Should original audience and intent be a factor in digitization? Who should have access to digitized materials? How are some algorithms impacting search bias? This week’s module dealt with some incredibly tough questions and problems regarding digital ethics.
Although succinct, Michelle Moravec’s article, “What would you do? Historians’ ethics and digitized archives” pointedly asks historians to think about the context, original intent, and if digitization would cause harm. Moravec argues that it’s important to think “about our responsibilities as the users of these digitized archival material(s), when what we write is online, and when our reuse of digitized materials may at the least violate copyright and the worst cause harm to individuals.” Her article includes 6 questions that resulted from a roundtable discussion and serve as a starting point to examine digital ethics. Since being written in 2016, are there other questions or issues that you think should be included in that ethical framework?
One of Moravec’s questions mentions problems with metadata and ties in with Sharon Block’s article, “Erasure, Misrepresentation and Confusion: Investigating JSTOR Topics on Women’s and Race Histories.” Although the Library of Congress Subject Headings have been a known issue for Librarians in terms of anti-LGBTQIA+, Eurocentric, and other biases, Block went a step further to examine bias in digital databases, like JSTOR. Block’s study revealed “problematic topic indexing” such as the exclusion of the term “women” (but not “men”) from searches relating to Jennifer Morgan’s article, “Some Could Suckle over Their Shoulder’: Male Travelers, Female Bodies, and the Gendering of Racial Ideology, 1500-1770.” Block uses this to illustrate algorithmic issues that can skew search results.
Going a step further, Safiya Umoja Noble’s research into algorithmic bias is eye-opening. I opted to watch her 2015 talk, “Power, Privilege, and the Imperative to Act” and was shocked to learn about the pornographic and hypersexualization of the term “black girls” (along with Asian and Latina girls) in Google searches. Nobel reached out to Bitch Magazine to do a story on this issue and was initially met with reluctance because they assumed that everyone knew this happened. While discussing some of the biases and problematic index terms that influence algorithms, Nobel presents her librarian audience with several ways to work towards fighting the racist framework that is often pervasive in metadata. Nobel gives the example of how the indexing term “black history” was sometimes tied to racist imagery that perpetuated stereotypes in a popular image database. She included a quote that elaborates on how this has a ripple effect in society, “Media representations of people of color particularly African Americans, have been implicated in historical and contemporary racial projects. Such projects use stereotypic images to influence the redistribution of resources in ways that benefit dominant groups at the expense of others.”
Nobel ends her talk by bringing to light issues with the extraction industry and how people in Congo are often trading their lives for the manufacture of our devices. She implores the audience to be more mindful of the larger impact of digitization. I needed to know more about this and found a 2018 article from the Guardian, Is your phone tainted by the misery of the 35,000 children in Congo’s mines? This heartbreaking topic is going to be another research rabbit hole for me.
I haven’t had time to read her book, “Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism,” but I look forward to delving into it in the future. There’s so much going on with these larger themes that leads to more questions and discussion. While we spent some time working through questions about the “right to privacy during the digital age”, and “what should be digitized” in our small groups, we could easily spend an entire semester on this topic.
 Michelle Moravec, “What would you do? Historians’ ethics and digitized archives,” 2016.
 Sharon Block, “Erasure, Misrepresentation and Confusion: Investigating JSTOR Topics on Women’s and Race Histories,” Digital Humanities Quarterly 14, no 1 (2020).