I have been thinking a lot since last week’s class discussion about decolonization versus democratization. Can we have both? Are they really in opposition to one another? These questions came up in regards to Marlene Daut’s article Haiti @ the Digital Crossroads: Archiving Black Sovereignty (Sx Archipelagos, 2019, no. 3, July). Daut says, “Confronting how we contextualize the archive from the perspective of decolonization rather than democratization allows us to acknowledge both the opportunities and limitations of what is contained in archives and to reveal our own privilege in being able to access and interpret the documents.”
Democracy feels like an unassailable lofty bar to which we all must strive, but just saying or assuming everyone is equal doesn’t make it true. Approaching an archive or other digital humanities (DH) project from a perspective of democratization ignores the power structures all around as some voices have taken more power for themselves—power to speak (and know others will listen), power to access, power to analyze—which necessarily limits what the project can achieve.
I’m wondering if Ernesto Oroza’s concept of “technological disobedience” could be useful to help foreground decolonization over democratization in DH work. In the YouTube video “Cuba’s Inventions from 30 Years of Isolation,” Oroza discusses many of the different ways people in Cuba took apart existing machines, technologies, and everyday objects to create new ones to suit their families’ needs, e.g., taking the motor out of broken driers to create fans or power other machines, using metal food trays to create antennae, and creating beef steak from grapefruit rinds. Oroza says, “People think beyond the normal capabilities of an object, and try to surpass the limitations it imposes on itself….This kind of object imposes a limit on the user, because it comes with an established technological code, which hardly ever satisfies all of the user’s needs, and sometimes he exceeds these needs. He manages to go beyond the object’s capabilities.” This is “technological disobedience,” where people reject and disregard the “authority” held by objects.
I admit I’ve never really thought of objects and technologies in this way. I’ve always thought in terms of what can this object do for me rather than what does this object limit me to doing. Is there such a thing as a technologically disobedient mapping project or archive—or more broadly a technologically disobedient DH? I’m not sure what that would look like, but I’m very excited to find out.