Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Being (Digital) Humans

This is strange. I’ve been to many lectures recently but a mild panic about actually having to learn stuff for my skipper exams ensured all my notes have been neglected. The most recent one I attended was part of the Being Human Festival which, as the blurb says, 
Being Human is the UK’s only national festival of the humanities. From philosophy in pubs, history in coffeehouses, classics on social media and language lessons on street corners – the festival provides new ways to experience how the humanities can inspire and enrich our everyday lives. Being Human demonstrates the strength and diversity of the humanities, and how they can help us to understand ourselves, our relationships with others, and the challenges we face in a changing world.


Being (Digital) Humans and how we experience culture - content and knowledge in the humanities - struck a chord. Like it or not, the connection between the digital and human worlds are increasingly making us into digitally driven humans. The work I've been involved with professionally and academically came together in this evening, and the more the speakers went on, the more I found myself wishing I was involved more directly. There were four varied speakers, Professor Patrik Svensson, Professor Todd Presner, Professor Sally-Jane Norman and Professor Lorna Hughes demonstrated the infinite possibilities when you combine the human and the digital.

First up was Patrick Svensson who builds academic spaces and writes about screens, knowledge infrastructure and the field of digital humanities. He opened with a wonderful screen shot of  Presenter for Apple c. 1985. Ironically given that he was discussing innovative ways of presenting, he was clicking through his PowerPoint in a normal Senate House lecture room - a PowerPoint about PowerPoint! Having had my own tussle with slides recently, I've decided 'never again' so if he said to me that they weren't allowed, I'd be quite happy.

So what does happen when humanists imagine new types of presentation software and spaces? Learning spaces are a regular part of academic life and we are generally conditioned to present stuff in a certain controlled way. PowerPoint has standardised the way things are presented and is used throughout the corporate and academic world to assist comparison and analysis. Where it was once the norm to have two OHPs or double slide projectors in art history, lecturers now seem to put images side by side on the same PP slide. Now I would contest this having had lectures at the Warburg and Courtauld where slides are still commonly used, but it is perhaps more usually seen at Birkbeck.

He then took us through some experimentation with different ways of presenting at a single event. There was firstly a conventional lecture, then a screen based lecture with 'screened faces in the round', then one working with dancers and memory, combining screen and physical manifestations. This final one immediately made me thing of the current exhibition at the Barbican curve where nude dancers echo and synchronise perfectly with what is occurring on screens nearby - it offers the viewer an immersive personal experience. Even if you don't connect with the event as 'art', it is more memorable than if it had just been a video installation.

Still, if there could be a way of incorporating the tech used in one of the demonstrations in any of my art history lectures, I'd be the first to attend. Using zooming and/or layering of information, the imparting of knowledge to the audience can be entertaining, interactive and  flexible. The specific example he used was cartographic, where the images can be seen from above and in their entirety. In some respects the graphics almost become a work of art in their own right. Where can this technology take us, how can it develop? Now all I can think of is the stellar cartography lab on the SS Enterprise.

Professor Sally-Jane Norman took a look at how artists are using computing machines and code to extend our sense of 'liveness', and explore new kinds of embodiment and reach. The arts give us unique ways to make sense of our increasingly digital environments, but can they help us to make sense of ’being human’ in a digital age?

Combining the electronic and the human as an artistic union has long been part of that interdisciplinary world of art and technology. From the early experiments in movement and photography, it is now part of the performing arts and helps push the boundaries, stretching what it is to be human. She illustrated the point with an image like this - the electronic and the gesture. Software and hardware - simply another step.

She questioned whether we now post digital? Post human? And what it means to study these changes from Raymond Williams's Marxism. To be honest she lost me here because I struggle with art and literary criticism from largely defunct political viewpoints. She gave some interesting examples from the earliest of computer - human movement experiments carried out by the International Institute of Puppetry.  She then mentioned STEIM which encourages performance skills using digital and analogue. One interdisciplinary project sought to find a common language between programmers and dancers - AMUC: Associated Motion capture User Categories and if anyone can explain this paper  to me, I'd be grateful.

A quote from Edgar Morin was put on screen to 'elucidate' further, 'system is not a master word for totality rather a root word for complexity'. Further projects mentioned were 'Motion in Place Platform 2010-11' and the Live Hacking which brings us relatively up to date. These sorts of events can only now take place with the vast amount of tech skills and resources available - unthinkable only a few years ago. She concluded with Metastasis from 1954 which seemed to take apart compositional strategies, involving analogue tape splicing - this granular synthesis is now at the centre of all musical software. This was perhaps the most useful, tech changing and practical aspect of her talk.

Professor Lorna Hughes, an expert on digital cultural heritage, discussed how digital access and use of museum, archive and library content changes our understanding of, and interaction with, primary historical sources. As more and more of our heritage is put online, what do we gain and what do we lose? Does digital access enable a richer experience of the past? How is user engagement with digital heritage understood and measured?

Now this section resonated with me for many personal and professional reasons; my inner art historian made my librarian powers squeak! A few years ago I had an encounter with a European digitisation project. I've blogged at length about it, however the comments that I made in my final report were not mentioned in Lorna's talk - in fact, no one mentioned downsides of the digitisation of cultural heritage. The fact that the technology has to be future proofed is a massive obstacle. Still, as she pointed out via Europeana.eu only 10% of our cultural heritage been digitised, estimating that it would take another 90 years for the rest to be done!

Her research has been looking at what people do with the stuff that has actually found its way online. Her case study was the Library of Wales Newspapers Online which was an exploration of the data to see what is being used. Information seeking behaviour suggests that people carry out 'light', or fast and abbreviated searches rather than 'deep' lengthy searches. They access just one page, especially if they are on mobile phones, so ultimately they are less engaged with the information available. However this is a generalised view. On the Library website there are million pages of newspaper, all accessible via search engines, not just the site itself.  The audience is largely family historians or media sources. rather than academic. Many of the searches are people looking for information about places they know.

Although the information is there to be discovered, they have shown that curated sources are hugely valuable in engaging the public. They designed a resource around the First World War which included 220,000 pages from all over Wales - newspapers, images, and information from the public. This collaboration - co-curation, crowd sourcing, public history enabled a focus on the local and previously unknown, eg refugees in Wales. Professional indexing has made the invisible visible. This project has encouraged deeper engagement with the digital collection, proving that when there is an interest and a need it will be used. The material is also being reused - images embedded in multimedia performance, for instance.

What can we take from this? In order to achieve more than superficial engagement, there needs to be data enhancement. There is a lot of information available but projects like this show that there is so much more to be found - in family archives, company and public records etc. But it needs to be indexed and curated imaginatively so it is used in more and more surprising ways! And never forget: 'Museums and libraries are Windows on the truth'. Sun Xun 2013

And finally, the last section also provided great food for thought. Professor Todd Presner teaches intellectual history, media studies, urban humanities, and digital humanities at the University of California Los Angeles. Using the digitisation of Holocaust testimony he inquired about the place of ‘the ethical’ in the digital humanities. Ethics in digitisation is a massive issue and I have touched on it before in lecture notes and visits to archives like the RAI.

The Digital Monument to the Holocaust  is incredible. Each pixel represents a person and information is given about each person. Turning victims into pixels...is this problematic? Is it dehumanising? If it is then this was partly the goal of the Nazis. So what is the role of the digital, and how can we make sense of the experience. Where is the ethical in the digital? He has been heavily involved with the Shoah Foundation which is 'dedicated to making audio-visual interviews with survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust and other genocides. There are some 53,000 testimonies and all of these are being converted from tapes into digital. Many people are included, not just Jews. The storage facility is hugely sophisticated, ensuring the preservation and integrity of the data. It is completely indexed - events, people, location, and it creates relationships across the database. All is searchable and keywords, IDs and metadata is key.

Searching the data is not an ethical challenge. As he demonstrated, if you examine the testimonies and compare the content, they have a common pattern; the person starts with a time and place, and then go into their activities and captivity etc. However where the data starts to get interesting is at the outlying edges of people's experiences, which is what prompts unimagined questions and research. If researchers are relying on searches, how do we know whether the ethics of the algorithms are truly democratised? Often we need to step away from the canonical stories, but without knowing what we are looking for, we aren't going to find them. We need to reimagine the search box.

They are also investigating making holograms from certain people. Pinchas Gutter was turned into a digital human and using his testimony, programmed so he can answer questions as if he was there in front of you. This raises many ethical questions - communications with the dead, raising their stories above others.

Ultimately the point of technology is to enables us to think about new research areas and questions. It shouldn't just be about jumping on tech just for the sake of the new - indeed, which institutions have the cash to do that? It also has to be adopted with a certain level of mindfulness, with attention and appreciation of ethical issues. Humanities are precisely that - about humans and the human condition - they are central and important, and help us appreciate nuance and historical questions. We have learned that computational input is never value free or neutral, therefore it has to be approached with care.


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