Scholars' Lab Blog //On DH and incremental action
Blog //On DH and incremental action

When our Praxis cohort took our initial steps into coding last year, GitHub was one of the first tools we were introduced to. As a dominant, well-established Git platform, it seemed the natural choice for us as we started out learning about software development and collaborative coding.

Partway through our first semester, and a couple of months before we transitioned from group skills workshops to working independently on our project, news broke that GitHub had renewed its contract with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE), sparking a wave of protests across its staff and prompting several resignations. GitHub employees and users published open letters to the company, registering their dissent at the decision to renew the contract. The letters cited the agency’s practices of family separation, child detention, raids and round-ups, and its intensifying terrorization of immigrant communities; in response, GitHub’s leadership pointed to ICE’s work on addressing crimes such as human trafficking, and announced a donation of $500,000 to organizations that provide assistance to immigrants affected by the Trump administration’s policies. Its staff was not mollified.

These developments prompted a discussion among our Praxis cohort about whether we should continue using GitHub as we moved into the development phase of our project, or whether we should turn to an alternative platform. We acknowledged that GitHub’s decision to renew its contract with ICE put using the platform at odds with the anti-racist values we set out in our charter at the start of the year.

At the same time, we wrestled with the reality of many boycotts and acts of solidarity: what would we achieve with switching platforms, beyond a symbolic gesture? If we ditched GitHub, could we really be sure that the platform we chose in its stead held itself to higher values? And would our cohort’s boycott really mean anything if the rest of our institution continued to use GitHub? After I finish writing it, this very blogpost will be published using GitHub.

We ultimately decided, in the absence of definitive (or satisfying) answers to these questions, to switch to GitLab. We recognized straightaway that this platform, too, is not without its problems: failings around gender parity, and gender justice, have put the company in the news recently, and has also led to at least one resignation from GitLab. Which begs the question: was it worth switching at all?

I don’t have an adequate answer. My instinct tells me that given ICE’s functional role in a national emergency in which white nationalist policy-making is unleashing ever-greater catastrophe upon Black and Brown communities in the United States, any step toward personal responsibility we can take is worthwhile, even if that step is not as complete or as just as we would like. Given that our cohort is entirely white, our level of obligation in this moment is particularly acute. And yet I struggle—as I know my colleagues do—with jumping ship to an organization that has also demonstrably failed to live up to basic principles of equity and justice, even if their transgressions appear to have taken place on a smaller scale. (GitHub, it should be noted, has also had its share of sexual harassment scandals.) The fact that there is such paucity of choice when it comes to tech organizations that truly embrace social justice values—despite prolific lip service to the contrary—is cold comfort.

Nonetheless, in moments like these, I return to one the lines of Jewish scripture I treasure most, from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers): “It is not upon you to complete the task (of perfecting the world), but neither are you free to refrain from it.” We may be unable to always meet our targets as we strive to live out our values—whether due to practical constraints, systemic obstacles, or personal limitations—but that is no justification for inertia. We will continue to assess our choices, acknowledge the harm we cause when those choices fall short, and be transparent about the steps we take and how we can keep making those steps do and mean more. One of the first lessons handed down to us as we began Praxis was that failure is an unavoidable marker on the road to progress; what counts is learning from that failure—not letting it go to waste. As Samuel Beckett wrote, “Ever tried, ever failed. Try again, fail again—fail better.” As in digital humanities, so it is in that task we may not complete, but cannot abandon.

Cite this post: Natasha Roth-Rowland. “On DH and incremental action”. Published February 12, 2020. Accessed on .