Technological innovation and adaption in the humanities.
by Graham Matthews and Michael Stanley-Baker
The Digital Humanities workshop brought together scholars from a diverse range of fields in order to discuss the common conceptual, theoretical and practical elements of their digital research projects.
With mottos like "Think different," "Don't be evil" and "Move fast and break things" digital leaders like Google, Facebook and Apple have emphasised the power of the digital to transform or disrupt existing patterns, ways of knowing and social structures. These innovations are changing the ways we practice and conceptualise social relations, the political sphere, provide and calculate medical treatment, as well as human/non-human ethics, cognition and what it means to be human. The NTU Institute of Science and Technology for Humanity is an important space to provide humanistic reflection on how the digital is transforming how we "do" being human.
Attendees were invited to consider how digital tools transform the way we do research. Whereas the world of grant-culture and research project demonstrations tends towards positivistic assertions of what we can know, preserve or recreate, attendees considered not only what is gained by such approaches, but also what is lost, and also what remains fundamentally the same.
Tan Choon Keng introduced the new Digital Humanities Lab and plans for NTU to host a major international conference in the field. Associate Professor Hallam Stevens spoke about his project examining data.gov.sg -- the Singapore government's online data portal. His analysis seeks to use data.gov.sg's data to perform a critical reading of how the Singapore government’s open data and data-driven governance shapes and constrains what the government understands the role of governance and the public. Assistant Professor Michael Stanley-Baker introduced his work, Drugs Across Asia which seeks to situate drug vocabulary across religious and medical corpora in pre-modern China. This serves as a pilot study for a broader digital research tool to study the Chinese religious canons on the one hand, and as a pilot for producing similar databases in other language medical corpora such as Sanskrit, Arabic, and Latin.
Assistant Professor Graham Matthews introduced his collaborative project with Associate Professor Francis Bond entitled ‘Digital Mapping the Literary Epigraph’. The epigraph is the short quotation often found at the start of a novel which encapsulates the key themes of a text and functions as a marker of influence. The research team have built a database of over 15,000 epigraphs that are being loaded into a network that demonstrates the spread of literary influence in world literature. Meanwhile, Assoc Prof. Bond introduced his project to model different languages at the level of syntax and meaning. This research is part of an international collaboration that builds large scale models or wordnets to discover linguistic patterns that have never been seen before.
Associate Professor Cai Yiyu examines human behaviour from technological and engineering angles and is particularly interested in the relationship between autistic children and virtual reality. He has developed video games and digital tools that help model complex proteins and engineer sensory input for autistic children.
The final papers were dedicated to the opportunities offered by Virtual Reality (VR), which presents the opportunity for greater appreciation of scale and embodiment in virtual environments. Assistant Professor Michelle Chiang introduced her critical analysis of VR adaptations of the work of Samuel Beckett. She highlighted the similarities between Beckett’s breaking of the fourth wall and the experience of virtual reality and identified the ability to reinvent the audience’s experience by transforming them into an active participant instead of a passive viewer as a crucial step in creating new possibilities for spatio-temporal indeterminacy.
Associate Professor Michael Walsh introduced attendees to his ambitious project to digitally reconstruct the World Heritage Site of Famagusta, situated in the unrecognised state of Turkish Cyprus. The advantage of digital technology is that it does not disturb the site whereas conventional preservation strategies risk contravening international law, as Famagusta exists in legally contested territory. Assoc. Prof. Walsh demonstrated the ways in which creating VR worlds offers new possibilities for knowledge transfer that can be even more informative and detailed than a conventional academic monograph; infographics and actors can appear in the virtual space and the virtual space offers opportunities for communal work. Finally, Rachael Bernardello (University of Padora) demonstrated various methods for bridging the gap between real, digital, and virtual spaces. She employs numerous digital tools such as laser scanning, photogrammetry and VR to assist with heritage and conservation projects. These tools enable audiences to explore monuments such as the Church of Eremitani and the Basilica di Santa Maria dei Servi, and begin the possibility of a shared, navigable 3D representation of valuable cultural heritage sites.
In addition to individual presentations, the group discussed a future collaborative workshop with Australian National University and Kings College London, focusing on three major themes: visuality and space; peer review of Digital Humanities projects; and ethical reflections on the limits and risks of digital studies.
Overall, the Digital Humanities workshop offered insight into the breadth of innovative digital projects taking place at NTU Singapore across a wide range of different disciplines. The event pointed the way to fresh directions in critical inquiry with and about the digital.
This news item was first published in Constellations, the magazine for Humanities in Singapore.