Dr. Ryan Burns
Assistant Professor of Geography
University of Calgary
Date: Friday, November 30, 2018 Time: 12:00PM – 2:00PM Venue: SS3130, Sidney Smith Hall, University of Toronto
Bio: Ryan Burns is an Assistant Professor at University of Calgary’s Department of Geography, and a member of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health. His research interests are in the social, institutional, and urban transformations of big and open data, smart cities, digital humanitarianism, and related digital spatial phenomena. His research program interrogates the social and institutional struggles around knowledge production emerging in the context of these new spatial-technological developments. At the current moment he is looking at digital humanitarianism and open data platforms within smart cities. Burns has published in journals such as Computational Culture, Annals of American Geographers, Geojournal, among others.
Abstract: The proliferation of crowdsourcing, social media, and microtasking within humanitarianism is changing the nature of humanitarian work – but not in the ways proponents like to claim. Although the “savior narrative” of this “digital humanitarianism” is often the story that’s told, a growing body of research is critically evaluating the promises, assumptions, and implications of it. This research has uncovered the layers of politics involved in collecting and acting on (digital) expressions of need.
In this talk I build on this critical research to show that the deepening digital condition of humanitarianism entails a new knowledge politics that I call taming knowledge. Digital humanitarianism produces a tension: on the one hand, its supposed power comes from being able to capture far more voices than before, but paradoxically, these voices, as data, are unusable in their raw format due to their enormous volume and non-expert origins. Instead, humanitarians leverage digital infrastructures like databases, categorization schema, social media, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and maps to abstract, condense, and manipulate the original expressions of need. In other words, digital humanitarianism tames knowledge by getting it to tell a different story than it was originally meant to tell. The implications of this are that voices of marginalized and crisis-affected communities only become legible through relations of digital power established by remote, volunteer, and usually Global North interveners. Far from being emancipatory, digital humanitarianism reinscribes problematic relations of dominance that privilege geographically-distant frames of knowing, and usually those based in Euro-American epistemologies.