The new materiality of labor in digital collaboration in the humanities - New trends in eHumanities

Wolfgang Kaltenbrunner, University of Leiden


March 15, 2012


The new materiality of labor in digital collaboration in the humanities
The use of digital research technology in the humanities does not only encourage reflexivity with respect to disciplinary knowledge, but also self-awareness on the part of practitioners that digitally mediated research and the various work steps it involves constitute an economic value. Since very recently, there has been a new discourse in parts of the community that explicitly focuses on the labor conditions for digital humanists. Digital humanities work is frequently not recognized by traditional academic institutions, thus leading practitioners to examine the relative benefits of flexible employment. While some remain skeptical towards the new labor flexibility of ‘knowledge work’, others embrace it for the greater intellectual freedom they associate with it. In this presentation I relate the discussion about flexible employment in digital humanities research to a theoretical debate about the concepts of informational labor (Manuel Castells) and immaterial labor (Antonio Negri & Michael Hardt), which both suggest that flexible labor is the characteristic modality of employment in digitally mediated networks. I critically examines the concepts, arguing that they are not only overly inclusive and indebted to technological determinism, but also fail to properly address the aspect of self-management that I suggest is of great significance to understanding the inner workings of ‘knowledge-intensive’ labor. I then discuss findings from an empirical case study that exemplify the way self-management works in a digitally mediated collaborative project in the humanities. I use these results to criticize the notion of informational/immaterial labor as empowering researchers. Rather, it is related to the need for researchers to prospectively gear their work to the requirements of funding bodies, or find other ways for covering the expense of labor. This sort of anticipatory book keeping in digital collaboration draws attention to the definitional power of research grants in shaping the digital humanities. Wether digital humanities are going to consist of a thoroughly integrated ‘cyberinfrastructure’, or of dispersed ’boutique projects’, has a lot to do with how it is funded.

Wolfgang Kaltenbrunner is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Science & Technology Studies at the University of Leiden