Category Archives: Site Reviews

Your Slavery Footprint

One of the more interesting concepts developed by Karl Marx (himself one of the more interesting characters in the period of history I study) is the notion of commodity fetishism. The details of the theory, as outlined in volume one of Capital, are a bit complex, but they can be summarized relatively easily. When you enter a modern marketplace, say, to purchase a commodity, say that new Kindle you’ve had your eye on, you do not have access to all of the steps that produced that commodity. You do not see what parts make up the Kindle, where they found the raw materials, how the various pieces traveled to the various factories, who hired the workers, who made the screen, who designed the microchips, who assembled the chassis, who coordinated the whole process, etc. You see only an end-product, a commodity, which you acquire by trading another commodity (money). So what looks like a straightforward exchange between two discrete objects of equal value, money for Kindle, is actually an incredibly complex and layered social interaction involving people, material, infrastructure, governments, trade policies, etc. from all corners of the world. When you purchase a product, however, you rarely think about all this. Each step, each transaction in the commodity chain constructs an elaborate, if delicate fantasy. “A commodity,” writes Marx, “is a mysterious thing.”

Although I don’t have any direct proof, I suspect that Marx borrowed the idea of commodity fetishism from antislavery activists. At the very least, he absorbed it from the wider Victorian culture of which he was very much a part. Exposing the social reality, the horrific human toll, behind slave-produced commodities is one of the oldest and most important strategies of abolitionist movements. The image at left first appeared in 1787, accompanying a book written by Voltaire three decades earlier. It shows a Surinamese slave, mutilated and broken, lying on the ground near a plantation; the caption reads: “This is the price for the sugar you eat in Europe.” In the original book, published in 1759, the slave castigates les fétiches hollandais (Dutch fetishes) for preaching universal brotherhood while at the same time reducing him to the level of an inhuman object. The slaves who helped produce consumer goods, as Walter Johnson and Edward Baptist establish, were themselves highly fetishized commodities. Abolitionists aggressively promoted free labor sugar and cotton as antidotes to the global trade in human beings. Consumer boycotts and efforts to market “free produce,” as Carol Faulkner and Lawrence Glickman argue, developed alongside opposition to slavery.  The same impulse lives on today in “fair trade” coffee and “made in the USA” stickers. Even the “free trade” fundamentalism that emerged in Victorian England, as Richard Huzzey shows, was deeply rooted in antislavery strategy.

Slavery Footprint, launched last month by a nonprofit group in collaboration with the US State Department, puts a new spin on this old story. The website offers users a simple survey to determine “how many slaves work for you.” The type and amount of clothes you own, the food you consume, and other lifestyle choices all factor into the calculation. In the end, I discovered that I have 23 slaves working for me, which is on the low end of the spectrum. Some estimates place the total number of enslaved individuals as high as 27 million (more than the entire population of the state of Texas). A mobile app linked to the site, called “Made in a Free World,” allows you to monitor progress against human trafficking and earn points by pressuring corporations to clarify their supply chain. Slavery Footprint joins a growing body of digital platforms aimed at demystifying commodities. SlaveFree, developed by the same group, encourages users to post images of their consumer goods accompanied by a demand to liberate them from forced labor. Free2Work allows smartphone users to scan UPC codes to learn how different corporations are implicated in global slavery.  Historians Against Slavery offers a framework for combining scholarship with activism. CNN has launched the Freedom Project. And no doubt there will be many more. Demand on Slavery Footprint was so overwhelming that it crashed the site almost immediately after its launch.

The irony of these initiatives is that they rely on the very same global corporations that they critique. You are not allowed to use the “Made in a Free World” app, for example, unless you agree to join Facebook. The conflict minerals and child workers that help generate touchpads, smartphones, and other low-cost, mass-produced interfaces also help fuel the campaign to eliminate them. Apple made this clear just a few weeks ago, when it quickly yanked a new app called “Phone Story.” The program, which shows some of the brutal child labor that forms part of the commodity chain for the iPhone, is unavailable to Apple customers. “Apps that depict violence or abuse of children,” announced the company, “will be rejected.” Abolition itself is a commodity dependent upon slave labor – inadmissible under its own moral logic.

Earlier abolitionist movements also relied on a consumer revolution, high-speed printing presses, advances in travel and communication, and an increasingly interconnected globe to spread their message. And where slaveholders and their sympathizers influenced those technologies (the national mail, segregated railroad and steamboat cabins, pass systems) abolitionists had a harder time. The present campaigns recall much of this earlier form of activism, usually called “moral suasion.” Yet there are important differences. Slavery is now illegal, at least nominally, in most of the world. Although earlier abolitionists denounced the “unhallowed union” between manufacturers and slaveholders and saw “wealthy capitalists” as impediments to their cause, they did not focus their efforts on improving corporate citizenship. They certainly did not collaborate with the State Department (at least not until the Civil War, when abolitionists participated in the Freedmen’s Bureau and other reconstruction initiatives under Lincoln’s successors).

Like their predecessors, recent campaigns tend to place more emphasis on the purity of the purchaser than on the plight of the victim. “[N]one of us want to wear people’s tragedy,” argues the president of Call + Response, the organization behind Slavery Footprint. “We don’t want to consume their suffering where we have coffee with sugar poured in it.” It is worth remembering that no entrenched system of slavery was ever abolished by boycott or free produce movements. In parts of Africa, the introduction of “legitimate commerce” accompanied an expansion and intensification of enslavement. In most cases, it took a combination of grassroots action, international pressure, and direct government intervention to end slavery; in the United States, it took a revolution. At the same time, consumer awareness campaigns, breaking through all that commodity fetishism, are indispensable to abolition. Ian Baucom calls this “melancholy realism,” but could it also be empathetic or liberatory realism?

In a world where we are even more removed from the source of slave labor than the original abolitionists (who could hop the nearest steamboat south of Jersey), what does it mean to consume someone’s suffering? What does it mean to quantify your contribution to the elimination of forced labor with virtual points?

Cross-posted at HASTAC

The Age of Wikipedia

I noticed an interesting blurb on the Chronicle of Higher Education today: Professors Shore Up Wikipedia Entries on Public Policy. The short article explains how a small group of professors are working with Wikipedia experts to contribute high-quality content to the famous open-access encyclopedia. The article points out that professors are incorporating the writing and editing of Wiki articles into their course expectations. Although many (if not most) educators ignore Wikipedia in the classroom, there is a legitimate pedagogical advantage to a more direct approach. As one of the participating professors explained: “It truly tests [students’] ability to argue complex issues articulately in the public domain, as well teaching them how to be critical consumers of information.” But perhaps the most interesting part of the article is that the Wikimedia Foundation is actively supporting and facilitating course integration.

Although skepticism of Wikipedia continues to run high, few can doubt its overwhelming public presence. Not only is it driving other, more traditional, encyclopedias out of business, it is often among the top three sources of information on any topic in a standard Google search. Four years ago, the late Roy Rosenzweig published a brilliant article in the Journal of American History, which posed the question: Can History be Open Source? Rosenzweig highlighted the occasional analytical failures and lopsided coverage of Wikipedia – a byproduct of its voluntarist construction – but also pointed to its tremendous benefits for research and teaching. And I think Rosenzweig and his followers are correct to call for greater interaction and engagement with Wiki-style projects rather than pious denouncement (an all-too-common knee-jerk reaction from established academics).

Around the same time as Rosenzweig’s article, philosopher (and Wikipedia co-founder) Larry Sanger launched Citizendium, a more closed, peer-reviewed encyclopedia that has struggled to keep up with its big brother. This new Wikipedia-Academia partnership might be a good compromise between the two systems. Scholarly, professional input could supplement and augment existing material while not shutting out the hordes of amateur enthusiasts who have made the open-source encyclopedia such a popular success. Whatever the case, it is clear that the Wiki is here to stay. It is not difficult to imagine a Wiki article given the same (or even more) weight as a standard reference entry by the hiring and tenure committees of the future. And, certainly, it will continue to play a role in classroom environments, whether we want it to or not.

Historians and Blogging

Blogging has become a popular activity for historians and other scholars in recent years. Numerous historians publish personal or group blogs that comment on their work and current trends in the field. Many are both eloquent and entertaining, while some combine analysis, erudition, and creative insight to rival the best “traditional” scholarly work. The History News Network maintains a group blog, called Cliopatria, which aggregates some of the best of recent digital content. But I’d like to draw special attention to the official blog of the American Historical Association (AHA).

As the oldest and largest association of professional historians in the country, the AHA needs no detailed introduction here. For well over a century, the AHA has been a constantly looming presence within the profession. But some might be surprised to learn that its official blog is one of its most lively and informative publications. Entries survey the latest digital trends and articles, summarize AHA professional activities, and advertise fellowship and grant opportunities. Recent posts also take detailed looks at digital resources for subjects like medical history and oral history and offer introductions to major physical archives and repositories. An interesting post from earlier this year, for example, introduces readers to the Special Collections division of the National Agricultural Library.

But don’t take my word for it. Click over and explore this gateway to a vast and verdant world of digital history.

Whither Google Books?

Google’s recent showdown with China has drawn a lot of media attention, but historians and other digital humanists have also been paying closer attention to the search engine giant. Dan Cohen’s talk at the American Historical Association meeting in San Diego this month tackles the question:”Is Google Good for History?” The talk, which is posted in full on Cohen’s blog, answers with a qualified but overwhelmingly positive “yes.”

google_booksCohen devotes most of his analysis to the controversial Google Books project. Although seen as a tremendous boon by most researchers in the humanities, the project is far from perfect. In a popular article published in the Chronicle of Higher Education last year, linguist Geoffrey Nunberg argues that Google’s database is not yet the omniscient text-mining tool of which many have been dreaming. Not only is the database incomplete, Nunberg points out, it is riddled with basic factual errors and misinformation. The full title of his article is Google’s Book Search: A Disaster for Scholars. At least one Google employee has written a forceful rejoinder to these charges.

Although he laments the closed, proprietary nature of the Google Books interface, Cohen agrees that detractors are looking a gift horse in the mouth. He writes that his students “regularly…discover new topics to study and write about through searches on Google Books.” Moreover, he argues, large-scale data mining on Google challenges the traditional model of historical research, in which analysis is based on careful extrapolation from a limited number of sources. The old model, which Cohen labels “anecdotal history,” can now be replaced by a more comprehensive method, rooted in thousands of terabytes of digital data. According to Cohen: “our analog, necessarily partial methods have…hidden from us the potential of taking a more comprehensive view, aided by less capricious retrieval mechanisms which, despite what detractors might say, are often more objective than leafing rapidly through paper folios on a time-delimited jaunt to an archive.”

At the end of his piece, Cohen issues a call for historians to push Google in a better direction and for Google to study and adopt some of the strategies and methodologies used by historians. But the debate lingers. Is Cohen right about the stark rift between analog and digital modes of historical research? Do you use Google Books in your research and teaching? If so, how?

UPDATE: I’ve just read a new article by Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig on the recent Google Books settlement. Lessig argues that the terms of the agreement set the stage for “a catastrophic cultural mistake.” The prose is accessible, the argument is lucid, and the critique of the insanity that is current copyright law is frankly, brilliant. This article should be mandatory reading for anyone interested in a career in the humanities.

Another brilliant article on Google Books was published recently by the History News Network. Discussing the French reaction to Google’s project, the author reminds us that the idea of the “information marketplace” is a historical (and political) construction.

The Digital Lincoln

In September, the Journal of American History published a special issue entitled: Abraham Lincoln at 200: History and Historiography. The overall quality of this issue is superb and its format is rather innovative for a mainstream academic journal (a hint of things to come?). Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this issue is an interpretive website called “Building the Digital Lincoln.” The site consists of a series of links to a wide swath of digital material related to Lincoln and his era. Even those who are not specialists in American history should take a careful look at this site. It is a prime example of the exciting new educational and methodological tools made possible by the digital revolution.

lincoln“Building the Digital Lincoln” is divided into three major parts. “Documents & Artifacts” surveys innovative new ways of collecting, interpreting, and presenting primary source data – from word clouds and timelines to interactive maps and 3D models. “Scholarship” focuses on various ways of presenting historical analysis online. And “Lincoln Resources” provides an overview of the many websites and databases out there devoted to Lincoln studies. Of special interest is its sister site, the House Divided project, based at Dickinson College.