Notes from article: Global Outlooks in Digital Humanities: Multilingual Practices and Minimal Computing, by Alex Gil and Élika Ortega

Notes from article: Global Outlooks in Digital Humanities: Multilingual Practices and Minimal Computing, by Alex Gil and Élika Ortega

This note is far too quick, and I have much to add on this absolutely fabulous and essential article! For now, posting even with minimal notes just to have this to be able to answer emails that need this reference!


Alex Gil and Élika Ortega. “Global Outlooks in Digital Humanities: Multilingual Practices and Minimal Computing.” Doing Digital Humanities: Practice, Training, Research. Eds. Crompton, Constance, Richard J. Lane, and Raymond G. Siemens. New York: Routledge, 2016: 22-34.

Page 28:


Minimal computing as a conceptual provocation has been around GO::DH since the formative days of INKE’s Birds-of-a-Feather gathering in Havana (“Havana Gathering”). As a result of the then extant embargo, some peculiar academic and popular minimal computing practices had developed in Cuba: USB parties to share document libraries, email chains as forms of publication, SMS hacks, and much more. Since our colleagues in Cuba have formed an integral part of the GO::DH network, these concerns never went away, and have now come to inform much of what we do. More recently, a new working group was formed around minimal computing, and we have launched an early version of an informational site for us to share thought pieces and resources around minimal computing.

In general, we can say that minimal computing is the application of minimalist principles to computing. In reality, though, minimal computing is in the eye of the beholder. A Raspberry Pi could be understood as an example of a minimalist piece of hardware because the creators reduced computing components to what they saw as a bare minimum to achieve simple tasks. The learning curve for using one, though, can be threatening to beginners, and therefore requires more than minimum effort.

On a user interface, on the other hand, eliminating clutter (unnecessary buttons, distracting design, etc.) can also be understood to be part of a minimalist approach, [page 29] making it easier for users to engage and also lighter on browsers. Google’s success, for example, may be owed to the reduction of the search function to one box. In order to achieve this feat, though, we estimate that Google uses an enormous amount of code and data in the back end, needing enormous computing power to run.

Here, we prefer to (un-)define minimal computing around the question “What do we need?” If we do so, our orientations vis-à-vis ease of use, ease of creation, increased access, and reductions in computing – and by extension, electricity -become clearer. Designer and theorist Ernesto Oroza, writing on what he terms Cuba’s “Architecture of Necessity,” can be helpful here:

I am using Architecture of necessity term as a metaphor. On the one hand it can be read as a descriptive term, austere in its rhetorical value, almost obvious. On the other hand, the term enunciates an architecture that is its self-diagram, and this image becomes structural and programmatic. I believe that architecture should be that. The home must be a structure of agreements. A factual connection between needs, materials, technology, urban regulations and social conditions. (par. 3)

The architecture of need that Oroza describes grows out of the long-term incapacity of government infrastructures or bureaucracies to regulate against urgency; an attitude of disobedience against wholeness or finished products; a cleverness that can make-do with available materials; and a constant care for our social surroundings. This set of conditions, different depending on the locality, apply to
many sectors of DH (and the humanities at large) not simply as analogy, but as lived experience. Minimal computing for us considers a digital scholarly practice that approaches its own self-diagram along these lines.

The we in “what do we need?” are the scholars qua scholars around the world: librarians, professors, students, cultural workers, independent or affiliated to institutions. Needless to say, workers in the humanities have many diverse needs, so we focus here on what we consider the most important shared one: the renewal, dissemination, and preservation of the scholarly record. We take for granted the intersections of our work with the human record writ large, and the pressing work of scholarly critique of (present) culture, our teaching, and the public humanities.

Our first answers to the question, then, come from an acknowledgment of the hybrid and global future we see being shaped for the scholarly record: parts digital, parts analog. In this new media environment we continue to protect, study, and renew the analog, as we attempt to harness the new media in smart, ethical, and sustainable ways. For several reasons, this implies learning how to produce, disseminate, and preserve digital scholarship ourselves, without the help we can’t get, even as we fight to build the infrastructures we need at the intersection of, with, and beyond institutional libraries and schools. To reiterate, our minimal computing does not stand in as a universal call, but rather as a localizable space [page 30] for new questions and practices, an injunction to constantly repeat the question,

“what do we need?”

Most scholars need to write and make public.”