Higher education research centres from all over Switzerland are joining forces to host the first unconference on ‘digital criticism’. Free of charge and open to all, this unique event will take place online-only the 21 and 22 October 2021.
After a decade of research on the ‘Digital Turn’ and its impact on both research and society at large, this event aims to offer a space to network, share insights, and discuss future trends in digital studies / digital humanities among scholars from Switzerland and beyond. Join us and register for the event !
Foster networking within the digital studies / digital humanities research community in Switzerland and beyond
Talk and learn about ongoing research (including yours) on digital-related phenomena
Identify common challenges across disciplines for future research
Discuss the characteristics of digital research methods
What is an unconference?
An unconference is an informal, participant-driven meeting that tries to avoid hierarchical aspects of a conventional conference. The format, which encourages networking, open discussions, and participation, first appeared in the Silicon Valley in the 2000’s as a tool to foster new innovation models. Unconferences contributed to the birth of social media and ‘Web 2.0’.
In concrete terms, the conference unfolds as follows
Register for the conference
In a plenary pitching session on the first day of the conference, participants are invited to come up with ideas and discussion topics
Proposed topics are listed on a whiteboard and opened to a vote by participants
Most voted topics are included as panel slots of 45 min. in the finalised conference programme.
Participants freely decide which panels they want to attend.
Organized by: Enrico Natale (infoclio.ch), Tobias Hodel (University of Bern) and Alexandre Camus (dhCenter UNIL-EPFL) in association with André Cardozo Sarli (University of Geneva), Charlotte Mazel-Cabasse (dhcenter UNIL-EPFL), Claudia Amsler (University of Bern), Gabi Wüthrich (University of Zurich), Jan Baumann (infoclio.ch), Jessica Pidoux (EPFL), Moritz Mähr (ETH Zurich), Mylène Tanferri Machado (Programme doctoral en études numériques, UNIL), Vera Chiquet (University of Basel), Vlad Atanasiu (University of Bern)
Funded by: The Swiss Academy of Humanities and Social Sciences and the dhCenter UNIL-EPFL
Report coordination and analysis by: Jessica Pidoux.
Reporters: Delphine Kessler (University of Basel), Gabi Wüthrich (University of Zurich), Marian Clemens (University of Basel), Andrea Amato (University of Lausanne), Jérémie Garrigues (University of Lausanne), André Cardozo Sarli (University of Geneva), Claudia Amsler (University of Bern), Anna Janka (University of Bern).
The Unconference Digital Criticism / Critique Digitale / Digitale Kritik report presents in detail the main discussions held during the event and more broadly, the way participants think critically about digital technologies based on their personal and professional experiences. During two days, 14 panels were created in the unconference that cover different topics suggested and animated by the participants themselves such as pre-modern data for NLP techniques and digital selfcare tools.
The report is organized in five sections. First, the unconference motivation is introduced, as well as the keynotes (section 2). Second, the panels and their topics developed during the unconference are covered (section 3). Third, the methodology that was used for conducting a cross-panel analysis is presented (section 4). Fourth, the major themes that emerged transversally during the unconference are discussed in the results (section 5). Finally, the conclusion ends the report with a summary of the unconference issues that were addressed for new research perspectives (section 6).
2. Presentation Digital Criticism / Critique Digitale / Digitale Kritik
The unconference Digital Criticism / Critique Digitale / Digitale Kritik was funded by the Swiss Academy of Humanities and Social Sciences and dhCenter UNIL-EPFL thanks to an initiative by infoclio.ch, PDEN and members of the University of Bern and Lausanne. The unconference’s main motivation is to put forward the priority of the humanities and social sciences’ responsibility in developing a social and cultural critique of the digital world.
Indeed, the penetration of digital technologies in all disciplines as well as the dominant paradigm of the knowledge economy imply a profound mutation of traditional places of knowledge. To lead this critique, the unconference sought to collectively debate the main orientations around which to federate interdisciplinary collaborations and research projects.
The objective of the unconference was to bring together researchers and practitioners from different disciplines of the SHS and beyond to identify and problematize the challenges raised by datafication processes and the emergence of algorithms that play a central role in scientific work and in cultural activities. There is an opportunity to leverage the complementarity of approaches in social and human sciences for creating spaces likely to produce a reflexive knowledge of the digital phenomenon and to contribute to the social debate.
The chosen format of the event was that of an “unconference”, known to the organizers from THATCamps, and consisting of collaborative events based on discussions whose precise topics are determined by the participants themselves at the time of the event. This format is particularly beneficial to bring together different professional actors and build common objectives.
This particular unconference builds upon a first event organized in 2011 by infoclio.ch at the University of Lausanne that attracted more than 100 participants and energized the Digital Humanities in Switzerland. The 2021 unconference was organized around the major topics of the contemporary cultural critique that address the challenges posed by digital technologies. It attracted (again) more than 110 participants over two days online.
At the unconference, three keynote speakers presented their approaches to a critical digitality: Nathalie Pignard-Cheynel (Université de Neuchâtel, Switzerland), Dominique Cardon (Médialab Sciences Po, Paris, France) and Mar Hicks (Illinois Institute of Technology, USA). After an opening presentation by Markus Zürcher, Director of the Academy of Humanities and Social Sciences, the participants were able to discuss a variety of topics, as can be seen from the program. We will briefly introduce them in the following section.
3. Panel Presentation by Topics
The unconference gathered 14 panels with multiple topics (Table 1) suggested by the participants, and selected using online voting. The voting method, called “majority voting”, was chosen because it gives preference to those candidates that are acceptable to most voters, as opposed to extreme outcomes.
The topics are presented according to three principles. First, the topics are organized according to the two-day unconference plan: Thursday (21.10.2021) and Friday (22.10.2021). Second, topics are separated into three of the “online hosting cities” from which some of the organizers are affiliated to: Basel, Zurich, Lausanne. Finally, topics are organized by the virtual rooms created at the unconference. Each virtual room was assigned to a panel slot.
Table 1: Unconference topics presented by day, panel number and online hosting city.
The 14 panels with their corresponding topics can be identified with a reference created by a letter (A, B or C) corresponding to the hosting city, and a number from 1 to 5 corresponding to the panel slot. For instance, one can read the table as follows: On Thursday 21, in panel 1 the topic at A-Basel was “Combining information from diverse collections and sources. Accessing visualizations”. This topic is identified as “A1” in the results part. In total, there are 14 identifiers that will help the reader to identify the topics at the unconference. The identifiers are A1, A2, A3, A5, B1, B2, B3, B4, B5, C1, C2, C3, C4, C5.
All topics are considered equally important at the unconference. The importance is not counted in terms of how many votes they got or how many participants were present in each panel. Instead, the report values every topic highly as topics were used as a medium for giving voice to the participants interested more broadly in critical stances.
1. Individual and Collective Note Taking
At the unconference notes were taken individually and collectively. For the collective notes, participants were requested to take notes together on a collaborative platform for each panel according to the online documents previously created. For the individual notes, eight reporters were responsible for taking notes during the discussion in the 14 panels. Finally, reporters combined the individual and collective notes. They also summarized the main outputs in the discussions according to a reporting structure previously defined between the reporters and the reporting coordinator. Notes were taken in the language used during the discussions. The main language used was English, but there were also one discussion in French and one in German. The latter were summarized by the reporters in English. Every panel produced separately an individual report.
2. Explorative Thematic Analysis
The individual reports produced for the 14 panels at the unconference were explored using NVivo 12 a qualitative data analysis software for identifying significant themes across panels in an automated way. For creating a theme, Nvivo computes statistics and “detects significant noun phrases to identify the most frequently occurring themes. The process collects the themes and counts their mentions across all files in the set being processed.” (source)
After detecting themes in an automated way using NVivo, the coordinator proceeded to a post-processing coding phase to review the codes. This phase was relevant to verify the coherence of the themes as the coordinator was present in the unconference and read the panels’ individual reports. She reviewed the automated codes and deleted repetitive codes. There are 15 themes retained, from which the four most frequent themes evoked across panels are analyzed and presented in detail in the following result section. The themes are_research, digital, knowledge, information._The goal is to present in an exploratory manner, the main concerns, challenges and solutions that participants provided across panels for each specific theme identified.
In this section we first provide an overview on the themes evoked at the unconference. Secondly, we focus on developing the major themes across panels.
There are 15 themes identified in total across the 15 panels. The themes aredata, digital, discourse, history, information, knowledge, process, projects, public, research, results, social media, texts, topics, traditional.
Some themes were more present in some panels than others (see Annex 2). For instance, the theme “data” was present in three panels; A1, A2, A4. In contrast, the theme “research” was present in ten panels: A1, A2, A4, B1, B2, B3, B5, C1, C4, C5. While some themes are predominant because they are directly related to the panel’s topic, these results do not mean that “data” was not important in other panels.
For this report’s purpose, as we intend to provide a transversal analysis of the unconference, we present in section 5.3 the major cross-panel themes where every theme is defined. Before presenting the analysis, in the following subsection the themes and subthemes are represented visually in a hierarchical way.
2. Hierarchical Theme Visualization and Definition
There are 138 themes and subthemes that were identified cross-panel. They are visually presented below in Figure 1 by color and size, according to the theme frequency (how many times the theme can be found within a noun phrase in every panel). The detailed list can be found in annex 2 and they are visually presented in detail in the provided digital files attached to this report.
3. Major Cross-panel Themes’ Analysis
Four themes were the most frequently evoked by participants cross-panel during the unconference (Table 2).
Table 2. Frequency by main four themes.
1. The meaning and practices of conducting digital research
The first theme identified across panels is research. Throughout different topics and objects of studies at the unconference, participants were mainly (i) defining what digital research means, (ii) discussing the current challenges to conduct research about/within the digital, (iii) proposing solutions to facilitate the research process.
(i) When defining digital research, on the one hand, participants compared digital research with traditional research, participants found difficulties, and we are reminded of the same difficulties. On the other hand, they expressed that DH research is more about speed and collaboration. “Research in the area moves so fast, we can’t wait 3 years to the official publication.” (Panel B5). Moreover, DH projects “involve sharing time with other researchers; [but how much of that time is useful for the research] regarding the amount of time invested [is unclear].” (Ibid.).
(ii) When discussing the main challenges on how to conduct digital research, participants criticized how each research community has their own standard, which is too specific to apply to research in other disciplines. This standardization makes it difficult to conduct interdisciplinary research. One main challenge is to reuse the research pipeline, or specific tasks and results that are already produced, in new research. Some participants consider it useful to present intermediary results or databases. Participants find difficult to process pre-modern data, and are confused about where to publish. While there is an advantage in “the automation of manually unfeasible projects/tasks”, participants find it hard “to assess the effort and return of processing digitally pre-modern data in a big editing project.” (Panel A2). Some participants highlighted the advantages of publishing research online, but others explained the critical aspect of securing research data, transforming information into data, and sharing it. A main concern was to define research data and the utility of providing data resources. To participants, data are often unorganized, and the research journal procedures are often trivial. In contrast, the terms of transparency and reproducibility were appropriate to characterize research data processes. The idea of sharing research process examples as models to learn from was also important. Some participants also highlighted the problem of spending too much time programming tools for the research project. The programming part, and the documentation of the research process is time consuming.
(iii) Finally, the participants proposed some solutions to tackle current challenges about digital research. As a main take away, it was stated that “In the digital era, forms of publications need to become more hybrid and flexible. What research data must be included in the publications, which institutions have the authority to fix publications, and when the moment of fixing and valuing a publication happens, remains to be determined.” (Panel B3). Another idea was to develop research interests through critical algorithmic studies, or by “queering the DH [Digital Humanities]” (Panel C4). When framing the research, one should also take into consideration that researchers’ are both observers of a system and part of it. Related to these solutions, the keynote speaker Mar Hicks offered a rich presentation on the benefits of post-colonial and feminist studies. In particular, they made a parallel between history and today’s situation in the technology industry. She also covered issues related to the characteristics and conditions of the workforce, the invisibility and vulnerability of some actors, as well as the gendered business model in the technology industry.
2. Digital inclusion and digital life quality
The second theme identified is digital. The discussion mainly covered (i) digital critical literacy, and (ii) personal and professional struggles within the digital environment.
(i) Critical digital literacy was an important issue for the unconference participants. “Inspired by ideas and concepts of Brazilian pedagogue Paulo Freire concerning critical pedagogy, the following question arose: how critical digital literacy can be improved to step up to digital poverty, which became especially apparent through the pandemic, and hegemonic structures in research publishing.” (Panel B1). It was highlighted by participants that there is a level of complexity related to the use of digital tools. Therefore, these tools required a certain technological literacy. This evidence contradicts the fact that users are looking for technologies that facilitate their activities. As digital tools do not necessarily enhance performance, one should seek to better understand “non-use” practices of digital tools, e.g., non-use as a self-protection measure; define a timespan for not using the mobile phone (see Panel C4). Some participants found it useful to compare digital practices with research practices of pre-digital times to understand the real transformations coming along with digital technologies. For instance, “One of the participants questioned the specific digital properties of the dating apps in comparison with the traditional forms of dating.” (Panel A1). The answer by one researcher was that users learn new things with digital tools that are later used in offline contexts.
(ii) Concerning the struggles within the digital environment, participants expressed their personal and professional experiences on the use of digital tools. To tackle these struggles, the selfcare project “Twinkle” was presented “which was inspired by people who are emotionally or physically overwhelmed by digital tools.” (Panel A5). In addition, researchers acknowledged the relevance of advertising their research in social media. At the same time, they claimed this task is time consuming so they do not do it and suggested that “universities should provide financing for social media presence.” (Panel B5). More broadly, a group “also discussed their own position as researchers in a larger context of digital capitalism and immersed in an algorithmic structure” (Panel C5): a position that carries on some difficulties to do something freely in a powerful overarching system.
In that respect, keynote speaker Nathalie Pignard-Cheynel presented a study conducted with journalism students and the way they understand algorithms. Based on the insights of her study, she emphasizes the need to focus on the digital imaginary and the place it has taken in culture.
3. Solutions for digital knowledge production
The third theme is related to knowledge. The discussion was centered on solutions for producing knowledge about/with the digital: (i) learning from other types of knowledge, and (ii) filling the gap between the global north and south.
(i) To learn from other types of knowledge, participants consider that some predominant research techniques, such as natural language processing, could benefit from previous knowledge produced on the study of texts. This combination of knowledge from different disciplines can be useful to students. To participants, “institutions must get more flexible and welcome knowledge outside of the western academic bias (including citizen science [field] and people with different cultural backgrounds).” (Panel A2). Moreover, it emerged during the discussions that study programs and academic initiatives should ensure knowledge transfer between older and younger researchers. While the field of digital humanities is rich in terms of interdisciplinarity, participants found it relevant to ensure transversal interests to make the network stronger. Moreover, it could be beneficial to do something with the digital humanities knowledge and expertise produced outside academia.
(ii) At the heart of knowledge production, participants identified a divide between the global north and the global south. As a solution to fill in the gap between these poles, participants suggested that “new knowledge sources are needed [to put closer the global south and global north for] pushing the current boundaries in research.” (Panel B1). For instance, creating “digital humanities journals which are open globally and start thinking beyond the traditional threshold. Also, there must be found a way how copyright and licenses can be loosened for certain cases.” (Ibid.).
4. Interrogating information production processes
The fourth theme is information. Participants were mainly focused on discussing (i) the quantity and speed in which information is produced online, and (ii) the production process of information.
(i) A lot of information produced at high speed online makes it difficult for researchers to filter out the relevant information to study. A particular problem when conducting social media research is the difficulty to know who the study subjects are. For instance, “the demographic information about the people who leave comments is missing” (Panel B2). Related to this, the keynote speaker Dominique Cardon gave a presentation on the benefits and challenges of conducting research on Youtube. He discussed what information can be extracted from online comments, how to analyze it, and more broadly, how to understand social practices within the digital from experiences drawn from the medialab history, and the actor network theory.
(ii) To participants, it is important to “conscientize the students and concerned audience to the inherent hegemonic power structures within the information resources” (Panel B1). They consider that “critical digital literacy is not only about teaching to use digital tools, but also to be able to interrogate the production and infrastructure of the information production process.” (Ibid.). A current problem is how open access is defined: “Digitizing and spreading information is easily possible nowadays but licenses and copyrights, often supported by certain lobbies, prevent the use of scientific content for people outside a certain social status.” (Panel B1).
The report shows, first, the way the unconference was organized in a bottom-up approach. It brought together young researchers and experts in academia from different disciplines, as well as #alt-ac (Alternative-Academics like librarians, archivists, and independent academics), and people outside of academia. The participants defined and voted on the topics they wanted to discuss. The topics are a reflection of the main issues in the community of critical digital studies and digital humanities. Ultimately, this bottom-up approach helped to keep the Swiss community alive, to grow, and learn collectively.
Second, by presenting the four major themes analyzed and every panel topic that took place at the unconference, the report enhances with new perspectives the state of research, debates, and reflections in the community. Digital phenomena were tackled from the humanities perspective, including sociological and computing preoccupations. There were discussions about design research methods and processes, ethical and interdisciplinary considerations, as well as academic power relations between the global north and the global south. Yet, some general questions remained open to debate: To what extent_digital_is a concept we can grasp? What is the consistency of the digital term for the humanities?
While the concept of the digital was criticized, participants were creative and provided a set of solutions for each topic. More generally, the participants showed how a broad mindset can help improve the interdisciplinarity of digital studies and the digital humanities.
The conference programme includes two plenary sessions, three keynotes by leading scholars in the field of digital studies, as well as a series of parallel panel sessions on topics that the participants themselves have proposed and chosen by voting.
On-boarding BigBlueButton Provided by CH-Open
Introduction by the Organizers & welcome by Dr. Markus Zürcher
Panelslot 1 André Cardozo Sarli: Algorithms as normative tools 📝 Etherpad Arjun Sanyal: Critical digital literacy in the libraries for persons from different socio-cultural milieux (empowerment) 📝 Etherpad Victoria Fleury: Combining information from diverse collections and sources. Accessing visualizations 📝 Etherpad
Panelslot 2 Enrico Natale: Essential readings on digital criticism 📝 Etherpad Laetitia Gern: Political discourse online on YouTube 📝 Etherpad Widmer & Schneider: Premodern data for NLP 📝 Etherpad
Panelslot 3 Melanie Boehi: Transparency and democratizing archives by digitization 📝 Etherpad Moritz Mähr: Micropublications (secure research data, do something participant driven, new ways for preprints) 📝 Etherpad Adrien Tournier: 5G - history of telecommunication 📝 Etherpad
What is the Place of History of Computing in Critiques of Computing? Keynote by Mar Hicks
Panelslot 4 Geffroy Valérian: Non-uses of digital technology (unnecessary or unwanted tools) 📝 Etherpad Elias Kreyenbühl: From papyri to photographs. Doing research with images. 📝 Etherpad Tobias Hodel: DH Summerschool 📝 Etherpad
Panelslot 5 Lorenz & Berg: Social Media as a source for research (ethical, technical, legal) 📝 Etherpad Isabelle Marthot-Santaniello: How much advertising for DH research while doing it? 📝 Etherpad Jennifer Rabe: Digital Selfcare tools and utilities 📝 Etherpad break
Presentations of Results and Outlook
End of Event
Mar Hicks (Illinois Institute of Technology)
Mar Hicks is an author, historian, and professor doing research on the history of computing, labor, technology, and queer science and technology studies. Her research focuses on how gender and sexuality bring hidden technological dynamics to light, and how the experiences of women and LGBTQIA people change the core narratives of the history of computing in unexpected ways. Hicks’s multiple award-winning book, Programmed Inequality, looks at how the British lost their early lead in computing by discarding women computer workers, and what this cautionary tale tells us about current issues in high tech. Her new work looks at resistance and queerness in the history of technology. She also has a new co-edited book coming out in Spring 2021 from MIT Press called Your Computer Is On Fire, about how we can begin to fix our broken high tech infrastructures. Read more at: marhicks.com.
What is the Place of History of Computing in Critiques of Computing?
This talk looks at the historical connections between computing’s development in the 20th century and issues of marginalization in tech in the 21st century that have been exacerbated by particular computing tools and platforms. Drawing a throughline from the centralizing tendencies of digital technologies in the 20th century to the power imbalances fostered by digital platforms in the 21st century, this talk invites listeners to consider the history of computing’s focus on triumphal “progress narratives” as part of the problem we face when confronting computing’s flaws in the present.
Dominique Cardon (Médialab Sciences Po)
Born in 1965, Dominique Cardon has been a sociologist, researcher, professor and Medialab director at Sciences Po since 2016. A member of the Orange Labs research centre from 1996 to 2016 and an associate professor at the University of Marne la Vallée Technical Laboratory, he defended his thesis ‘The expanded public space. Opinion, Criticism and Expressiveness in the Internet Age’ (« L’espace public élargi. Opinion, critique et expressivité à l’ère d’internet ») in 2015. A former member of the Centre for Social Movement Studies at the EHESS and a member of the editorial committee for the journal ‘Réseaux’, his work and research initially led him to focus on different forms of expression in traditional media. He then went on to study the uses of communication technologies such as collaborative tools, the relationships between cultural practices and social life and the changes in the ways we work brought about by the digital revolution. Homepage
Digital explorations at the Sciences Po medialab
Nathalie Pignard-Cheynel (Université de Neuchâtel)
Nathalie Pignard-Cheynel is a full professor of journalism and digital communication at the University of Neuchâtel, where she heads the Academy of Journalism and Media. For the past 15 years, she has been studying the mutations of journalistic practices and the changes in newsrooms in the digital age. She also works on the links between journalists, media and audiences, and has recently developed projects on the informational practices of young generation as well as disinformation phenomena. She co-edited in 2018 the book #info: Commenting and sharing news on Twitter and Facebook and co-authored in 2019 Mobile Journalism: Informational Uses Editorial Strategies and Journalistic Practices.
On the first day of the event (21st of October, 10:00) we will have a pitching session. If you come up with an idea, just raise your hand and we will call you up, so you can explain your idea. Make sure to have a title for your panel at hand. If you already pitched your idea online: great, we will call you up and you can elaborate if you wish.
An unconference is an open space. Every topic is worth considering and discussing. From data management, funding, and privacy to digital methods and tools: everything is welcome.
You don’t know if people want to discuss this? Pitch it! Are you unsure if the topic belongs to ‘digital criticism’? Pitch it!
Once we’ve collected all panel propositions, those will be submitted to a majority vote by all participants. Panels who get more consent will be integrated to the conference programme as panel slots of 45 min. More information about the voting system are to be found here.
The definitive programme will then be published on this website. Participants are then free to move among the various virtual rooms and attend the panels they are interested in.
Panels are 45-minute discussion and exchange sessions on a given theme. The person who proposed the theme moderates the discussions.
As we are in Switzerland, a country with four official languages, we are committed to promote plurilingualism. We’re keen to use English throughout the conference as lingua franca, but will also encourage participants to speak their own languages.
Keynotes will be in French (with live subtitles in English) and English.
Plenary communication will be in English, but in the pitching session people may feel free to speak in their own language and we’ll translate live for those who don’t understand.
In the panels, the language mix can vary. Panel moderators should decide how they want to deal with it according to the participants.
Who should attend ?
This event is especially suitable but not limited to PhD students, in all stages of completion. Postdocs, research staff and master students are also welcome. There are no requirements of specific fields, as long as there is a connection with your work or studies.
Is it necessary to send an abstract, a paper or a presentation?
No. As an unconference, Digital Criticism does not need to follow a traditional scientific event, but rather works as an open space where the presenters, organizers and participants choose the topics. It’s a collaborative way to debate, share information and build knowledge.
How do I register in Big Blue Button?
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Conference Software and Platform
The conference will take place on BigBlueButton (BBB), an open source visio-conference software developed by CH-Open, a Swiss organisation promoting open source software, online privacy, and open data standards. A manual and tutorials on how to use BBB are available.
Voting on the programme will take place via the application mieuxvoter.fr. Information on the concept of majority judgment can be found here
Content and Structure
The content and structure of the day are driven by the participants. See for instance the concept of BarCamp. We follow the four flow principles:
Whoever comes are the right people
Whatever happens, is the only thing that could have