This Thursday, our Digital Transformers Symposium finally took place and I am delighted to report that it was a huge success! Nineteen speakers presented diverse work from multiple Arts and Humanities subjects, sharing ideas and findings with one essential common theme – the ways in which digital technologies are transforming things – be they individuals, societies, or the ways in which we experience and understand. The day kicked off with a keynote speech by Dr. Jim Mussell, who took as his example the serial publications of Charles Dickens in Victorian magazine Household Words. This might seem an odd place to start – even if we are talking about digitised versions. After all, aren’t electronic versions just surrogates for higher quality originals? Dr. Mussell convinced us otherwise. By making use of digital tools for bibliographic analysis which at first glance seem utterly alien to the contexts of the works they are used to study, we may in fact find ourselves closer to the “truth” of a printed piece and its place in history. Magazines and books are objects. They are not the essence of a work but are “records of a set of cultural practices” – whether those practices involve binding and ink or binary and hyperlinks. By thinking about how digital versions of texts relate to their non-digital forebears, we might better appreciate that our interpretation of the past is always just that: an interpretation, within an imposed artificially linear narrative. Instead of being treated as deficient, inauthentic and lacking, new interfaces to old texts should be valued as enhancements – as transformative.
The day proceeded with four themed panels – Participation and Community Engagement; Methodological Challenges; Shifting Structures of Communication, and Audio-Visual Experiences. Two play sessions were also on offer – Introducing the geographic dimension to your research: GIS for the Humanities (led by Dr. Paty Murrieta Flores) and Meaning and meaning-making: a social semiotic multimodal approach to contemporary issues in research (led by Professor Gunther Kress). All of our paper presenters were young early career researchers, from around the UK and beyond. For me, one of the best parts of the symposium was the sense of community that seemed to emerge once the sessions got underway. Even when discussing work far removed from their own, the audience were supportive and enthusiastic. This may be one of the key positives of digital media within the academy – particularly for young researchers. Whether you are a cultural theorist, a linguist, or an information scientist, a realignment of disciplinary boundaries creates opportunities to identify shared and new perspectives, enhanced by engagements with digital tech. Dr. Patricia Murrieta Flores explored with us how Geographic Information Systems, initially designed for engineers, scientists and planners, have become fruitful and fascinating tools for archaeologists and historians, who use them to identify and model patterns and trends of the earth, its artefacts, its people and their geo-politics, across space and time.
The day concluded with a stimulating and lively debate on the perils and potentials of Open Access Publishing as it relates to the Humanities and to Universities more generally. It is difficult to know at present whether the “Gold” or the “Green” route to Open Access publishing will prevail; most likely institutions will use some mixture of the two, with both becoming competitors in an increasingly uneven and costly publishing ecosystem based around entrenched and outmoded (?) notions of prestige and value. Those who can afford it will be driven towards Gold, with Green and its laudable aims of equity and freedom being pushed into the role of second-best.
Our expert panel (Drs. Cathy Urquhart, Paul Kirby, Alma Swan and Stephen Pinfield) hinted now and then at positive transformative potentials stemming from OA – Alma Swan in particular sees OA as a welcome tonic to old-fashioned models – but overall it seemed a rather gloomy picture, dictated as ever by economics and elitist notions of bettering one’s peers. Many academics wish to see a culture of openness, experimentation and sharing, with contributions valued for their merit. The harsh realities of convention and money make that something of a pipe dream. There will be limited budgets to pay article processing fees hence managers will be forced to ask which articles represent the best financial “return on investment”, too busy and pressurised to judge them on anything other than proxy criteria of quality that do not consider the intellectual value of a work in its own right. Well, that’s the doomsday scenario. However naively, I very much hope that freer forms of communication will emerge to combat that!
We will be uploading slides, videos and other materials to the official Digital Transformers website over the coming month, so please do check there for more details on the excellent papers and presentations that were given by the members of our nascent ERC network.
Last week, myself and a fellow MMU PhD student (now also teaching at the University of Sheffield) received some excellent news – a funding bid that we submitted to the Arts and Humanities Research Council under their Collaborative Skills Development Call was successful! 🙂 The AHRC have funded a number of exciting and exemplary projects around Digital Transformations over the past year or so and clearly our Symposium will be a great opportunity for both of our departments to take part in that, extending and enriching their current Digital Humanities research. In May, we will be hosting a one day event for UK-based Postgrads and Early Career Researchers. To quote from our official documentation:
Combining workshops, presentations, and networking opportunities, The Digital Transformers Symposium 2013 will be run jointly by Manchester Metropolitan University’s Department of Languages, Information and Communications and the University of Sheffield’s Information School (iSchool). The Workshop offers an exciting opportunity for all across the Humanities to explore the methodological and conceptual approaches and techniques required for the study of digital arenas. Further, the event will act as a platform for the creation of a young, cutting-edge academic network sustainable long-term.
We aim to include a range of exciting papers and discussions that make room not only for positive examples of DH practise but also for critiques and debates about some of its more problematic aspects; for instance, in terms of methodological foundations or the reliability of data. We’re also going to include a number of hands-on ‘play sessions’, where the 40-50 people taking part can get to grips with various types of digital research tool and learn more about how to use them.
Sorry I can’t be more specific at the moment but of course it all depends what ideas come in from potential contributors when we issue the Call for Papers in January. We do have a wishlist of presenters and some clear ideas about possible thematic strands – for instance, narratives of old and new media, media archaeology, data visualisation techniques, text mining, and Open Access Publishing, the last of which will be a highly pertinent topic relevant to participants from every discipline. Once the day’s schedule is in place, a major challenge will be making sure we create an event that participants find exciting, fun, and the sort of thing they’d like to continue being a part of longer-term. Watch this space (and others) for details of a forthcoming dedicated website and the CfP!