- The Politics of Mass Digitization by Nanna Bonde Thylstrup
by Nanna Bonde Thylstrup
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2018. 200 pp. $35.00
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 endeavors 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 paradigm is 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 [End Page 389] often situated in national settings, are oriented toward global political economic agendas and systems.
The novel concepts of assemblages and infrapolitics are introduced to illuminate the 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 that are shaped by fluctuating transboundary public-private partnerships and 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 concept of "infradata," in which infrastructures and data are increasingly integrated; that is, data are located within and used by infrastructures while simultaneously required by those infrastructures to exist and function.1 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.
The author presents three case studies of different kinds of mass digitization projects—Google Books, Europeana, and various shadow libraries such as lib.ru, Monoskop, and UbuWeb—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[s] 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 licitly or illicitly, establish "entrance points to hitherto-excluded knowledge zones" (83). Although these mass digitization projects have different histories, trajectories, and objectives, [End Page 390] they have more in common than they may claim or appear. They share the same basic...