Humanity: Why we need to build strong digital humanities communities in Africa

Digital humanities (DH) is what happens at the intersection of computing or digital technologies and the disciplines of the humanities. In a way, DH is the humanities’ response to the digital world. On the one hand, DH entails using digital and computational methodologies in the broad field of humanities. For instance, computational approaches allow for the analysis of large amount of texts, which may be practically infeasible to do manually.  On the other hand, DH encompasses the humanities-oriented investigation into the digital world. For instance, researchers investigating behaviour of people on social media are working in DH. 

But DH can also be applied to research long predating present technologies, as an example, we can consider the digitisation of cultural artefacts and historical resources. 

One of the most important features of DH is its two-way relationship between the humanities and the digital. DH means both the use of technology to conduct humanities research in a way that was never before possible, but also the humanities-oriented research into the technology that is so part of our everyday lives.  

Both of these applications are critical when looking at our past, present and future. In order to fully appreciate the impact of DH, it is necessary to digitise our past. Digitised information allows for computational analyses. Additionally, it forces the re-documentation which is sorely needed for the decolonisation of knowledge. Having access to large amounts of documentation allows us to interrogate our past and our present on a wide scale. To safeguard our future, an understanding of the impact of the increasing importance of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning on all functions of life is essential. Asking relevant societal questions and investigating these is part of the research field of DH.

Re-documenting our past 

History is written by the victors, as the saying goes. But work in DH is changing that. Important projects like the 500 Year Archive and Biography of an Uncharted People are making primary collections, previously available to only an elite few, widely available in digital format – usually open access – which allows present day historians to look back and gather fresh evidence, previously missed or even purposely overlooked, to piece together more of the puzzles of our past. As Shadreck Chirikure argues, we cannot decolonise our curriculums unless we understand the knowledge that comes from the continent. However, to be able to understand the knowledge and the context of the continent, we first need to be able to access this information. 

Simply having access to the material is, however, not enough. To be able to properly access the information that is contained in these large collections, novel analysis means are needed. DH investigates, develops, and applies tools such as optical character recognition (enabling searching in text collections that were previously only available as images) or textual analysis (for instance, for identifying people and places in texts).

Interrogating our present 

In the last few decades the world has changed irrevocably. Mobile phones and easy Internet access led to an increasing number of social interactions online. Combined with the impact of the COVID-19 global pandemic that had the world in lockdown for most of 2020 and in some places even beyond, this has led to a major change in communication. For instance, grandparents are interacting with their grandchildren on video calls and families are staying in contact through Facebook and WhatsApp groups. How does that change human dynamics and are these for better or worse?  

As an example of the impact of the digital on our daily lives, we may look at, for instance, how social media has had a profoundly negative impact on adolescent girls as rates of depression, anxiety and self-injury within this group soared along with the proliferation of social media platforms. However, solutions to this kind of problem are complex and require stronger data systems that better reflect human needs. Research in these areas is the goal of the LiiV Center for Digital Anthropology, which is now working with UNESCO to advance the field of digital anthropology. In the words of the centre, this kind of work is critically important to ‘create a more ethical, cohesive and empathetic society.’ 

Now, as researchers based in Africa, we must ask ourselves, who is interrogating Africa’s past, present and future? Who is studying the unique effects of social media on the children of your own countries on this continent and who is working to adapt those platforms to protect them? What is the unique context of Africa and how can we take this specific context into account in such research? 

Safeguarding our future 

Looking more explicitly to the future, we see that, increasingly, the world is relying on artificial intelligence. From experiments to use it in courts for sentencing to diagnosis and treatment of illness by AI  and even in the finding and rooting out of hate speech and incitement to violence on YouTube and other social media platforms, artificial intelligence seems to become a larger part of our daily lives. 

These are in fact already real-world examples and we don’t know what may lie in the future. But what we do know is that AI is only as good as the data and algorithms it uses and this has an impact on its use in Africa. There has been less medical data gathered on African populations than any other population in the world, which may have major negative consequences for diagnostics and treatments of AI in medicine in Africa, for instance. Already the use of AI in the context of predictive policing has been shown to be racist because of biased algorithms, and disinformation and hate speech in Africa is being shared unchecked through social media platforms in part because YouTube’s algorithms are not effective in detecting toxic content in non-English speaking countries in the Global South. 

It is here where it is pivotal to apply humanistic interrogation and questioning taught in the Humanities to these tools and algorithms, but for humanities researchers to develop not only the vocabulary to speak to the computer scientists working on these technologies, but also the tools, such as machine translation tools for our indigenous languages, to moderate the AI and make it work for our own societies and communities. 

Building our own DH communities to solve our own community’s needs 

It is obvious that with each community, each language group, each ethnic minority having their own unique needs, quirks of culture and belief, languages and even DNA, we need to build a strong network of DH practitioners across Africa, from the granular level up, to guard against blind spots and biases and ensure communities do not end up on the wrong side of an algorithm. Such a network of DH practitioners also enables people in Africa to take control over the practical use of AI and related techniques. 

In South Africa, work has begun to build a network of digital humanities and computational social sciences (CSS) work through ESCALATOR, a subsidiary of the South African Centre for Digital Language Resources (SADiLaR). In this context, ESCALATOR has set up a Slack instance, which is essentially a social network for people interested in DH. ESCALATOR also built a DH and CSS stakeholder map to identify the various role players and resources in the field to make more easily available information like;  who is providing training opportunities, who is conducting what research for collaboration and mentoring opportunities and who is working on what tools that could be applied to a range of DH research projects. 

With this information in hand, we will know what to focus on, how to bring people with shared interests together, where our country’s strengths lie and what challenges need to be addressed. Because in order to build these skills and practically applicable resources, we need a strong community of practice. DH is a radically different way of doing research compared to traditional approaches. It mixes the digital with humanities, which requires interdisciplinary collaborations. These collaborations require practitioners to get together. As such building communities of practice is essential for DH to flourish, and to ensure Africa is ready for what lies ahead, as flourish it must.