RECOMMENDED: To Hell With Good Intentions: Linked Data, Community and the Power to Name

Mx A. Matienzo (Digital Public Library of America) has posted a version of their keynote address from the 2015 Library and Information Technology Association (LITA) Forum, “To Hell With Good Intentions: Linked Data, Community and the Power to Name.” Matienzo frames the talk in the context of a hope that “… we can start to examine linked data, particularly within the context of cultural heritage, and how it is decidedly not neutral, nor an intrinsic good, but instead as another space in which ideology and systematic oppression are likely to be reproduced.”

The talk opens with an acknowledgment of its own deep context, with nods to the influences of individuals, personal and professional background, conversations, articles, books, and “… the stark reality that students of color are facing at University of Missouri, and other campuses across the country.” Matienzo references the power of naming and classification: “It should be clear that the naming function of metadata raises a contentious point in that it allows assumptions and oppression to be reproduced over time.” Given that “… naming is fundamentally unavoidable in knowledge representation …. we need to make a decision whether we choose to name with an intention of justice, or with the pretense of neutrality and objectivity.”

How does linked data extend or interrupt the constructed, non-neutral character of metadata? Matienzo asserts a belief in linked data’s power to decentralize and democratize assertions but argues that linked data’s value propositions– such as Web-accessibility– and foundational concepts–“the open world assumption” and the “anyone can make statements about any resource” aspect– bear closer scrutiny and work. They write:

… we have to recognize the folly of imposing our good intentions in regards to the production of linked data, or any form of documentation, without listening to these communities. These spaces are not always ours, and like the students occupying the quad at University of Missouri, we should be ready to make the space they demand when they do so. Even when we directly engage members of a community and request their presence in a project to correct a perceived absence of voices, we must recognize that this in itself is a form of labor that also has political and emotional impact. In her recent article “Minor Threats,” Mimi Thi Nguyen relates a case where she was urged to add materials to the riot grrrl archive at the Fales Library at New York University which viewed the absence of materials created by or about women of color from the collection, as “a crisis, a decisive historical moment that demanded mediation.”16 She asks us to consider what might be lost or hidden in the process of “correction” of an absence and that correction is pursued. Without thought, without conversation, and without vulnerability on the part of those of you with good intentions, our process of correction can simultaneously introduce and spackle over its own violence. To Hell with good intentions, and to Hell with well-intentioned linked data.

Matienzo calls for the development of simple tools to encourage community-authored narratives and make linked data “… easier to publish, consume, and reuse for all kinds of institutions and communities,” asserting:

Despite my concerns about the lack of access to effective user-facing tools for linked data, I still believe its power is in its ability to leverage that decentralization. Relying on centralized authority management or metadata creation for everything, and the corporatization of library infrastructure, actively resists that decentralizing force, further limiting our own effectiveness in the construction of radical democracy.

dh+lib Review

This post was produced through a cooperation between Ralph Baylor, Rebecca Dowson, Nickoal Eichmann, Chelsea Gunn, Chelcie Rowell, and Amy Wickner (Editors-at-large for the week), Caitlin Christian-Lamb (Editor for the week), Sarah Potvin (Site Editor), Roxanne Shirazi, Caro Pinto, and Patrick Williams (dh+lib Review Editors).