Datafication of Sexuality

Thursday 22 July 2021 

Sussex Humanities Lab 

University of Sussex 

We invite proposals for a workshop on the Datafication of Sexuality, hosted at the Sussex Humanities Lab and with the FACT/// Network. A hybrid event, it will take place from 1PM to 3PM on Thursday 22 July on Zoom and in the lab. This workshop will feed into a larger research project that examines issues in relation to the datafication of sexuality and algorithmic sexuality.  

We welcome participants interested in any aspect of the datafication of sexuality. Workshop topics might address the following questions. What is the history of the datafication of sexuality, sexual publics, and sexual minorities? Which actors collect this data and to what ends? Which tools and techniques have been used to collect, categorise, and visualise this data? We especially welcome proposals that examined how these practices have developed from the 1980s to the present. 

Presenters will be asked to contribute a short presentation and engage in discussion and development of ideas. We are interested in building a network and a bid that links to a project that contextualises consumer genomics (e.g., 23andMe) research initiatives pertaining to LGBTQ+ publics within the history of the datafication of sexuality. 

If you are interested in presenting, please email Sandra Nelson ( by Wednesday 30 June (extended). Thank you.  

The Chain

The Chain has just launched as a series of interlinked reflections from theorists, artists, activists, and others of the Intersections: Feminism, Technology and Digital Humanities (IFTe) network and beyond. Each link in the chain responds in some way to the previous entry, and offers suggestions for entries to follow. Are algorithmic voices gendered? Are algorithmic voices friendly? Who does the work? Can the subaltern do a TED talk? How can we reimagine ourselves in a zoomified world? Start exploring these questions, and others.

We’re launching the Chain as a 3-month writing project that responds to contemporary circumstances where we can’t meet easily, where we are zoom-swamped, and zoombified, where glancing interactions are rarely possible. We are missing times and moments when ‘breaking out’ isn’t a zoom function, when serendipity doesn’t have to be programmed, when ‘walk throughs’ are in physical space, and where interventions follow on. We are missing the kinds of entangled modes of thinking and doing this kind of flow more easily enabled; writing about media art, coding that speaks to theory, practice that finds articulation in words.

This Chain was funded by UKRI-AHRC and the Irish Research Council under the ‘UK-Ireland Collaboration in the Digital Humanities Networking Call’(grant numbers AH/V00199X/1 and IRC/V00199X/1).

Robo_Po /// Robo_Op

The Lab is once more open, and the first order of business is (obviously) to host our all-singing, all-versifying, maybe-some-dancing embodied AI performer, Cleo Mesmer.

This promises to be practice-led research at its very best: collaborative, interdisciplinary, exploratory, emergent, placing cutting-edge tech into a critical and reflexive context, exploring both the power relations from which technological innovation emerges, and the alternative possibilities it harbours.

For more about the project and the events, visit Evelyn Ficarra’s site.

We are also calling for two kinds of collaboration:

  • Poems: Submit poems (50 words or less) for performance as part of Robo_Po. More details here.
  • Voice: Submit fragments of sound to help us build a new voice for Cleo, perhaps one which seeks to acknowledge rather than conceal otherness, constructedness, and more-than-human entanglements. More details here.


A Practical Zoom Session on Digitisation

By James Baker.

The Background

At Sussex we (and it is very much we, with Sharon Webb my main co-conspirator) run a program of weekly sessions across Year 1 of our History BA on ‘digital skills’. These start off very un-digital, with lectures on ‘what is history?’ and how historians write, sessions on why and how to reference (with a focus, of course, on Zotero). But as the year goes on they gradually transform into sessions on what it means to do History in the digital age, why we need to be ‘critical digital’ historians, and how to do Digital History in a critically informed manner.

We’ve been running this for 5 years. I wrote a short paper on it in the early days of the programme. And in 2019 we won the Royal Historical Society Innovation in Teaching Award for it. In practical terms, the sessions are a one-hour timetabled lecture slot embedded in two Year 1 core (compulsory) modules: the Early Modern World in the Autumn term and the Making of the Modern World in the Spring term. This means we get the whole History BA and joint-honours cohort (so 100+ students) every week for a year in a foundational period for their historical practice.

The Challenge

Feedback over the years has pushed us more and more towards practical sessions paired with lectures: so, one lecture on the history and theory of visualisation followed by two practical sessions in which the students do visualisation and are given questions to consider, usually some variant on ‘what is the relationship between X (a search result, a catalogue record, a visualisation) and historical reality?’. In the beforetimes running these practical sessions meant students gathering into small groups, distributing handouts, gearing tasks to mobile (mindful of inequalities of access to laptops), and lots of running up and down stairs to support learning and answer questions. Remote learning has changed that, and has seen us move towards pre-session tasks followed by live Zooms with breakouts, Q&As, and the like, and lots of opportunities for formative assessment – “put in the chat what you think was the main theme of the last lecture” – to check progress and comprehension (inspired by the Carpentries pedagogical model). This has mostly gone well, but one session was always going to be tricky: the practical session on digitisation.

This session follows a lecture on the history/process of digitisation (with a focus on the politics of why some things get digitised and not others), and is part of a strand of sessions on how primary sources are ‘made’ (that is, that they don’t just fall into the hands of galleries, libraries, archives and museums, rather they make their way from then to now via a series of historical choices and processes). The session is intended to encourage students through practice to see the gap between photographs of historical objects and historical objects, to consider the labour that mediates their access to the past, and to recognise that digital images are always faulty representations of primary sources. In the beforetimes this involved volumes of the London Illustrated News (kindly donated by Tim) being handed out and photographed, handouts, and lots of running around.

The Plan

We were keen to keep the session this year but I must admit to being initially flummoxed about how to do it remotely. Eventually I landed on the following.

First, I designed a task for them to do before the live Zoom session and put some instructions on the Canvas site (our VLE) for the module.

In this practical session we will consider the digitisation of primary sources and what that means for us historians. In advance of the session please complete the following task:

  • Find the oldest thing you own or have to hand (don’t worry to much about what is or how old it is, just pick something with which you can go through the analysis process)
  • Find a way of lighting your ‘oldest thing’ and take one or more pictures of it with your camera
  • Do a sensorial analysis of your ‘oldest thing’: what does it smell like, what does it sound like, what does it feel like (though please don’t lick it to find out what it tastes like!). Make a list.
  • Consider the differences between the photograph you took and the object. Specifically, imagine you’d only ever seen the photograph of the object, then put each of the things from you list into one of three categories and make a note of which category has the most things in it:
    1) I would have known this just by looking at a photograph of this object.
    2) I could have probably guessed this just by looking at a photograph of this object.
    3) I wouldn’t have known this just by looking at a photograph of this object.
  • If you need some inspiration, watch the video – below – of me analysing the title page from Rowlandson’s Caricature Magazine, Vol. 5 (1808), and consider the difference between the object, this ‘raw’ photograph of it, this edited version of the same photograph, and this version of it catalogued by the Met Museum.

The class

We then had the live session. The moment of truth was a poll on the results of their analysis, to which I added an Option 4: ‘I did not complete the task’. Thankfully only a handful went for Option 4 (I told them it was fine to do so, so I have no reason to think they were being dishonest), and nearly half went for option 2: in most cases they think they could have probably guessed a feature of their ‘oldest thing’ just by looking at a photograph of it.

I then asked for volunteers to talk a little about their ‘oldest thing’, what they found out about it by undertaking a sensorial analysis, and any interesting features that could not be known from the photograph alone. And as usual for Zoom sessions with open questions to a large group, I gave them two options: ‘x’ in the chat if they wanted to speak or type an answer in the chat if they’d prefer not to. I was overwhelmed by responses. The students had found, analysed and digitised a huge variety of objects: old books, posters, a chest of drawers, a board game, a bracelet they were given as a baby. And they had studiously and carefully considered the task at hand. One student told me that they might have guessed from a picture that their item of jewellery felt cold to touch, but not its weight (which they realised was surprisingly heavy). Another noted that from an image they might have assumed their boardgame was the size of a monopoly or scrabble board, but it was actually closer to A5 in size, which might say something about its use. We had a discussion about coins: how we might need to forget what we think we know about coins based on modern coins when looking at images of historic coins (e.g. coins might be softer in certain periods and places, hence coin clipping). We talked about signs of wear and use and how a well lit photograph might render those difficult to see. We talked about how smell might change over time and form during poor storage rather than when an item was in use. We talked about the fragile sound of thin paper and what that might mean for the cost or anticipated longevity of an object. We even digressed into a discussion of “the cloud”, where data is stored, and the material infrastructures of the internet.

The Future

In short we had a fantastic session and – as with the best teaching experiences – my lesson plan was largely discarded, replaced after the poll with an organic discussion driven by the enthusiasm and curiosity of the students who attended. As someone whose research traverses the digital and the material – the loss when datafied of the circumstances of production encoded in the architecture of a printed cataloguethe value of medium to understanding the message held in a digitised “Golden Age” satire – I care deeply about our students being able to navigate what it means to be a historian now. Sessions like these can be a hard sell to first year students who came to university thinking they would study the past rather than how to study the past. Sometimes when reading the feedback they give there are moments of doubt. But for every one of those there is the second year who pops by my office asking for some help with Zotero, or the final year student who runs a Twitter harvest to analyse commemorative practices, or the graduate who acknowledges going back to their Year 1 ‘digital’ lectures when analysing digitised primary sources for their dissertation. And then there are weeks like this, when a plan comes together and I’m left feeling inspired. By this time next year I sincerely hope that it will be safe to return to the classroom, to run lively and interactive practical sessions once again. But there are some aspects of this year of remote learning that I want to keep, and this session – in some form – is one of them.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Exceptions: quotations and embeds to and from external sources.

A Brief Backward History of Automated Eloquence

Late in 2020, two SHL researchers collaborated with CDH to run a workshop series exploring the theory and practice of synthetic text. As a follow-on, in 2021 we will be creating a speculative object: a future textbook about the history of synthetic text, blending fact and fiction. Here’s a pre-print version of one of the sections (since it purports to be written in 2070, possibly by an AI, it is a very “pre” pre-print).

GPT-2 language model (via Max Woolf), inflected with training on feminist manifestos
Eureka machine beats poetry-writing bot by nearly 200 years - Arts and  Humanities Research Council
The Eureka. Image (c) The Alfred Gillett Trust-C&J Clark Ltd. See also Exeter’s Poetry by Numbers project.
A plate from Über den Schachspieler des Herrn von Kempelen und dessen Nachbildung (Leipzig, 1789)

Some Upcoming Events

Just a glimpse of some upcoming events from SHL:

Text Analysis with Antconc, with Andrew Salway. Wednesday, 24 February at 15:00 GMT. “This workshop is for researchers who would like to use automated techniques to analyse the content of one or more text data sets (corpora), and to identify their distinctive linguistic characteristics and reveal new potential lines of inquiry. The text data could comprise thousands to millions of words of e.g. news stories, novels, survey responses, social media posts, etc.” More info here. Part of the SHL Open Workshops Series.

Dataset Publishing and Compliance, with Sharon Webb and Adam Harwood. Wednesday, 3 March at 15:00 GMT. “Funding bodies are placing increasing emphasis on data archiving in humanities research. The workshop will have a practical emphasis, aimed at helping you prepare data for deposit into a data archive or repository, to comply with grant applications requirements.” More info here. Part of the SHL Open Workshops Series.

Reality is Radical: Queer, Avant-Garde, Utopian Gaming, with Bo Ruberg, Amanda Phillips, and Jo Lindsay Walton. Monday 8 March at 17:00 GMT. “The Sussex Humanities Lab and the Sussex Centre for Sexual Dissidence are pleased to welcome leading critical game studies scholars Amanda Phillips and Bo Ruberg to explore the politics of contemporary games.Games themselves are a major cultural form, and the ‘ludic turn’ in recent years has also seen game design thinking and critical play practices spill out into many areas of social and economic life.” More info here. Part of the SHL Seminar Series.

Coming to Terms with Data Visualization and the Digital Humanities, with Marian Dörk. “How can visualization research and design be inspired by concepts from cultural studies, sociology, and critical theory? In contrast to the epistemological hegemony that engineering and science has held over data visualization, humanistic engagements with data and interfaces suggest different kinds of concerns and commitments for the study and design of data visualizations. From collaborative research in the arts and humanities arises a need to support critical and creative engagements with data and visualization.” More info here. Part of the SHL Seminar Series.

For more events, see the SHL website.

SHL’s New Leadership

After over 5 years leading the Sussex Humanities Lab (SHL), first as Co-Director, latterly as sole Director, Prof Tim Hitchcock is stepping down at the end of February. Three new Directors will take on the leadership of SHL from March 2021: Dr Sharon WebbDr James Baker and Dr Alice Eldridge

SHL was established in 2015 by Profs Caroline Bassett, David Berry, Rachel Thompson, Sally Jane Norman, and Tim Hitchcock and in its short life has substantially developed research capacity at the University of Sussex. It has captured £2.6 million in grant income, published over 130 research outputs, and hosted an extensive programme of interdisciplinary events, workshops, conferences, and colloquia. But more importantly, it has built a community of expertise around technology’s role in shaping culture, society and environment and the use of technological tools to undertake research within the arts, humanities and social sciences. 

SHL has also extended beyond its founding purposes and intellectual arrangements. Work now ranges from AI to climate justice, ecoacoustics to automated writing, intersectional feminism to open infrastructures. As SHL transitions to a new leadership team this spring, it will undertake a phase of re-examining its priorities, its ambitions, and the challenges it seeks to respond to.  

Prof. Hitchcock says:  “It has been a profound privilege to have helped establish and later lead the SHL over the last five years — the highlight of a long career.  The team taking over leadership of the Lab is remarkable and hugely impressive, and I very much look forward to seeing the Lab grow and change under their auspices.” 

The Sussex Humanities Lab is an interdisciplinary collaboration between the Schools of Media, Arts and Humanities, Education and Social Work, Engineering and Informatics, and the Library with a network of associates extending across the university. To find out more about our work or to join us visit

— Kate Malone

CfP: Utopia on the Tabletop

Edited by SHL’s Jo Lindsay Walton, Utopia on the Tabletop will explore tabletop roleplaying games (TTRPGs) in their intersections with utopianism. While often considered conspicuously “analog,” in distinction from their digital RPG cousins, TTRPGs actually have a much more complex relationship with the digital, shaped by gaming platforms and gaming social media such as Roll 20, Twitch,, and Discord, and encompassing a diverse array of digital project management, performance, and creativity tools. How might the utopianism of storytelling and play intersect with the utopianism of these (post-) digital affordances? Abstracts due 1 February: full CfP available here.