Knowledge Machines: Digital Transformations of the Sciences and Humanities

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The UC Arts Digital Lab is pleased to present a talk by Professor Eric Meyer of the Oxford Internet Institute:

Knowledge Machines: Digital Transformations of the Sciences and Humanities
Thursday 24 November, 2-3pm, Karl Popper 612

In this talk, Eric Meyer will discuss his 2015 book Knowledge Machines: Digital Transformations of the Sciences and Humanities, in which he and his co-author Ralph Schroeder argue that digital technologies have fundamentally changed research practices in the sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Meyer and Schroeder show that digital tools and data, used collectively and in distributed mode—which they term e-research—have transformed not just the consumption of knowledge but also the production of knowledge.

Digital technologies for research are reshaping how knowledge advances in disciplines that range from physics to literary analysis. This book considers the transformations of research from a number of perspectives, drawing especially on the sociology of science and technology and social informatics. It shows that the use of digital tools and data is not just a technical issue; it affects research practices, collaboration models, publishing choices, and even the kinds of research and research questions scholars choose to pursue. Knowledge Machines examines the nature and implications of these transformations for scholarly research.

Eric Meyer is Professor of Social Informatics and Director of Graduate Studies at the Oxford Internet Institute, a multidisciplinary department at the University of Oxford which undertakes teaching and research focused on understanding life online. Eric’s work focuses on shifts in work, knowledge creation, and human interactions when digital technologies replace previously non-digital counterparts. His research in this area has included studies of the impacts of digital collections in libraries and museums, digital practices in the arts, the use of digital images in biology, and digital information practices in the sciences and humanities.



Interview with Dan

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Over the last eight months, the UC Arts Digital Lab has been lucky to have student Dan Bartlett working in the office as part of the Voices Against War project. Dan came on-board as part of the Summer Scholarship programme to help gather, describe, and prepare material for the project and has quickly became a source of wisdom and humour in the office. Unfortunately for us, others have spotted his talents and he begins his next journey this week at Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu, working on their World War I website. Before he left, Lucy-Jane took the time to sit down and talk to him about his work on Voices Against War and his experiences in the Digital Lab.


Dan Bartlett and the rest of the Voices Against War team

Dan Bartlett and the rest of the Voices Against War team


Tell us about the Voices Against War website
Ok. Well, Voices Against War is a website about pacifists, conscientious objectors, and seditious Cantabrians in the First World War. They were speaking out against, first: compulsory military training, and second: conscription. And quite a few of them got sent to gaol for their views, either for speaking out, which was sedition, or for refusing to go when they were conscripted, and that was conscientious objection. The website is telling the stories of quite a few different men, women and their families that were involved in that movement.

Great. And what are you studying?
I’m currently studying Honours in History. New Zealand history is a particular passion of mine. I’ve been really interested lately in reforms in the 90’s under the National government, from the 1991 budget, in terms of welfare and health and how it affected people – closing down hospitals, things like that. I’m particularly interested in history when you can use it to see how it affected people and how we could learn lessons from it and not do it instead.

What have you learned working in the UC Arts Digital Lab?
Well I didn’t really have digital skills! I came to the project with research and writing skills and not, for example, the ability to upload to a website. And I’ve learnt about metadata, and how websites work. You showed me the matrix code behind things {laughs} *Editor note: He means HTML* I have way more of an understanding than I had before.

So digital archiving of information and all those things that go along with it?
Yeah, like copyright; how to accurately describe things; metadata.

And terms like ‘metadata’ you probably hadn’t come across before?
Yeah, no, I hadn’t. I might have seen it but I didn’t know what it was called.

So what is metadata (for those who don’t know)?
It’s all the data that’s extra from the item or file itself, I guess. Like the date; type of image; rights, who it came from; who gave it to the archive. So I guess it’s the holistic version of saying, “This is so-and-so in 1918.”

I always think of it like bibliographical data – data that explains the origins of…
Provenance. Yeah. But also how to find it, if you want to find it and use it for research.

Would you see yourself now as a Digital Humanist?
It’s definitely going that way. I’d hope to develop more skills. So I applied for this job with Ngāi Tahu which is going to be doing the same work – the research and writing – for their World War I website, which will be looking at Ngāi Tahu soldiers. And I think the main reason I got the job was because I have those website skills.

What I think is interesting, and what you’ve sort of talked about before, is you’ve never really taken to the digital. You’ve gone into this role, but really the role is highly focussed on the historic passions that you have. The digital is just a way for you to get there.
Yeah and I’ve discovered that using digital platforms is a really good democratic way to do public history. It’s a way to get information out there that’s more than just at one museum in a physical place in Christchurch, for example. One of the descendants’ families, they’re all over the world, and they are able to access this website and look at their Grandfather and Great-Grandfather’s profile that we’ve put up because it is digital. And I wouldn’t have really thought about it before. It’s made me appreciate websites such as Te Ara a whole lot more.

And I think you understand a little bit more about the work that goes into creating those resources. As a student I was just like, “These resources exist!”
“Thanks!” Yeah, but it takes heaps.

So would you encourage other students to take DIGI papers or to work in the lab?
Yes, definitely. It’s funny – I think I told you, but I had a couple of appointments in the Library about resources, because I was wanting to use old issues of the Times and the Guardian for British history because I was looking at the miners’ strike. And they sent me this thing saying, “You might be interested in this Digital Humanities.” But it was really quite foreign to me. I was like, “That sounds really weird!” And now I get it and it’s really helpful.
Even if you were just able to take a DIGI paper as part of your degree, I think that would be really helpful.

I think that a large problem with Digital Humanities is translating what it means to people. Because I think the term in itself is not very clear. A lot of people point out that there is no ‘Digital Humanities’, that all of the Humanities should be integrating the digital. And I think the Voices Against War website is a good example of that. The project isn’t successful because of the digital element. It is successful because it is an interesting topic that there aren’t enough resources on and that has real-world applicability. The stories that make up the project are what makes it compelling – the digital element is just what makes it available to people.
Yeah! The stories are driving the project but the digital element provides the tool to share them.

So have you been converted to the digital?
In terms of public history and archiving – yeah, big time. Because we’ve had to use all those resources for Voices Against War, like Papers Past and things like that. They’re just amazing things. But I still don’t want a cell phone or a smart phone. I hope nobody makes me get one because it just stresses me out. So converted in some ways, other ways not so much.

So there you have it – Dan Bartlett, the Digital Humanist without a cell phone. We would like to thank Dan for his work in the office, but also for putting a smile on our faces every day. We know that he will be cherished at Ngāi Tahu and that he has a bright future in public history.

tēnā rawa atu koe!

Digital Humanities Infrastructure Workshop: Part Four

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Today I finish my series on the Digital Humanities Infrastructure Workshops held in November last year, by discussing my own perspective on cyberinfrastructure. But before I do this, I thought that I should outline my background in Digital Humanities and my role at CEISMIC in order to put my thoughts in context.

I was introduced to the Digital Humanities in the third year of my English degree when I took the University’s first DH paper, Electronic Scholarly Editing. This paper was run by Prof. Paul Millar, with the help of Dr Christopher Thomson as a tutor. It aimed to critically examine digital texts and equip students with the skills to create their own, namely through the TEI (a set of guidelines which specify methods for encoding machine-readable texts ). Over the next two years, I worked on two projects digitising manuscripts using the TEI. The first is a collection of World War I letters from a member of the Canterbury Mounted Rifles (which you can view at, and the other a memoir in letter form from New Zealand doctor Stanley Aylward. As well as teaching me how to encode texts with the TEI, these projects opened my eyes to the opportunities that digitisation offers the Humanities, and the intensive work that goes into it. In both projects, the manuscripts required more complex and nuanced analysis than computers were capable of giving and had to be encoded by hand – a common requirement for many Digital Humanities projects.

My position at CEISMIC has further highlighted this requirement, as I work daily to gather, organise, and describe large quantities of earthquake-related data. CEISMIC’s focus has always been on social data, with an aim to collect as many stories and documents about the earthquakes possible before they are forgotten or lost. Today we have over 100,000 items in the archive – a fantastic achievement, but not an easy one since we described and annotated every item by hand. On average, our team estimates that it takes us six minutes to describe and geolocate a photograph, a number which doesn’t sound too bad until you extrapolate it over the 46,447 photographs we currently hold in QuakeStudies (adding up to 276,682 minutes, or 4645 hours, or 580 days). And that’s just the photographs – we have also archived hundreds of stories (such as with our QuakeBox project), academic research, community data (such as newsletters and artworks), newspapers, and much, much more.

Given my experiences, it would be easy for me to agree with Paul Arthur that investing in the digitisation (or in our case archiving) of social data may be the most valuable form of infrastructure for the Humanities. However, I would argue that this process is not possible without people with the skills and knowledge required.  Often I hear Humanists and people from the GLAM sector comment that they need more people who have skills both in the Humanities and the digital, and yet there are very few programmes in existence training people in both skills. As readers of this blog are likely aware, the University of Canterbury offers Digital Humanities courses at honours and masters level, and is offering a Digital Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities minor to undergraduate students for the first time next year. However, we are the only university in New Zealand that has a Digital Humanities programme, and the impetus for this came from within the College of Arts and the University. As of yet, there is no national strategy in New Zealand for the training of Digital Humanists.

Moreover if the Digital Humanities, as Alan Liu argues, is tasked with critiquing academic infrastructure and its relation to larger society, this critique needs to represent the diversity in society.  My problem with the current ‘lightly antifoundationalist’ model and ‘hacking’ is that it can only be achieved by Humanists that have digital skills. As I have already discussed, people with these skills are usually in the minority, but they also tend to come from certain groups in society – e.g men and people from high socio-economic backgrounds who have had access to computers from a young age. The problem with this is that these tools are potentially being created by one group in society, and any critique that they allow is potentially coming from one perspective. If we want our cyberinfrastructure to reflect the diverse needs and values of society, then I would argue that we need to ensure that a wide range of people are participating in the field.

Perhaps this naive, but if, as Liu claims, the shaping of academic infrastructure can have a bearing on other organisations and the community at large, then perhaps training more people in the Digital Humanities will have a factor too. I personally would love to see a world where the tech industry held equal numbers of women and men, where there was more ethnic diversity, and where the average Humanities student graduated with some technical nous. In some ways this could be seen as a form of infrastructure – training people with the skills and sensibilities to critique digital culture both in their work, but also in their wider environs. It’s my hope that doing so would widen the pool of ideas, revealing new and innovative solutions, and more nuanced critiques of infrastructure.