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Online ‘unconference’ turns a critical eye on digital society

On October 21st and 22nd, the UNIL-EPFL dhCenter co-organized an online event with an unconventional format, which invited digital humanities researchers to engage in a dialogue on a variety of emerging issues with a common theme: the digitalization of culture and society.

The online-only event was organized with the collaboration of infoclio.ch; the Universities of Geneva, Basel, Bern, and Lausanne; and the Swiss Academy of Humanities and Social Sciences (SAGW/ASSH). The aim was to create an open space where scholars could network; share insights and challenges relating to current research projects and methods; and discuss trends in the fields of digital studies and digital humanities.

“The idea was to get an understanding of what topics people are interested in, and not just decide, top-down, what we need to talk about; but to try a bottom-up approach where people bring their ideas,” said co-organizer Tobias Hodel of the University of Bern.

The online format brought a meta-quality to the conference, which allowed participants to digitally vote on the program, present, speak, listen, and take notes, all while questioning and debating the technologies that made their interactions possible.

Conference, deconstructed

Three planned keynote talks saw historian and author Mar Hicks of the Illinois Institute of Technology bring a historical perspective to criticisms of computing; sociologist Dominique Cardon introduce the Sciences Po médialab’s “instrumental” approach to digital technology as a lens for social inquiry, plus open-source tools; and professor of journalism and digital media Nathalie Pignard-Cheynel of the University of Neuchâtel discuss the role of digital technology in the world of journalism.

Otherwise, the event’s structure and content was entirely determined by its participants. The bottom-up ‘unconference’ format allowed them to pitch their panel ideas on the first day of the event, which were then voted on to determine the final program.

Five concurrent panel slots each yielded three democratically selected discussion topics, which covered an extremely broad range of topics, including micropublication platforms, for example cache.ch; bias in machine learning algorithms; reproduction of artworks and other visualizations using digital methods; digital literacy; the democratization of archives via digitization; social media and images as sources of research data and tools; political discourse on YouTube; tools for managing digital data deluge; and even reasons for the non-use of digital technologies.

“Be critical”

Despite the breadth and depth of the discussions, co-organizer Enrico Natale of infoclio.ch summed up the conference proceedings with a closing statement, remarking on the common theme of ethical considerations that touched nearly every discussion of digital technologies and methods. He also pointed out a possible avenue for future unconferences.

“An open question for me is to what extent ‘the digital’ is a concept you can grasp. We’ve been using digital studies for ten years now, so what is the consistency of the concept of a ‘digital turn’ for humanities? This is a strong invitation to stay open-minded, and to look for interdisciplinary exchanges.”

Natale closed the proceedings with a reference to the event logo, which juxtaposes two semicircles which, while appearing to be totally different, actually contain an optical illusion of the same color.

“Keep your eyes open, and be critical,” he told the participants.