This post was written by Dr Liz Stainforth, who was a fellow in the Institute of Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh this spring. This post was originally published at https://www.iash.ed.ac.uk/news/exploring-digital-public-spaces
Last month, on the 1 June, the University’s Institute of Advanced Studies (IASH) hosted the ‘Exploring Digital Public Spaces’ workshop, which I organised as part of my Postdoctoral Fellowship project. The workshop was funded through the Susan Manning Workshop scheme.
The event was intended to facilitate debate about changing conceptions of public space in the contemporary media and political environment. Likewise, the broad theme of digital public spaces allowed for contributions from a range of speakers at the University and beyond, working in the digital humanities, digital sociology, education, cultural and media studies, and cultural policy and heritage studies.
After introductions the first panel began with my paper, based on work carried out during the Fellowship, which traced the trajectory of digital public spaces in the UK cultural policy context, particularly focusing on the 2018 publication of DCMS’‘Culture is Digital’ report. The paper considered the different dimensions of digital public space in the report and how these articulated between a national, state-led approach and a set of practices in everyday organisational cultures, or through privatised and semi-privatised infrastructures versus non-commercial distribution. Next up was Dr Jen Ross (Senior Lecturer in Digital Education) with ‘Duty to Care and Duty to Share: Institutional Tensions around Digital Open Access and Public Art Collections’. Jen’s paper drew from her collaborative work with the National Galleries of Scotlandin the redevelopment of their website. Her paper explored the extent to which an institutional emphasis on openness, e.g. around copyright and the digitization of collections, was at the same time revealing of boundaries to openness and assumptions about the website as a core location for accessing and discovering content. She argued for a reconsideration of these assumptions and a shift away from thinking in terms of the centralised retention of cultural collections and resources.
After a break, the second panel opened with Dr Phil Sheail (Lecturer in Digital Education, Edinburgh) and her paper ‘Data Bodies in the Library’. Phil approached the workshop theme by presenting her research on the ‘datafication’ of HE libraries, the topic of a recent project. She drew attention to the importance of shifting relationships between software, data, physical space, and the library user, particularly in relation to data traces created through interactions with digital services and resources. Phil balanced the promise of new service provision for library users with caution about privacy concerns, and the tensions between service development and core library values of trust and anonymity. Next, Dr Julian Hartley (Data Research Fellow, V&A Museum) presented some initial findings from his Fellowship project ‘Show+Tell+Share’, which is aimed at increasing the accessibility and display of the V&A’s collections. Focusing on data, Julian outlined the risks and opportunities of big data and its potential for reducing barriers to access. This builds on his previous research on museums and digital public spaces.
After lunch, the last panel of the day began with Professor Richard Coyne (Professor of Architectural Computing, Edinburgh College of Art), who gave a reading from his recent book Network Nature, a study about understandings of place and landscape in the digital world. This was followed by a consideration of how such understandings could be read through the frame digital public spaces. The last paper by Dr Karen Gregory (Lecturer in Digital Sociology, Edinburgh), ‘Is the Public a “Market”?’, presented findings based on ethnographic research of Airbnb hosts in New York. Karen’s paper focused on the material effects of such service platforms, including the creation of new incentives, patterns of behaviour and networks of solidarity among hosts. She also highlighted how Airbnb collects and publicises huge amounts of data, e.g. interiors of domestic homes, and the way this data is starting to be monetised.
The final part of the day was a roundtable discussion between Gill Hamilton (Digital Access Manager, National Library of Scotland), Dr Dave O’Brien (Chancellor’s Fellow, Edinburgh College of Art) and Professor Melissa Terras (Professor of Digital Cultural Heritage, Edinburgh), chaired by Dr Harry Weeks (Teaching Fellow, Edinburgh College of Art). The discussion ranged from questions concerning the Scottish and Central Governments’ digital strategies (especially in light of recent cultural and creative industries policy), to how the digital could be seen as a distraction from entrenched structural inequalities. The uptake of social media by cultural organisations was also noted, in relation to the potential to ‘speak’ in a different register when communicating with digital publics. The roundtable ended with a discussion about the need for clearer policies and protection for HE workers with digital public profiles.
Some of the tweets from the day (#DigPub) give more insights into discussions and thoughts from the workshop. Thank you again to everyone who participated.