Sustainability hangs like an albatross over many DH projects. Funding is short term, projects come and go. Granting foundations have made it abundantly clear that they expect continuity measures beyond the period of a grant to insure greater permanence to their investments. Moreover, many DH practitioners find themselves in conditions of contingent funding, one grant rejection from ejection from their field.
While it seems like a given that sustainability is desirable, we need to better unpack issues around what gets sustained and how. The current framing of “sustainability” centers around organizational and project continuity made possible by clever business models that market some sort of service for fees. (Those of us working on open access or open data efforts need to be especially clever!).
Ideas about what sustainability means and how we should attain it draws very heavily from neoliberalism. Grants are a kind of no-interest venture capital loan. They are there to seed a project, get it going, and then it is up to the project to maintain itself. Success means a project (and its associated institution) has enough continued income to continue or even grow through non-grant sources. The need for sustainability whips us into shape, making us hard nosed, rational cost optimizers and entrepreneurs. Such discipline has a value, but at the same time, many practitioners when into the humanities because their passions and skills happen to align to (sadly difficult to monetize) humanistic interests.
What do we lose if we demand entrepreneuralism in every walk of life, even (digital) scholarship? Is this kind of vision of sustainability always desirable?
One danger may be the encouragement of monopolies or oligarchies where “sustainability” is not just a means to an end (some sort of public service), it becomes an end unto itself. Dominating a market place and crowding out rivals is surely sustainable. But what is the larger community cost of that sustainability? Secondly, the humanities and social sciences themselves are inherently “unsustainable”. They do not turn a profit, but rely on continued philanthropic or public support. Both funding sources are now stretched to the breaking point as politicians, pundits, university administrators, and increasingly debt-burdened students demand tangible, easily monetized returns on investing in these areas of scholarship. Do finance-centric models of sustainability in DH further aggravate these problems?
One runs the risk of sounding naïve and highly entitled to even raise these issues, like spoiled children asking to be spared from the harsh discipline of the marketplace. However, a critical and more expansive perspective on “sustainability” may be very timely, since all areas of the humanities are threatened by the reductionist balance-sheets of neoliberalism.
What other dimensions do we need to consider when we discuss “sustainability”? Do we need to think more in terms of sustaining knowledge and information “ecologies” rather than single efforts that happened to dominate now? How do we sustain our community’s human resources, their expertise, dedication, and passion, when so many of them only have contingent employment?