ECHIC Abstract: Infrastructure As Afterthought

Now that I’m halfway through my third year my supervisors told me it would be better to start focusing on writing chapters rather than conference abstracts. They are of course absolutely right, but then a colleague notified me of the call for papers for ECHIC 2018 (European Conference for the Humanities on behalf of the European Consortium of Humanities Institutes and Centres). This conference will be in Leuven (Belgium) from 4 to 6 April 2018, and will focus on the role of infrastructures in the humanities. As a conference so close to home, and so close to my topic, I could not resist sending in an abstract. In my presentation, I will argue that infrastructuring is the central practice of digital humanities, even though practitioners of digital humanities themselves do not always give as much attention to infrastructures as needed. This is a result of my thinking of the need for a definition of DH, and the work I’m conducting for my PhD. So the below is a slightly more provocative summary of an argument I intend to make in my thesis. I would love to hear your comments and feedback, both good and bad!

Infrastructure As Afterthought

Digital humanities has been described as a community with “an urge to work with large data sets and to create accompanying infrastructures for them”.[1]p259, Rogers, R. (2013). Digital Methods. MIT Press. The process to create these infrastructures is not one of simply creating a list of user requirements, handing that over to software developers and waiting until a ’perfect’ infrastructure is implemented. Instead, the process requires a constant negotiation of design and appropriation,[2]Björgvinsson, E., Ehn, P., and Hillgren, P.-A. (2010). Participatory design and ”democratizing innovation”. In Proceedings of the 11th Biennial Participatory Design Conference on – PDC ’10, New York, New York, USA. ACM Press.[3]Suchman, L. (2002). Located accountabilities in technology production. Scandinavian Journal of Information Systems, 14(2):91–105. in order to align the digital technologies under development with scholarly practices and values.[4]Kaltenbrunner, W. (2015). Reflexive inertia: reinventing scholarship through digital practices. PhD thesis, Leiden University. We will refer to this process as ”infrastructuring”,[5]Björgvinsson, E., Ehn, P., and Hillgren, P.-A. (2010). Participatory design and ”democratizing innovation”. In Proceedings of the 11th Biennial Participatory Design Conference on – PDC ’10, New York, New York, USA. ACM Press. which we argue is the central practice of digital humanities, as a contrast to the wider practice of adopting digital methods in scholarship, which we describe as digital scholarship in the humanities.[6]Antonijević, S. (2015). Amongst digital humanists: an ethnographic study of digital knowledge production. However, in this paper we will show that while digital humanities projects are arguably processes of infrastructuring, this is not always the ambition of the participants in these projects. What we have instead found in our study of digital history projects is that the historians are focused on their historical research, the computer scientists on their computer science research, and to what extent that benefits the infrastructure is secondary.[7]Kemman, M. (2017). Unpacking Collaboration in Digital History Projects. In DH2017. For example, in our study of one digital history project, the computational linguist said about the historian:

[Y]ou go through a lot of trouble, manual effort and thinking of how to organize this thing, and what kind of labels you’re going to put and how you’re going to structure it. This is not something that is completely useless, it is also a valuable thing. But you have to tell him that [. . .] he doesn’t really realize that the digital part of his research, is also research.

This is not to say that this computational linguist was focused on the infrastructure:

[T]he project is basically building an interface where all this information is presented in a […] user-friendly way, in a good way. That would be the success of the project. What I’m doing might provide additional information to this interface from the original text sources that are not yet structured, that would be good, but it’s not […] paramount for the success of the project.

When we asked researchers whether a project is driven by either a research question, a data collection, or a technology,[8]Owens, T. (2014). Where to Start? On Research Questions in The Digital Humanities. they usually emphasised that the research question leads, although they acknowledged that actually the technology might be the leading drive. However, these three aspects of the project cannot be viewed independent of one another. In this paper, we will therefore argue that digital history projects should instead be driven by infrastructuring as the ongoing process of aligning the research question, data collection, and technology. By thus truly engaging with the infrastructure, scholars can shape the technology available for future digital scholarship in the humanities.

References   [ + ]

1. p259, Rogers, R. (2013). Digital Methods. MIT Press.
2, 5. Björgvinsson, E., Ehn, P., and Hillgren, P.-A. (2010). Participatory design and ”democratizing innovation”. In Proceedings of the 11th Biennial Participatory Design Conference on – PDC ’10, New York, New York, USA. ACM Press.
3. Suchman, L. (2002). Located accountabilities in technology production. Scandinavian Journal of Information Systems, 14(2):91–105.
4. Kaltenbrunner, W. (2015). Reflexive inertia: reinventing scholarship through digital practices. PhD thesis, Leiden University.
6. Antonijević, S. (2015). Amongst digital humanists: an ethnographic study of digital knowledge production.
7. Kemman, M. (2017). Unpacking Collaboration in Digital History Projects. In DH2017.
8. Owens, T. (2014). Where to Start? On Research Questions in The Digital Humanities.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *