Dr. Tonia Sutherland had given a presentation on the topic of Digital Remains at our seminar recently.
Digital Remains: Reflections On Race and the Digital Afterlife
American culture is steeped in the social imaginary of Black death. After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, photographic records of the dead on television and on the Internet proliferated. Depictions of bloated dead bodies floating in the overflowing waters of Lake Pontchartrain and the streets of the Lower 9th Ward could be found everywhere. Adding to the visual horror and spectacle, these lifeless bodies were predominantly, and overwhelmingly, Black people’s bodies. This research investigates the social and cultural tensions created by the proliferation of publicly available digital records and data relating to deaths of Black Americans. The project uses these and other records to illustrate the ways Black people’s bodies have been commodified from the analog era through the digital era. At its heart, the work challenges the narrative that Black people’s lives are disposable.
Methodologically, the work engages critical race theory, performance studies, archival studies, and digital culture studies, asking how existing technologies (analog and digital) reflect the wider social world offline, how they create new cultural interactions, and how those new interactions in turn reshape our understandings of the world. Paying particular attention to documentary practices around the violent deaths of Black Americans from slavery through the New Civil Rights Era, Dr. Sutherland calls attention to the complex relationships between the increasingly commercialized digital public display of visual memory objects and the emotional agency of images; the impulses, ethics, and consequences that accompany digitally raising the dead; the human fight against the silence and erasure of oblivion; and the conflicting rights and desires of humans to be forgotten in a time when the Internet is understood to be an expression of forever. Dr. Sutherland holds these marked tensions and liminal spaces—between memorialization and commodification and between digital permanence and historical oblivion—building and shaping her arguments from a deep exploration of and engagement with humanity’s digital remains.
Dr. Tonia Sutherland is assistant professor in the Department of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. Prior to joining the faculty at UHM, Sutherland was an assistant professor in the College of Communication and Information Sciences at the University of Alabama. Sutherland holds a PhD and an MLIS from the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Computing and Information (formerly the School of Information Studies), and a BA in history, performance studies, and cultural studies from Hampshire College. Global in scope, Sutherland’s research focuses on entanglements of technology and culture, with particular emphases on critical and liberatory work within the fields of archival studies, digital culture studies, and Science and Technology Studies (STS),
Sutherland’s work critically examines the analog histories of modern information and communication technologies; addresses trends of racialized violence in 21st century digital cultures; and interrogates issues of race, ritual, and embodiment in archival and digital spaces. In her work, Sutherland focuses on various national infrastructures–technological, social, human, cultural–addressing important concerns such as gaps and vagaries; issues of inclusivity and equality; and developing more liberatory praxes.
Sutherland is a member of the Center for Race and Digital Studies, the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S), the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, and the Association for Library and Information Science Education. Her work appears in The Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies; The American Archivist; Preservation, Digital Technology & Culture; The Annual Review of Cultural Heritage Informatics; and Radical History Review.