Digital Humanities
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Inquiries into culture, meaning, and human value meet emerging technologies and cutting-edge skills at Pratt Institute's School of Information

Theorizing the Web: Data Capture (The New School, November 16, 2014)

Theorizing the Web: Data Capture was a panel discussion held at The New School on November 16, 2014 as a part of the Digital Labor 2014 conference. The panel consisted of PJ Rey, PhD candidate at the University of Maryland; Melissa Gira Grant, writer and freelance journalist; Rob Horning, editor at The New Inquiry; and Sarah Leonard, senior editor at The Nation. The panel was organized by social media theorist, Nathan Jurgenson, and was moderated by New York-based writer, Molly Osberg. Each panel member first presented his/her independent research and a brief question and answer session with the full panel then followed. Conclusions from the event and their application to digital humanities follow below:

1. Digital labor involves the intersection of cyberspace and the body. As an example, how do we understand nonconsensual pornography (NCP), “revenge porn,” in this framework? On one hand, there is a legal framework; NCP can be interpreted as copyright infringement. However, copyright infringement is not the reason that NCP is problematic. This is because in the physical world, NCP is much more akin to sexual assault, a violation in which control of our physical body is taken from us, than a matter of IP rights.

Acknowledging the intersection of the body and the web is especially important for digital humanists, whose research and projects intimately involve the incorporation of digital technologies into the humanities, an academic discipline that studies physical human culture.

2. We can experience foreign objects as a part of our body. Thus, smart phones and social media accounts are part of us; they form our “digital prostheses.” And if we consider these objects as an extension of our physical selves, then we must also consider our intimate relationship with them with moral regard. Ultimately, we cannot disconnect information from our embodied experience and we are thus tasked with extending moral regard to digital media.

This argument extends the first conclusion that digital labor intersects cyberspace and the body by considering our digital selves as a tangible extension of our physical selves. Again, this has a unique significance for scholars of digital humanities. Because we cannot dissociate from the information that we put forth, this conclusion is reflexive in that any data captured by the digital humanist must be understood as an extension of the creator of that data, and any project that is curated by the digital humanist is also an extension of him/herself. Digital humanists are thus both consumers of digital labor and producers of it.

3. The Internet, though occupying digital space, has a definitive physicality. We must consider how digital labor in the network extends beyond the digital, and that the architecture of the Internet means that digital labor follows digital laborers all around the web, making them more accessible.

This conclusion hinges upon the ideas of linked data and digital footprints, the former being an integral part of DH, the latter much less so. While many projects in the digital humanities seek to link data and research across the web, digital humanists should seek full understanding of the digital footprint that they are creating as they further these linkages.

4. When it comes to researching digital labor, researchers engage the network as consumers. When this producer-consumer relationship is applied to sex work, for example, failure to distinguish sex workers’ lived online experience from their highly-mythologized, perceived online experience means that law enforcement, NGOs, the media, and other bodies that engage with sex workers use the mythic experience to inform their efforts, thereby extending sex workers’ voicelessness in the physical world to the digital world as well.

Returning to the idea of digital humanists as both consumers and producers of digital labor, this conclusion calls upon DHers to understand their role in the digital economy as both researcher and consumer. When a digital humanist captures data on the web, is he/she giving voice to the producer of that data? Because the data produced is an extension of the producer’s self, the DH researcher must remember that the data producer maintains his/her agency in its production and that the producer’s digital labor was the creation of that data.

5. Privacy must be discussed when addressing new media with digital natives who grew up in this framework. Digital natives ask, “If I’m not doing anything wrong, why should I care if someone is watching me?” The answer, of course, is that this is the equivalent to stalking of the physical body. It is critical to acknowledge that there are humans on the other side of mass surveillance. Further, digital natives admit to “curating” their new media selves. This idea of presentation, audience, and aesthetic demonstrates the extension of self into our digital prostheses, greatly increasing the degree to which mass surveillance is equated with stalking of the physical self.

Where the last conclusion focused on the digital humanist as consumer, this conclusion has much more bearing on the DHer as producer. When a digital humanist curates a project by considering aspects such as presentation, audience, and aesthetic, he/she is curating an extension of him/herself. Mass surveillance of this project therefore relates to the unauthorized collection of the data that the DHer captured for this project. While DH projects often seek to be open and publicly accessible, the privacy of such projects should be assessed especially when thought of as an embodiment of the researcher who created the project.

6. We must have an ontological, moral, and legal understanding of data capture in order to evaluate and analyze it. While social media makes data capture easier, the data captured in deeply material and physically embodied. The role of technologists in legislating this understanding and articulating this legislation to the public is paramount.

As mentioned above, social media benefits researchers because it makes data capture easier than it has ever been before. However, because of data’s deep attachment to the physical self, technologists and digital humanists are ultimately tasked with ensuring that data capture is completed within a ontological, moral, and legal framework that protects the rights of the data’s producer. The ethics of research had become further complicated by the emergence of social media, digital labor, and online data capture. However, if technologists, including DHers, can legislate this process and assist in the public’s understanding of it, then an appropriate framework for performing research with data capture will emerge.

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