Historical simulacra: breathing life into the digital dead

By Tim Hitchcock

The blog post that follows is adapted from the text of a short presentation I gave to a symposium held at the University of Sussex on the 18th of January 2019: Subjectivity, Self-Narratives and the History of Emotions. It was organised by my excellent colleague Dr Laura Kounine, and I was honoured to be asked. I very much enjoyed the day, and the other presentations reflected a wonderful variety of perspectives on the history of emotion, illustrating just why the ‘emotional turn’ has grown in significance. Having said this, as usual, I found myself ‘outside the tent, pissing in’—not able to write a convincing ‘history of emotions’, and not entirely convinced by much of anything.

I am afraid the talk that follows is much more a case of me thinking aloud, rather than a clearly thought-through position piece. As often happens – at least to me – the synopsis and title of this talk was written long before the talk itself, and it has turned out rather differently than I initially envisaged. I very much hope that this does not seem disrespectful. I should also admit at the outset that while I very often try and write with emotions, I am not a historian of emotions; and hence am rather speaking from outside the tent.

With these caveats in mind, there are just a couple of things I want to discuss today – first, the remarkable rise of ‘emotions’ as a category of analysis – the creation of a what has occasionally been termed, the ‘emotional turn’. And second, the impact of new – digital – research methods on historical research. And I want to do this, primarily as a way of getting at something third – the changing nature of the ‘historical project’, and what we actually think we are doing, when we write about the dead. I believe that both these developments impact directly on the kinds of writing we do, and both have altered aspects of the underlying project of academic historical scholarship.

And the place to start is with the remarkable recent rise in the history of emotions. This symposium is perhaps evidence enough of the centrality of emotions to some of the most innovative work of the moment. You can, of course, trace a narrow historiographical path back to the work of people like William Reddy and Barbara Rosenwein – and via them to the histories of gender, post-structuralism, and all the rest. But I don’t think this actually captures the significance of the rise of ‘emotion’ studies. Its ubiquity is remarkable.

I was recently asked to contribute to a festschrift for a well-respected senior historian – to be filled with the work of their students, inspired by fifty years of scholarship. Now, the historian in question started off in urban history, did some medical history, and wrote a lot of great stuff on the evolution of social policy. But, the one thing they did not do is write about emotions. And neither did their students. And yet when the book was produced – including some wonderful micro-histories and accounts of the impact of social welfare policy – it was touted by OUP as an ‘introduction to and critical reflection on the growing field of the history of emotions’. My understanding is that this was a theme forced on the editors by OUP. And yet, there was no more emotion between the covers of that volume than in your average box of shredded wheat. The press was clearly jumping on what it perceived as a bandwagon, shoehorning some excellent social history into this ‘growing field’.

lightning talks
‘Lightning Talks’, British History in the Long Eighteenth Century, 5 December 2018

In a similar way, the seminar I help run at the Institute of Historical Research on the Long Eighteenth Century recently ran an introductory session for new researchers, just starting out on their PhDs. We could fit in some twelve presentations, drawn from across the country – capturing a cross-section of new PhD students working on 18th-century history. And what was remarkable was the prominence of ‘emotions’ in how those PhD students formulated their subject. Over a third explicitly used the language of ‘emotion’ as part of the framing of their doctorate. And, while all had smart things to say, when questioned about why they chose ‘emotions’ as a framing device (admittedly an unfair question), they all struggled to give a clear answer. You could still see the impact of new sources, and older traditions, but the sore thumb that stood out among them was one crying and laughing along the way. Economic and political history, digital history, urban history, even history from below, were all largely absent, and in their place was ‘emotion’.

If we wanted to explain how we got here, we could go back to Lefebvre and Peter Gay perhaps, and into second wave women’s history, queer theory, body history and the history of sexuality – or if you want another trajectory, via anthropology and psycho-history, to Robert Darnton and Barbara Taylor.  But none of these lineages really seem to me to account for this – sudden – popularity for the analysis of emotions.

And what occurs to me, is that the fundamental drivers of this ‘turn’ lie primarily in a newly felt need to reconstruct unknown lives, and interrogate ‘experience’. Looked at not as a lineage, but as an intellectual technology in its own right, one aspect of the ‘work’ that the history of emotions performs is to allow us to imagine the interior life of a dead person for whom we have no personal record, and to be able to footnote our imaginings along the way.

This in turn, allows us to generate on the page, that sense of a lost ‘experience’ told via the lives of people who did not otherwise record their innermost thoughts. A historically specific model of an emotional landscape, or community, allows us as historians to paint the silent dead, in the emotional colours of their class, gender and epoch.

In other words, the history of emotions – it appears to me – is a means to a literary end, and a fragment of a broader impetus to reconstruct the worlds of people not adequately reflected in the archives – of women; of the poor; of those excluded by race, sexuality and disability. To have a model of how emotions worked within marriage in 1880s Leeds or Manchester, or to be able to discuss the fear felt by untold soldiers on the Russian Front in the First World War, forms a strategy for breathing life into the silent dead. Arguably, it allows us to embed what Virginia Woolf described as the ‘rainbow’ in biographical writing – emotions, perspective, interiority used on the page – to evoke a reader’s response.

Old Bailey Voices.png
The Old Bailey, c.1808, reproduced in 3D by Ben Jackson for the ‘Old Bailey Voices

And this is where the history of emotions seems to me to intersect with digital history. It is a remarkable thing, but the nature of historical research has changed fundamentally in the last twenty-five years. The digitisation of the historical record, has essentially liberated us from many of the structures of the archive – even as it creates new controlling structures along the way. Connections that just thirty years ago would have been impossible to make, are suddenly open to us via keyword searching and nominal record linkage.

And for a select band of historical figures – the 18th and 19th century Anglo-phone working class, criminals, paupers, and the ancestors of various Mormons – we are confronted, indeed seduced, by the possibility of re-constructing hitherto unfindable lives, in evidence scattered across the ever more comprehensive records of the nation state.

digital panopticon
The Digital Panopticon

In a project I was recently part of, the Digital Panopticon, we tied together some forty or fifty datasets, covering the trials, convictions and punishments of some 90,000 mainly working class Londoners – criminals and transportees to Australia. For many of these men, women and children, there are tens of brief references – single lines of information – marking their journey through the systems of criminal justice. To this can be added census material and life events. All building into what feels like the bare bones of a remarkable series of biographies.

jane tyler
Jane Tyler, 1765-?  53 Records in the Digital Panopticon

This is a single person’s collection of historical data – Jane Tyler – for whom we have 53 separate items of evidence, leading up to her eventual transportation on the Second Fleet to Australia in 1789.

We can know people’s weight, and height, their distinguishing marks, and who they shared a prison cell with. We can know how much money they had with them when they arrived in New South Wales; and we can read their very words recorded in the Old Bailey Proceedings.

For some, we can even look in to their eyes, and search for meaning.

durrant
Sarah Durrant, convicted to two years imprisonment at Wandsworth Gaol, for the theft of
£2000 worth of banknotes on 9 January 1871.

This is Sarah Durrant, convicted in 1871 of receiving two stolen bank notes, and sentenced to two years’ hard labour in Wandsworth prison – in a mugshot that has all the characteristics of a formal portrait.

There are problems. I have written about this elsewhere, so will not labour this point today; but the digitisation of the Western archive – in part driven by the commercial impetus to monetise popular western demand, has increasingly skewed the historical record – by race and national identity. The white working class – citizens of well-ordered states – are suddenly hyper-available for analysis and empathy; while 98% of the rest of the world are simply denied a ‘right to be remembered’. There is a massive challenge to right this imbalance – and to at the very least – acknowledge the absences from the archive.

But there are also new and profound possibilities. If, as I suggested earlier, the work performed by the history of emotions is to allow us an interior view of the lives of those otherwise excluded from the archive, then digital history has created a framework of bald records upon which that emotional representation can be hung.

If the ‘work’ of the history of emotions is the recovery of interior lives, then perhaps the ‘work’ of digital histories is the evidencing of external lives. It provides what Virginia Woolf set against her ‘Rainbow’: the ‘granite’ of event and fact, driving a narrowly-evidenced narrative, made humane and palatable with emotional insight.

By combining the points of sharp light, provided by digital research methods, with a model of communities of emotion, we are apparently allowed to create more fully-rounded historical actors – whose interior life is suddenly available in a new way – whose motivations and behaviour can be understood and used as part of a broader analysis. And given that the essence of ‘modernity’ is generally thought of as the rise of ‘interiority’ among the middle classes of the early nineteenth – this is a big deal. It apparently allows us to ‘use’ working class lives and sensibilities as part of the project of writing the dead in a new and inclusive way. For a start it helps expose the ridiculous and infinite condescension, that suggests that historically ‘modern’ western middle class people were somehow possessed of a richer interior emotional landscape than pre-modern, working class and non-western people.

And as a long term practitioner of ‘history from below’ in the British Marxist tradition, you would imagine that I would simply be elated by this (or whatever emotionally positive term is appropriate to my gender, class and community). This combination of new sources about the working class, available because of digital search, together with a new technology of knowing about emotions and community, would appear to do much of the work only tilted at by micro-histories and history from below.

So I wonder why I am not actually convinced? Why does this not feel like a new high point in the history of historical scholarship?

And I think it is primarily because, when you combine this strategy, with the return to narrative evident in the vast majority of academic history writing, several slightly weird things happen.

We have increasingly moved from the social sciences to the humanities, and from explanations of the evolution of the social order; to profound engagements with the past as a ‘distant mirror’. To my bemusement, even recent history, including that of the 1960s and 70s – a period I remember with a clarity that suggests I was not taking enough drugs at the time (something I absolutely deny, by the way) – is now frequently received as journeys into difference. In part, my suspicion is that historians have come to accept the truism that the digital revolution, when combined with the political and social revolutions associated with feminism and the collapse of communism, formed a historical disjuncture that makes traditional forms of causality, seem ever less relevant. Historians have drunk the Kool-Aid served up by the likes of Zuckerberg and Fukiyama.

And when these journeys into the past as a foreign country – an unrelated past world of difference – are also presented in the guise of narrative accounts of individual lives – via biography, collective biography and micro-histories – we change the historical project. By adopting forms of writing that use techniques drawn from fiction but made plausible by digitisation and the history of emotion, we effectively undermine the difference between fact and fiction; contributing to the political process that says if it ‘feels’ right, then it is right.

And this is where I become anxious. What a combination of digitisation with a history of emotion, used in pursuit of new forms of historical writing, geared towards ‘experience’, does is allow us to create a specific kind of historical simulacra, in Baudrillard’s sense of the word. We can now collect small fragments of light, to illuminate this moment, or that exchange – five or ten or twenty moments, when a historically real person, stood in front of a clerk, and had some aspect of their lives turned in to the fiction of accounting.

We tell ourselves, we are pursuing Baudrillard’s first stage of simulacra building – ‘the sacramental order’ – in which our partial collection of signs reflects ‘a profound reality’. But, it seems to me, the addition of any claim to insight into emotions and experience sends our representations of the past directly to his fourth stage – the ‘pure simulacra’, in which our representations are in fact simple fictions, that have no relationship to any reality whatsoever. We increasingly use the tools of genre writing to create empathy, but our bricks are without straw.

If, as practising historians, we simply adopt a methodology that allows us to write from a more fully imagined human perspective; to appeal to the idea of ‘experience’ as a topic of historical writing without also doing the work of the social sciences along the way, we effectively abandon the older historical project of explanation; and in the process, abandon the cultural authority that comes with interpreting, how we got here. When Jo Guldi and David Armitage published The History Manifesto a few years ago, its many flaws were paraded before a spiteful audience (myself included); but it did get one thing right. As they suggested, unless we claim the high-ground of historical explanation; claim a science of social evolution (whether Marxist or otherwise), we will become mere stylists, using the past as a dress-up box for the intellectual equivalent of seasonal panto.

We can make our readers cry, but I worry that we increasingly fail to make them think.

Elsewhere:

 

The Clock

By Rachel Thomson

Her name was Wren, and as I sat beside her in the dark cinema, letting her gum my fingers with her soft wet exploratory mouth, I experienced a synchronisation between the human body and an extended ‘electric’ consciousness.

The film we were watching was Christian Marclay’s The Clock, a tapestry of film fragments synchronised to real time, anchoring audience, documents and narrative within a 24-hour cycle. While the fragments are drawn from the history of the cinema, The Clock is a deeply digital project, with editing underpinned by automated searches of the database that is the history of cinema.

We enjoy clusters of meaningful transition: built around gesture; shots; cineaste jokes; and perhaps also accident. Each transition is ‘cute’ (we see what you did there) but ephemeral, as time’s arrow drives us forward and reminds us that yes, it is that time, inside and outside the screen. But this is a circular time. I can come again on the weekend for the 24-hour showing and witness the rarely-seen material documenting the wee-small hours. I wonder how much movie time is given over to 3.30 am. Maybe night-time goes more quickly? Or are the sequences just longer? I predict a flurry of phone calls waking people with bad news.

I feel anxious about how much time I can afford to spend here, but also hating to miss anything. If I manage to see it all, would I have consumed time or film history? Or should I just chill out and treat this as an extended metaphor, telling stories from the materiality of culture, facilitated by automated search and retrieval?

The cinema is packed, the audience is compelled. As conceptual art this works, as entertainment this works. Interestingly people seem to come and go on the hour, using the clock to structure their voyeurism. But I am connected to Wren and her indigenous temporality. As we sit at adjacent sofas we play pat-a-cake until she gets bored. She explores my rings, enjoys eye contact as it comes and goes in the flickering light. She is on Wren-time: her cycles and circles are both faster and slower than clock time and they are never the same twice. Wren has been born for nine months so far, and I take my cue to slip away when she forgets me and moves onto the next thing.

Christian Marclay’s The Clock is showing at the Tate Modern until January 20th 2019.

Messy Notes from the Messy Edge

By Jo Lindsay Walton

 “[…] had the it forow sene […]”

— John Barbour, The Brus (c.1375)

I am in the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts. It is my first time in the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts.

It’s a pretty good Centre.

It’s Messy Edge 2018, part of Brighton Digital Festival. The name “Messy Edge,” I guess, must be a play on “cutting edge.” It must be a rebuke to a certain kind of techno‑optimism – or more specifically, to the aesthetics which structure and enable that optimism. That is, the image of technology as something slick, even, and precise, which glides resistlessly onward through infinite possibility. If this aesthetic has any messiness at all, it’s something insubstantial, dispersed as shimmer and iridescence and lens flare.

My mind flicks to a chapter in Ruth Levitas’s Utopia as Method, where she explores the utopian presence that pervades the colour blue. Blue sky thinking, the blues. She never mentions “blueprint,” and I wonder if that’s deliberate? – an essay haunted, textured, structured, enabled, by its unuttered pun. Like how no one ever asks Bojack Horseman, “Why the long face?”

Utopia as Method – my copy anyway – is blue.

Some artists are really awful at talking about their art. Some, I suspect, do this deliberately. Or at least, their incompetence comes from stubborn adherence to something disordered and convoluted, to something in their work that would vanish from any punchy soundbyte. I like them, these artists who are really awful at talking about their art. “Awful” – filled with awe?

By contrast, the digital artists at Messy Edge are by and large very good at talking about their art, and about the political context of their art.

OK, I like them too.

Continue reading “Messy Notes from the Messy Edge”

Intelligent Futures: Automation, AI and Cognitive Ecologies

By Maisie Ridgway

Intelligent Futures was a postgraduate and ECR conference, supported by CHASE DTP and Sussex Humanities Lab. Over the course of two days, the conference challenged researchers to find original, philosophical and cultural approaches to Artificial Intelligence. The interdisciplinary explorations spanned the social sciences, informatics, psychology, art, literature and more, promoting critical and speculative engagements with technical cognition.

Thomas Nyckel of the Technical University Braunschweig led the first panel, which sought to engage with AI from a philosophical standpoint. Nyckel’s paper fostered an alternative approach for understanding the processes of digital devices and computation through the variable definitions of the ‘rule of thumb’. Nyckel’s identified two categorisations of the rule of thumb – Frederick Taylor’s conception, concerned with exact scientific results, and Alan Turing’s interest in approximate computational methodologies. What materialised was a synthesis of ideas that challenged the nature and myth of scientific exactitude and complicated the binary of workman and machine, or the approximate rule of thumb and exact scientific methods. Mattia Paganelli followed Nyckel with a paper on the misnomer of ‘artificial’ when speaking of non‑human intelligence. Paganelli argued that the term shored up the binary between subject and object by attributing an a priori definition of the perimeter of possibility for a given system. Rather than artificial, Paganelli suggested the term ‘thinking machines’, understanding intelligence as a process of learning, plasticity and openness to name a few key attributes.

The next panel united speakers under the common theme of ethics. Camilla Elphick of the University of Sussex spoke about her ongoing project to develop an AI chatbot, named Spot, as a means by which victims of work place sexual harassment can report their experiences. Spot’s distinctly unhuman style of engagement meant that victims did not feel embarrassed, judged, scrutinised or pressured, garnering more accurate information. On an entirely different note, Marek Iwaniak’s paper explored how theologies and pre-technological religious imaginaries could engage with the novel challenge of AI. Iwaniak speculated on possible intersections between various religions and AI such as a Buddhist approach to technical cognition whereby the ultimate aim of developers could be an AI consciousness of pure bliss.

The final panel of the day explored changing ideas of writing, asking whether an anthropocentric conception of literary creativity obscured other forms of nonhuman creative generativity from view. John Phelan of the Open University investigated if AI could ever critically appreciate poetry or poetic significance outside of large sample readings of rhyme schemes for example. Emma Newport, from the University of Sussex, considered digitised end-of-life writing via the unusual case of the popular Mumsnet contributor IamtheZombie, whose posthumous in memoriam comments from fellow Mumsnet users formed an innovative kind of obituary, a cellular tissue of text that democratised the death process and made end-of-life writing a collaborative act.

Joanna Zylinska’s keynote speech, entitled ‘Creative Computers, Art Robots and AI Dreams,’ drew together the prevalent themes of the day, excavating the myth of the robot to determine that humans, especially the great artists amongst us, have always been technological. Zylinska used various art-AI projects, including Taryn Southern’s AI generated music and The Rembrandt Microsoft Project (involving AI creating an imitation Rembrandt painting), in order to interrogate the value of AI artistic production, delineate how our senses construct the world we inhabit, and ask what it means that seeing, for example, no longer requires a human looker. The result was a critique of AI as that which exponentially amplifies our desires and therefore marketability, as well as an optimism for the possible joys of robotic and AI art, described by Zylinska as ludic creation.

Day two began with a panel on epistemology. Emma Stamm of Virginia Tech presented a paper on the renaissance of psychedelic science and the implications this field could have for AI. Stamm described the importance of qualitative over quantitative methods of research, arguing that qualitative research into psychedelic drugs problematises the positivist and generalising principles of machine learning as a basis for AI. Juljan Krause from the University of Southampton followed with his thoughts on representations of quantum computing in popular science discourse. Krause offered an interesting overview of how the emerging technology of quantum computing functions differently from present modes of computation. He then explored media representations of quantum computation, which portray an ongoing quantum computational arms race (led by China).

The penultimate panel revolved around the theme of aesthetics. In his paper on art and artificial intelligence Michael Haworth reconfigured the relationship between human and machine as an equal coupling, a functional interdependence manifest in the example of AARON, the painting and drawing robot. Haworth relayed how the creativity of AARON rests in the relation between the program and programmer, an interplay that performs a structural shift from the human as tool user to the human as engineer and organiser. Following Haworth, Dominique Baron-Bonarjee presented a performative lecture during which she enacted Liquidity, an embodied, meditative practice that she designed to explore ideas of free time in an increasingly automated age. Baron-Bonarjee monitored the activity of her brain throughout the lecture using a MUSE headband which measured her brain waves.

Memory and Time formed the focus of the final panel, offering an eclectic range of thoughts on automation and redundancy, logistics and inscribed narrative time. Kieran Brayford discussed the possible ramifications of mass technological unemployment and forced leisure time, coming to similar conclusions as Phelan with regards to the limitations of automated agents as unable to explain significance. Eva-Maria Nyckel’s followed Brayford’s more general overview with a specific example of automated industry in the form of Amazon’s anticipatory shipping method. Nyckel used a patent for the shipping method as the basis to unpack the potentially huge impact it could have on the temporality of logistical processes. In a change of topic, Daniel Barrow of Birkbeck University turned to contemporary experimental fiction and the technological, inhuman agency of Big Data, which finds its form in a static and autonomous narrative time.

To close the conference a number of notable Sussex based academics and researchers came together for a round table discussion. Taking part were Caroline Bassett, Peter Boxall, David M. Berry, Beatrice Fazi, Simon McGregor and Michael Jonik, all of whom were asked to choose one key word that would explain their research. Boxall chose the word ‘artificiality’ as a recourse to explore its supposed opposite- the human. He offered the idea of the Augustinian human as somewhere between beast and angel, a figure made legible according to taxonomies that we map onto it. McGregor’s word was ‘alien’. As a cognitive scientist McGregor explained that the world is full of minds that cannot be reduced to their materiality and are eternally separated by an unbroachable void. Any attempts to understand these minds would aid efforts to predict their behaviour but would also bring us further away from other humans. Other keywords included intelligence, contingency, mastery, and critical reason, with final thoughts settling on the infinitude of computation, the passive intellect of algorithmic infrastructure, and the potential for the world to continue in the absence of humans.

Over its two days, Intelligent Futures gathered a range of richly provocative critical interventions, and created spaces for stimulating discussion of Artificial Intelligence. It demonstrated the importance of further critical, interdisciplinary study of Artificial Intelligence, as it continues to inform, and to transform, the societies we live in.

Maisie Ridgway is a CHASE funded PhD student at the University of Sussex. Her research interests include ideas of pre-digital poetics from Joyce to present, the viral vitality of language and the points at which science and literature intersect, mutually informing each other.

Maria José Aurindo visits the Lab

In September 2018 the Sussex Humanities Lab were delighted to host an Erasmus+ Visitor. In this post Maria José Aurindo from the Library of Estoril Higher Institute for Tourism and Hotel Studies, Portugal, describes the highlights of her time with us.

Sea, beach, buildings
Brighton

In September 2018, as a member of Museu Virtual do Turismo, I spent a week at the University of Sussex, sponsored by a mobility grant from the Erasmus+ programme. Mobility is one of the core activities in international cooperation, aiming to enhance the quality of higher education, and to promote connections and collaborations across Europe. In addition, an Erasmus+ Training Mission represents a fantastic opportunity for personal and professional development.

James Baker, Senior Lecturer in Digital History and Archives, co-coordinated the visit together with Sussex Humanities Lab Programme Manager Amelia Wakeford. James welcomed me and provided me with an extremely valuable professional experience week programme. I was able to engage with so much in such a short period at the University. I really wonder what we could do in a month-long visit!

James presented several lines of research he’s currently involved with, in particular highlighting digital forensics and projects like The Programming Historian. He also introduced me to the various operating modes of the Sussex Humanities Lab, and showed me how its flexible use of space helps to meet complex scheduling needs, and to foster a truly collaborative and interdisciplinary research environment.

Sunny day, grassy hill, tree and library
University of Sussex campus

I was also fortunate to have personalized tours of both the Library and the Keep (Sussex’s special collections archive). It was great to see the differences and similarities within the archive and library equipment’s and services, and to encounter all the great work that’s being done there: from Karen Watson embracing the challenge of producing interactive digital editions of the Virginia Woolf’s papers; to Samira Teuteberg exploring the German Jewish Collections; Amy Waldron’s ambition for new library study spaces; and Adam Harwood’s digital preservation advocacy mission.

We managed to discuss matters ranging from the curatorial concerns, digitalization calibration anxieties, the need for risk management regarding author’s rights, the recreation of physicality debates, low-cost preservation strategies, to the need to raise awareness for digital preservation.

I was also introduced to the challenges to the design of the new Heritage MA seen through the eyes of Wendy Hitchmough, Senior Lecturer in Art History. Her experience allowed me to think through several new research perspectives, from which I would highlight the strong need to consider the ecology of heritage visits, in both physical and virtual tours.

Picture of someone on stage, using a PowerPoint presentation
Nye Thompson discussing the Machine Gaze selfie at Messy Edge 2018

And – to conclude the visit – what could be better than a full day spent learning from the amazing projects presented at The Messy Edge 2018? The event, supported by the Sussex Humanities Lab, and part of Brighton Digital Festival, certainly broadened my research horizons, as theorists and practitioners presented on the rich variety of topics within digital humanities. This included everything from the right to be forgotten (something made more and more difficult in the dark age of connectionism); to the right to be represented and remembered (and the need to protect community generated archives from future erasure); from the conceptual landscapes of image and sound recognition; to surveillance, big data, and algorithmic governance; and much more.

Besides the professional experience, I also had the opportunity to get to know the beautiful and cosy city of Brighton – already a long-standing icon of my tourism imagery, and now a place that I’ve finally been able to visit in person!

I can say that my stay was truly rewarding, and it will undoubtedly be repeated. I would love for this visit to be the start of further work together.

Welcome

Welcome to the sparkling new Sussex Humanities Lab blog!

What is this field, called the Digital Humanities? Broadly speaking, it’s about a dialogue – occasionally a tussle, or a two-part harmony – between all the things humanities scholars have traditionally done, and the new and emerging practices which digital technology enables. Here at the SHL, we’re organised into four strands: Digital History/Digital Archives, Digital Media/Computational Culture, Digital Technologies/Digital Performance, and Digital Lives/Digital Memories; we also collaborate extensively with the TAG (Text Analysis Group) Lab, and with the University of Sussex Library. Building innovative archival and analytic tools to reappraise literary and cultural heritage is part of what we do; so is thinking through the ethical implications of the changing nature of privacy and personal data; so is investigating fledging or fleeting everyday cultural practices of social media users. The fore-edges of medieval manuscripts are in our wheelhouse; so are the memes of 4Chan.

But even a permissive definition of the Digital Humanities risks falling short of the sheer richness and diversity of activity taking place under its rubric. The influence of the Digital Humanities spreads wide, as encounters with new cultural forms often cast fresh light on the familiar, revealing what was under our noses all along. Some scholars and artists have already started to prefer the term postdigital. Let’s not forget about that strong practice-led thread either: the Digital Humanities is not only critical and curatorial, but also creative.

Perhaps the best way to understand the Digital Humanities is to keep an eye on what Digital Humanities scholars are up to. That’s where this blog comes in. In the coming months we’ll be bringing you glimpses of dozens of exciting projects and initiatives with which the Sussex Humanities Lab is involved. We hope to make this blog a place of interest to researchers of all disciplines, and to the public at large.

For my part, I mostly work on the intersection of speculative fiction and economics. How are creators of speculative fiction imagining the impact of automation and Artificial Intelligence on society? Can speculative fiction inform the design of new institutions and policies, allowing us to meet the ecological challenges of the future? Or … maybe it can’t? Later in the year, I’ll be sharing my research more fully. But right now, I want to flag up two projects I’ve been involved with editorially, both hot off the presses. On the fiction side, there’s Strange Economics, an anthology from David Schultz, featuring original economics-themed short stories. The ebook will be free for a limited time. Then there’s Vector, the UK’s longest-running magazine of SF criticism. Vector #288, co-edited with Polina Levontin, a special issue devoted to the future of economics. The magazine only goes to members of the British Science Fiction Association, but we’ll be featuring plenty of excerpts on the Vector website over the next few months.