Ethics and algorithms are one of those conversations that can stretch on and on for hours and never hit an irrelevant topic (or, at least, it did for us). A lot of what we discussed has come up in class before, specifically surrounding digitization. It is easy for us, as historians, to forget that many of the sources we turn to have a very personal history behind them. In some cases, the people that are part of those histories are very much alive and may not want an item digitized, let alone published on the internet.

One of the examples of such a situation that my discussion group came up with was perhaps a little unorthodox, but still just as compelling. There may exist models who have taken, let’s say, risqué photographs to be published in a magazine before the dawn of the internet. They consented to them being published in a magazine, which would have a more limited audience and reach. Now, however, someone may choose to digitize and publish those photos on the internet—now the audience and potentially global reach of such photos is beyond anything the model originally consented to. The question then is of ethics: is it truly ethical to digitize such content beyond the model’s original consent, especially when they could still be alive and in danger of the consequences?

Despite studying the humanities, I think it is really easy for historians to forget the human element of our work in this age of digital achievement. To borrow a line from Jurassic Park: we were so preoccupied with whether or not we could, we didn’t stop to think if we should. Of course, ethics and digitization go well beyond this rather simplistic example as given above, but it captures a significant foundation in the digitization debate.

6 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Hayley, I was thinking about that line from Jurassic Park as well! I think there was a article referenced in one of the readings that did a play on it too. You raise some good points about original intent and change of scope. I liked the Moravec reading and how they brought up considering harm. ‘Could this cause harm to someone?’ should be one of the first questions asked/considered before digitizing potentially sensitive material. This was another one of those weeks that we could have spent so much more time discussing the various aspects of ethics.

  2. Hi Hayley! I definitely agree with you in that we often overlook the fact that some sources have a personal history attached to them. We need to consider the implications that may arise if we decide to digitize them. Nevertheless, I think that we also need to consider if digitizing sources with personal history can serve the greater good, especially when it comes to research and education. If the benefits outweigh the negatives, then is it worth it?

  3. Your point about personal historres is a great one. I have to admit that I don’t consider that too often as I am domy work. But that may be due to a lack of necessity as I study ancient art and those who originally created and interacted with it are long dead. I think that we like to think that everything should have a digital record kept of it to preserve our history. But like you said, we don’t stop and think about the consent of the individual mat our preservation concerns.

  4. The idea of not thinking about the “should” instead of the “could” is an excellent idea that many in the digital field should be aware of. To have such a power to show hundreds of thousands of users content and to not have a 100% certain means of erasure is a lot for many to grasp. The future of digital endeavors must be thought out carefully, as exploitation is easy to fall into when a content creator’s work is put into the hands of their audience.

  5. I think that Jurassic Park quote is great because (other than I love the movie) it seems like it summarizes a lot of digital history issues we have discussed so far this semester. Week one we even talked about the explosion of digitization and what digital history COULD be, that we didn’t ask what it should be. Then there was that plateau period hitting around 2010 and that is when the question arose. Your post maybe small this week, but the thought is big haha I think you gave some good food for thought here

  6. Hello Hayley,

    My area of focus is in antiquities and I often have a hard time when it comes to dealing with recent history. I often have to remind myself that there is a human element to our work. I think that it is important for historians to remind themselves of the possible consequences when digitizing.

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