The Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI) 2021–Online Edition Conference & Colloquium was held June 7–18, 2021, co-chaired by Caroline Winter (U Victoria) and Arun Jacob (U Toronto). The Conference & Colloquium has been running in various forms and formats since 2009, and this was the second year it was held virtually in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As in the 2020 iteration, the event featured pre-recorded presentations accompanied by live discussions on Twitter, using the event hashtag #DHSIConf and the general DHSI hashtag #DHSI21.
Having a bit more time to plan a virtual event, and with a year of working and connecting remotely under our belts, we were able to experiment with different ways of gathering in virtual spaces. In addition to the core elements of the event—video and social media—we also experimented with other ways of connecting, including social annotation of presentations using Hypothesis and a virtual poster session and reception in Gather.
Gathering and collaborating in virtual spaces in this way made us acutely aware of how the nature of the spaces in which we connect affects how we connect. Without access to the physical spaces in which DHSI usually takes place—not just classrooms and lecture halls but also transitional spaces like the hallways and pathways that connect the U Victoria campus as a whole—we became more aware of how such infrastructures, whether physical or digital, shaped the kinds of interactions that participants could have. Community building is central to the history of the Conference & Colloquium and to its purpose. But what kinds of community connections are possible over Twitter? Over Zoom? Over Gather? How do these platforms shape the kinds of interactions we can have? Digital infrastructures such as these enable us to connect in new ways, and in the face of the social and professional isolation we experienced during the first stages of the pandemic, it was wonderful that we were able to gather together safely at all. Thanks to DHSI’s sponsors and supporters, the event was free and open to anyone with internet access, but this consideration also surfaced the problem of the digital divide and inequitable access to the infrastructures that provide access to the internet. Designing a community-building event in a virtual space foregrounded to us how important those physical, analogue spaces were in shaping our interactions and our community itself.
This collection of papers arising out of the DHSI 2021–Online Edition Conference & Colloquium is the fifth such collection, and its organization is inspired by our reflections on the role of infrastructure in shaping community, informed by recent work in the field of critical infrastructure studies. Allan Dafoe has proposed a “moderate” definition of technological determinism that envisions the relationship between technology and social relations along a continuum, from “radical social constructivism” to “hard technological determinism,” asking, “to what extent, in what ways, and under what scope conditions are particular kinds of technology more autonomous and powerful in shaping society?” (1049–1050). Similarly, critical infrastructure studies takes infrastructures—technological, cultural, and human ones—as objects of study, asking how they shape social relations and the wider contexts in which they take place (“Against”). Lisa Parks, for instance, refers to “infrastructural imaginaries,” recognizing that how we imagine infrastructures determines what we do with the systems they enable, how we do it, and even what we believe can be done. In the context of the digital humanities, Susan Brown et al. describe infrastructure as “that which creates the conditions of possibility for certain kinds of activities. […] infrastructure can refer to physical infrastructure such as servers, software infrastructure in the form of code or a software stack, organizational infrastructure such as a scholarly society, institutional infrastructure such as a DH centre, or methodological infrastructure such as a standard.” As described in detail below, we see the papers collected here as engaging—whether implicitly or explicitly—with these ideas about infrastructure and infrastructural imaginaries.
During the event, we also saw how the digital infrastructures we employed for the DHSI 2021 Conference & Colloquium enabled us to connect with the global DH community. The event comprised more than 60 presentations, including conference-length talks, lightning talks, posters, and digital demonstrations. These presentations were shared by more than 75 presenters with nearly 1200 registrants based in some 70 countries from Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, North America, and South America. This community was professionally as well as geographically diverse, including archivists, administrators, composers, consultants, curators, developers, editors, independent scholars, instructional designers, librarians and other information professionals, postdoctoral researchers, professors, programmers, project managers, sales associates, graduate and undergraduate students, and system engineers. One thing shared by this distributed and diverse community, however, was the experience of doing digital humanities in a global pandemic. Many of our presenters and community members were and continue to be directly affected by the pandemic and by political unrest. As grateful as we were that we had infrastructures that enabled us to come together when physical gatherings were not possible, the context in which this gathering took place cannot and should not be ignored, especially as—at the time of writing this—we are nearing the end of the pandemic’s third year.
In developing this special issue, we noticed that most papers did not address the issue of the pandemic directly, but we did observe clusters emerging around three shared concerns, all relating to the idea of infrastructure: institutional infrastructures and the need for critical examination of them, infrastructures for constructing and defining identity, and infrastructures for culture and cultural consumption.
The papers in the first cluster address issues related to institutional, disciplinary, and legal–political infrastructures and the crucial importance of examining them critically. Haley Bryant, Nelanthi Hewa, Camille Intson, and Arun Jacob examine how institutional and community-led responses to technological crises—such as the COVID-19 pandemic—can both fall short. Drawing on case studies from multiple disciplines, they maintain that any meaningful solution to such crises must interrogate the broader structures and issues of inequity, precarity, and marginalization that inform them. Adopting a similarly interdisciplinary and critical approach, Marisa Hicks-Alcaraz and Jon Heggestad call for greater scholarly attention to—and appreciation of—the work of graduate students in DH. In doing so, they highlight a range of creative digital projects in fields such as queer studies, archival studies, film studies, cultural and ethnic studies, and immigration studies. Graham Jensen (one of this volume’s co-editors), Alyssa Arbuckle, Caroline Winter (also one of this volume’s co-editors), Talya Jesperson, Tyler Fontenot, Ray Siemens, and the ETCL and INKE Research Groups examine how we can foster a community of care in digital platforms such as the Canadian Humanities and Social Sciences Commons while managing the risks that come with interacting in online social spaces. In a discussion that resonates implicitly with Bryant et al.’s discussion of the pandemic as a “crisortunity,” Sebastian Rodriguez engages with recent scholarship on surveillance, software, and digital privacy in order to critique post-9/11 policy and data-collection practices in the United States.
The papers in the second cluster have to do with how identity is constructed and defined through infrastructures that are cultural, political, technical, and semantic. Melinda Cohoon argues that video games are cultural objects capable of creating, reinforcing, or subverting narratives about self and nation. Cohoon then employs metadata and discourse analysis as part of a larger discussion of how Iranian authorities have used video games to censor or otherwise control such narratives. Shai Gordin, Samuel Clark, and Avital Romach approach the question of cultural identity from a different perspective. They provide an update on their project, the Mesopotamian Ancient Placenames Almanac (MAPA), and assess the role of linked open data in correlating significant historical data that exists in a variety of media or file formats—in their case, data that spans cuneiform texts, archaeological surveys, aerial imagery, JSON and TSV files, and more.
The papers in the third cluster examine infrastructures for cultural consumption. Katherine Hoovestol examines the Norwegian live-action teen drama series Skam. She situates conversations about the financial and affective implications of Skam’s widespread distribution and international fanbase in relation to overarching questions regarding piracy, copyright, and the changing digital media landscape. By contrast, Elena Mattei investigates tourism discourse using corpus linguistics and social semiotics, conducting a quantitative analysis of the discursive relationship between images and texts as it plays out on social media (namely, the Instagram accounts of tourist boards in Ireland, Canada, and Australia). In the final article in this cluster, Martina Vodola reflects on the affordances of electronic literature or e-lit such as those on display in the Italian writer Fabrizio Venerandi’s Poesie elettroniche (“Electronic Poems”). In the process, Vodola invites further discussion of the ways that both literary criticism and local publishing markets might adapt to better appreciate the nuances and potential of born-digital works of this kind.
The clusters described above emerged from our reading of these papers, influenced, no doubt, by the experience of planning and running a virtual event and the musings on infrastructure that it inspired. As in previous years, this collection of papers originating in the DHSI Conference & Colloquium showcases a variety of tools, methods, and materials, reflecting the diverse and dynamic nature of the DHSI community.
“Against the Cultural Singularity: Digital Humanities and Critical Infrastructure Studies.” Recorded talk by Alan Liu, uploaded by UC Digital Humanities. YouTube, 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=KHnJCc2Sc4Y.
Brown, Susan, Tanya Clement, Laura Mandell, Deb Verhoeven, and Jacqueline Wernimont. “Creating Feminist Infrastructure in the Digital Humanities.” In Digital Humanities 2016: Conference Abstracts. Jagiellonian University & Pedagogical University, Kraków, 2016, dh2016.adho.org/abstracts/233.
Dafoe, Allan. “On Technological Determinism: A Typology, Scope Conditions, and a Mechanism.” Science, Technology, & Human Values, vol. 40, no. 6, 2015, pp. 1047–1076. www.jstor.org/stable/43671266.
Parks, Lisa. “‘Stuff you can Kick’: Toward a Theory of Media Infrastructures.” Between Humanities and the Digital, edited by Patrik Svensson and David Theo Goldberg. MIT Press, 2015, doi.org/10.7551/mitpress/9465.003.0031.