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Theorising Mobile Digital Humanities Research

We’ve reached the last session of Digital Humanities Australasia 2012, and it’s the one I’m in as well. But we start with Mark Coté, whose interest is especially in smart phones. He begins by asking whether long-term humanists may sometimes feel as overrun by the digital humanities as inner-city dwellers may now feel by smart phone-wielding users.

Nonetheless, the digital humanities are an exciting development, and there’s now a need for some conceptual inquiries into the digital humanities. One area for this is the relationship between the human and technology, which must question the nature of the human, and its ontological status as ‘natural’. There has always been a constitutive relationship between the human and technology, Mark suggests, and this understanding runs counter to a more traditional line in western metaphysics which distinguishes craft, knowledge, and nature.

So, this moves away from a view of technology as an ‘other’, which contaminates the human or at best acts as an artificial support to it. The humanities have already been mediated, and there now also needs to be a renewed cultural authority over the current computational turn, in addition to the mere application of computational processes to traditional texts. What is necessary is to produce new forms of the human, technology, and the constitutional relationship between the two.

There are two points to flag here: if we are rethinking the human and technology, and want to make their contemporary assemblage comprehensible, then we need to consider the full extent of cultural texts which are produced via mediated cultural practices – the big social data. Second, the devaluation of technology by western metaphysics limit it to a more instrumental application, but there remains an encompassing realm of the instrumental application of – embodied – technology as a tool (e.g. as a tool for capital).

Practical applications of this may include i-research on mobility, location, and information, for example. For example, the smart phone itself could be a research tool: to gather data on the new coordinates of mobility, location, and information; to examine how an increasing amount of digital information is accessed and produced with a local inflection.

This builds on a theorisation of user-generated content in social networks, which seeks to better understand the conflation of play and labour which takes place there. A new dimension of mobility can now be added to this understanding, given the continuing development and mainstreaming of mobile technologies that is driven not least by iPhones and iPads. Such investigations can be transformed by the introduction of researcher-driven tools and apps.

The challenges in such an approach is that it necessarily brings together a wide range of expertise – from media theorists to software engineers and app developers. This is a collective learning process, then, which discovers quickly what is and isn’t possible. There are also various institutional challenges, including the size of the cohort, the ethical status of the research, and the technological limitations (e.g. iOS vs. Android).

Mark’s project uses the OpenPath iPhone app to collect location information from its users, and VPN to log connection data, this is then correlated to understand the movement of its users through a geo-technological environment. The underlying aim here is to place data into a human context.

Mark notes the division, identified by Lev Manovich, that there are people who data, but people who have the means to collect it, and people who have the expertise to analyse it – and part of the project is therefore also to engage more undergraduates in these latter practices, in order to highlight to them how they comprise the assemblages of human and technology, and give them the opportunity to do something about it.

New media technologies (from the invention of writing onwards) can be seen as contributing to the exteriorisation of human memory; this is often seen as a negative, but it also generates a greater store of human cultural memory, and the digital humanities can enable us to better read that greater amount of exteriorised memory, just as more traditional texts have been read in extant humanities work. And this can also be done in material and non-representational terms – for example, what is a syntax of mobility, location, and information?