Digital Humanities Infrastructure Workshop: Part One

Today we have a guest blogger, Lucy-Jane Walsh, Digital Content Analyst at the CEISMIC Programme, talking about her impressions of a recent seminar held by the UC Digital Humanities Programme:

A few weeks ago I attended an afternoon of short seminars about Digital Humanities cyberinfrastructure held by the Digital Humanities Programme at the University of Canterbury. Speakers included Dr James Smithies, Director of the UC Digital Humanities Programme and Co-Director of the UC CEISMIC Programme; Dr Alan Liu, Professor in the English Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and an affiliated faculty member of UCSB’s Media Arts & Technology graduate program; and Paul Arthur, Professor and Chair in Digital Humanities at Western Sydney University. The aim of the workshop was to begin an informal discussion on national and international Digital Humanities cyberinfrastructure – what tools and resources exist presently; how can we better leverage and improve them; and how can we advocate for their funding and development?

I must admit that I had not come across the notion of ‘cyberinfrastructure’ before this seminar series and I tend to associate the term ‘infrastructure’ with Engineering (buildings, roads, power lines). However the need for people, funding, computers, and software in the Humanities – particularly in regards to digital research and project development – is not news to me. As a Digital Content Analyst at the UC CEISMIC Programme, I not only rely on this infrastructure every day, but am also in the business of creating it. Over the next few weeks, I intend to summarise the points made by Smithies, Liu, and Arthur during the cyberinfrastructure workshop in a series of blog posts, before adding my own thoughts to the conversation. I begin with James Smithie’s talk today:

Towards a Global Systems Analysis of the Humanities – James Smithies

James Smithies was actually the last to speak at the event, but I felt that his talk was a good introduction to the topic of Digital Humanities cyberinfrastructure, so I have decided to reverse the order in my blog posts. His talk was drawn from the first chapter of his upcoming book, The Digital Modern: Humanities and new media for Palgrave Macmillan.

Smithies began the talk by discussing the politics of cyberinfrastructure. He identified Our Cultural Commonwealth – a report by the American Council of Learned Commission (ACLS) on Cyberinfrastructure for the Humanities and Social Sciences – as one of the initial attempts to charter opportunities for computationally intensive Humanities research. This report, like many early models for DH infrastructure, borrowed much of its mode of thinking from the STEM fields. It stated that, “computers should be used by scholars in the Humanities, just as microscopes should be used by scientists” (Our Cultural Commonwealth, 2006: i). In other words it is as important to invest in infrastructure in the Humanities as it is in Engineering, Maths, and Science.

Smithies argued that this STEM-based model caused tension in the Humanities, as many digital projects were given large amounts of money over more traditional projects. When these digital projects failed to deliver their promises, this infrastructure model began to generate criticism. Patrick Svensson, for example, argued that the allocation of space and the ability to collaborate with people in and outside the Humanities department is as important to Digital Humanists as computers and information systems. Feminists also called for more inclusive data models which would take into account gender and ethnic inequalities.  Susan Leigh Star argued that infrastructure should be evaluated in ethnological terms, in that it does not only represent tools or resources that we can use, but also the values and norms of the culture that created it. She argued that infrastructure is created to serve particular types of people and practices – in essence, infrastructure is political in nature and it is the task of Digital Humanists to challenge the preconceived notions of what infrastructure is and can be.

The problem with challenging the status quo is that the Digital Humanities community does not currently have a strong concept of what that is. Smithies suggested that the first step in analysing and critiquing Digital Humanities infrastructure would be to identify the cyberinfrastructure that already exists. He suggested using a systems analysis approach, borrowed from the STEM fields, to provide an initial overview of the current state of global cyberinfrastructure.

Smithies further argued that Humanists’ investigation of infrastructure should go right down to how the tools are made and whether they mirror Digital Humanities values such as openness and net neutrality. Eventually, he hopes that systems analysis will move from a model to a genre – a collection of approaches for analysing systems which reflect a multitude of values and perspectives.

Walsh will continue her discussion on these workshops next week.