assemblages and their infrapolitics. For example, Google Books, by its “unlikely marriage between [itself as a global] tech company and cultural memory institutions” (38) serves “as a prism that reflects…political tendencies toward globalization, privatization, and digitization” (38). Europeana, meanwhile, “produces a new form of cultural memory politics that converge national and supranational imaginaries with global information infrastructures” (57). Shadow libraries, in contrast to the previous two projects, are more dispersed, diverse, and ad-hoc arrangements that “operate in the shadows of formal visibility and regulatory systems (81) and, whether licit or illicitly, establish “entrance points to hitherto-excluded knowledge zones” (83). Although these mass digitization projects have different histories, trajectories, and objectives, they have more in common than they may claim or appear. They share the same basic affinities of accessing, creating, producing, disseminating, sharing, preserving, and otherwise using cultural memory. Further, each represent complex infrapolitical assemblages that are, to varying degrees, enmeshed, entangled, and entwined with one another in various political, commercial, legal, and ethical constellations.

Mass digitization ultimately represents new kinds of engagements with and understandings of the politics of cultural memory. While most research on mass digitization emphasizes policy issues and technical implementations, it tends to neglect nuanced understandings of mass digitization’s political economic and cultural mechanisms, structures, and values. This book addresses this research gap by interrogating the many assumptions underlying mass digitization projects and assemblages. Thylstrup, in other words, focuses on the ‘whys’ instead of the ‘hows’ of mass digitization projects in cultural memory contexts. Addressing this gap is important and timely since most digital technologies, platforms, products, services, and initiatives are either celebrated or accepted without substantial critique. Indeed, this book’s considered critique of the mass digitization of cultural memory presents its own paradigm shift from an infrapolitics of power and profit to the start of an infrapolitics of care.

Marc Kosciejew, University of Malta, Msida, Malta

Fidler, Bradley and Amelia Acker. “Metadata, infrastructure, and computer-mediated communication in historical perspective.” Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology 68, no. 2 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1002/asi.23660