Digital Humanities Infrastructure Workshop: Part Three

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Digital Content Analyst Lucy-Jane Walsh, continues her discussion of the UCDH Cyberinfrastructure with a summary of Alan Liu’s talk:

Against the Cultural Singularity: Digital Humanities & Cultural Infrastructure Studies ­– Alan Liu

Alan Liu began his talk with a quote from Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen: “Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context”.  With this in mind, he chose to focus on Digital Humanities cyberinfrastructure as a sub-domain of Humanities infrastructure, and to look at how Digital Humanities can support traditional Humanities fields.

Liu argued that the Digital Humanities has a tradition of critiquing infrastructure, which is not only unique to the field, but the best mechanism for supporting traditional modes of criticism. This is because infrastructure has the same impact on individuals and communities as culture – it makes up our environment and how we interact with each other. Liu used dystopian films as an example, pointing out that whole cultures in these films are dominated by the infrastructure that is available to them. In Blade Runner, for example, flying cars make up the environment, where as in Mad Max the world is driven by fuel. Today culture could be said to be shaped by smart phones, social networking, and big data. By critiquing these systems, Digital Humanists can add to the larger debates surrounding culture while remaining in the digital sphere.

According to Liu, the current style of Digital Humanities critique is “lightly anti-foundationalist”. He cited James Smithies, Michael Dieter, Bruno Latour, Ackbar Abbas, and David Theo Goldberg as examples of this, arguing that while Digital Humanists believe in the potential for known and trusted digital tools and methodologies to provide new insights in the field of humanities, they are also distrustful of them. This is evident in Digital Humanists’ tendencies to ‘hack’ – where hacking in this context means using the skills and tools one understands and has at hand rather than investing in more formal forms of infrastructure. To Liu ‘hacking’ gives the Digital Humanities a unique perspective: it allows the field to be efficient and flexible, and to get close enough to systems to understand their weaknesses without being vulnerable to them.

In order to move forward, Liu suggested that Digital Humanities should adopt what he calls ‘Critical Infrastructure Studies’, the formal study of academic infrastructure in its relation to larger society, which he sees as the Digital Humanities’ mode of cultural studies.  Liu suggested two approaches to Critical Infrastructure Studies: the Neoinstitutionalist approach to organizations in sociology, which explores how institutional structures and norms influence the decisions and actions of individuals in the institutions; or Social Constructionist (especially Adaptive Structuration) approaches to organizational infrastructure in sociology and information science, which would investigate how the interactions and connections between people can construct beliefs and understandings of the world, and how these interactions can affect our perceptions and use of particular technologies. Liu believes that these approaches would help Digital Humanists to create new academic programmes and roles, and to advocate for the creation of national collaborative infrastructures, opening up research data to wider audiences.

Revisiting the quote from the beginning, Liu suggested that the work that Digital Humanists put into shaping academic infrastructure will have a bearing on other organisations and the community at large. This is where Liu’s title for this talk – Against the cultural singularity – comes into focus, for he argues that the current neoliberal capitalist thinking is creating a ‘cultural singularity’. He defines this as an environment where all parts of cultural are capitalized and brought under a corporate framework.  Liu argues that society would be stronger if institutions adopted their own metrics of value and success, and used these metrics to make decisions about infrastructure. He believes that by critiquing infrastructure, Digital Humanists can resist the neoliberal model and offer alternatives.

Digital Humanities Infrastructure Workshop: Part Two

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Digital Content Analyst Lucy-Jane Walsh, continues her discussion of the UCDH Cyberinfrastructure workshops in November 2015:

Last week I began the blog post series by summarising James Smithies’ talk on global systems analysis of Digital Humanities infrastructure. Today I plan to move swiftly onto Paul Arthur, who is Professor and Chair in Digital Humanities at Western Sydney University, and has been involved in conversations about the future of research infrastructure in Australia for many years.

Smart Infrastructure for Cultural and Social Research – Paul Arthur

Arthur began his talk by explaining that the Humanities were less engaged with infrastructure planning in the past and that the dominant conception of infrastructure was about facilities and machines. Today, people are beginning to think about infrastructure less as tools for particular disciplines and more as a complex problem which can be viewed from many different perspectives. This has enabled the Humanities to engage more in the discussions about infrastructure and to help develop national strategies in Australia.

One example of this is the 2011 Strategic Roadmap for Australian Research Infrastructure which was developed by the Australian government through extensive consultation with the research sector. The aim of the document was to identify the priorities for national, collaborative infrastructure planning and investment from 2011 to 2016. According to Arthur, the difference between the 2011 Strategic Roadmap ­and previous infrastructure planning was that it included a dedicated section for the humanities and the arts, it placed more value on data sharing and collaboration, and it took a more distributed approach to infrastructure planning and investment – creating infrastructure that multiple disciplines could tap into, rather than discipline-specific infrastructure. This plan was never fully implemented but is still used as a road map today.

One of the key debates generated by this road map is whether we should have one infrastructure for all researchers, or a collection of interlocking resources for multiple disciplines. The argument for having one central infrastructure is that many difference resources can cause silos of knowledge and skills. It can also be difficult to generating funding for more than one infrastructure, particularly in the Humanities, leading many governments to opt for a centralised infrastructure instead. Australia has attempted to create a model somewhere in between these two approaches with their online infrastructure project, Nectar. Short for the National eResearch Collaboration Tools and Resources Project, Nectar hosts virtual laboratories where researchers can share ideas and collaborate. Nectar also supports tools for individual projects, such as HuNi (Humanities Networked Infrastructure) which combines data from many Australia cultural websites. According to Arthur, the combination of broad and specific resources that Nectar provides has been a successful model for Australia.

To Arthur, humanities infrastructure is not just information systems and laboratories, but digitised texts such as newspaper articles, records, and stories. In this talk, he argued that Humanities researchers use texts, not machines, to build knowledge, experiment, and draw conclusions. Databases such as Paperspast or Trove, he argued, are successful because of their wealth of historic data, not the computers or information systems working behind the scenes. From this perspective, the challenge for Digital Humanists becomes less about advocating for computers and more about digitising and making available large collections of social and cultural data.

As the Deputy General Editor of the Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB) from 2010 to 2013, Arthur has a strong interest in biography, which he believes is particularly suited to digital research. This is because biographies can be studied at both the micro and the macro levels – as isolated stories that shed light on individuals, or aggregated collections providing insights on much larger movements.  Much of this macro analysis is made possible by digitising collections of biography, as this offers researchers an overview of the data, better access to the collection, and the ability to analyse the data computationally. Once ADB was digitised, for example, it became clear that there were few stories about women and Aborigines, and that many vocations were missing – an observation that would have been difficult to come by when the many thousands of biographies were only in print.

Arthur discussed his experiences at ADB when they came to digitise the biographies. Previously, the edition process was analogue in nature:  on pen and paper with a lot of face to face communication between members of the team. Arthur’s attempts to map this workflow resulted in a confusion of circles and lines, revealing the complex nature of analogue processes. In contrast, digital workflows need to be fairly rigid to work, since computers and information systems struggle to match the complexity of human interaction. For volume 18, Arthur experimented with Windows Live (now known as One Drive) and created a folder for each person in the dictionary. Within this folder were the biography and a file for notes or any additional information. Each time the biography was edited, a new version was saved on the drive, ensuring that changes could be reverted and versions compared. Using this method, ADB was able to create their first digital volume.

Initially the digitised version of the ADB replicated the print version, with the stories laid out alphabetically and grouped in accordance with their subject’s time of influence or death. However, as Arthur pointed out, digital environments are not restricted by the linear structure of the printed form and can offer many different modes of storytelling. Today the entries in the ADB can be searched by name, gender, birth, death, ethnicity, religion, occupations, author name, and printed volume. The dictionary also offers a faceted browse which allows repeated filtering of the stories by a list of predefined categories. Much of this functionality has been enabled by the additional metadata that the ADB team has been adding to the stories. This metadata is intended to show the interconnections between stories in the dictionary – for example, where the subjects are friends, enemies, or family, or they have related religions, won similar awards, or attended the same events.

In addition to adding more metadata, the ADB have also made their data available to projects such as Trove and HuNi and each story has been linked to the corresponding obituary in the Obituaries Australia digital repository. Linking data in this way can unveil more information about individuals – for example when and where they died and who came to their funeral. Moreover, it provides humanities researchers with larger, more diverse collections of linked cultural data from which they can investigate larger questions about cultural and heritage. Unfortunately there are barriers to a larger international infrastructure of interconnected biographical data, with resources such as the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography behind a subscription wall. However, projects like HuNi have revealed that, in Australia at least, this aggregation is possible.

Arthur finished his talk by pointing out that while cultural data is extremely laborious to collection, once collected its value does not depreciate over time. This suggests to me that investing in the digitisation of texts, such as biographies and newspaper articles, may be more valuable in the long run to the Humanities than information systems and computers.

Walsh will continue her discussion on these workshops in the new year.

Digital Humanities Infrastructure Workshop: Part One

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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.

Medieval and Early Modern Digital Humanities: Postgraduate Seminar at the University of Canterbury

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This Wednesday 18 November the Australian and New Zealand Association of Medieval and Early Modern Studies (ANZAMEMS) is holding a Postgraduate Advanced Training Seminar (PATS) at the University of Canterbury. Organised in conjunction with UC’s Festival of Digital Humanities, the seminar will focus on digital research methods for scholars in Medieval and Early Modern history, literary studies, and musicology.

The full-day event will take place in Undercroft 101. It will be compered by Tracy Adams (Associate Professor of French, University of Auckland), and feature keynote presentations by Prof. Patricia Fumerton (University of California Santa Barbara) and Prof. Lyn Tribble (University of Otago). There will also be a hands-on session. In this, Professor Fumerton will give an overview of the English Broadside Ballads Archive, a multi-million dollar project funded by the U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities that has been digitising, transcribing, reconstructing music and songs, and creating scholarship for many thousands of early modern ballads (the “ephemeral” new media of the time), and James Smithies (UC Digital Humanities) will guide participants on how to write a digital project scope document. The day will conclude with a panel discussion by James Smithies, Chris Jones (UC History), and Joanna Condon (Macmillan Brown Library), chaired by Anton Angelo (UC Library Research Repository).

The PATS will bring 15 postgraduate students from around New Zealand and Australia to UC for the day. It will also be live-streamed on YouTube and simulcast in universities across Australasia. Archive versions will be available on this site afterwards.

The full schedule is as follows:

9.00                 Welcome
9.15–10.30      Keynote by Professor Lyn Tribble, followed by discussion
11.00–11.30    Morning tea
11.30–12.45    Keynote by Professor Patricia Fumerton, followed by discussion
12.45 – 1.45    Lunch
1.45 – 3.00      Behind the scenes at EBBA / How to write a digital project scope document
3.00 – 3.30      Afternoon tea
3.30 – 4.45      Panel discussion by Anton Angelo, James Smithies, Chris Jones, and Joanna Condon
6.00                 Dinner

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