Exploring the Digital Landscape: An Overview

Posted by Sneha PP at Apr 14, 2014 12:30 PM |
One component of the Digital Humanities mapping exercise was a series of six research projects commissioned by HEIRA-CSCS, Bangalore over November 2013-March 2014. These studies attempted to chart various aspects of the digital landscape in India today, with a focus on emerging forms of humanistic enquiry engendered by the Internet and new digital technologies. This blog post presents a broad overview of some of the key learnings from these projects.
Exploring the Digital Landscape: An Overview

Español: Imagen sobre redes sociales (by Gruponorte5, CC-BY-SA 3.0)

The six research studies commissioned by HEIRA-CSCS as part of the collaborative exercise to map the Digital Humanities (DH) were formulated within a broad rubric of exploring changes at the intersection of youth, technology and higher education in India. Apart from existing questions about the digital divide, and the possibilities of increased connectivity and availability of new sources of information due to proliferation of digital tools and access to the Internet, the projects also tried to address in some way the problem of understanding and formulating a research enquiry about the ‘digital’ itself. The digital as a mode of existence or being, or a new ‘social’ or as discussed in the earlier blog-posts, is essentially a premise of the DH discourse as it has emerged in different parts of the world. While the studies focus largely on youth and higher education and so are located with a certain context, they do attempt to address larger questions about understanding the digital landscape in India today, with reference to new and changing practices of interdisciplinary research and scholarship in the humanities.

Just to recapitulate from an earlier blog-post; the following were the studies commissioned:

  1. Survey of Printed Digitised Materials in Bengalian extensive survey and report of printed digitized materials in Bengali across a few selected themes. The objective of this exercise is to map the nature of available digitized materials and explore possibilities of their use in the higher education classroom.
    Researcher: Saidul Haque, Jadavpur University, Kolkata
  2. Confessions in the Digital Agelooks at the rising trend of ‘confession pages’ on social media, most of which are located in an educational context, and explores the manner in which the digital space and its assumed anonymity has reconfigured this practice and the interaction between youth and technology.
    Researcher: Rimi Nandy, Jadavpur University, Kolkata
  3. Queer Expression in the Online Space – this study explores the concept of digital citizenship with a focus on how youth from the LGBTQ community engage with digital technologies such as social media, mobile phones and radio to negotiate questions of identity politics, activism and citizenship in cyberspace.
    Researcher: Ditilekha Sharma, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai
  4. Creating Knowledge: Mapping the nature of Content and Processes  on the English Wikipedia - analyses the nature of content produced on Wikipedia, with a focus on the representation of women and gender-related topics to explore if online knowledge platforms contain and perpetuate a systemic gender-bias.
    Researcher:
    Sohnee Harshey, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai
  5. From the Streets to the Web: Feminist Activism on Social Mediaan ethnographic exploration of social media platforms to explore how feminist activists have engaged with digital technology and if this has allowed for a redefinition of political organization and new forms of activism within the movement.
    Researcher: Sujatha Subramanian, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai

This exercise was also an attempt to build on some of the learnings from a four-year programme undertaken by HEIRA-CSCS titled ‘Pathways to Higher Education (supported by the Ford Foundation), which looked at the problem of quality of access in higher education for students from disadvantaged sections of society, particularly with respect to the digital and linguistic divide. The emphasis therefore was on understanding how young people, who are known as digital natives, negotiate with these rapidly changing modes of communication and learning. The projects therefore are located in institutional spaces and primarily address the demographic of 18 – 35 years, although there are exceptions as in the case of the studies on Wikipedia and the Bengali archival materials. Most of the studies draw from conventional methods of humanities and social sciences research, largely consisting of ethnographic and textual analysis, interviews and surveys. Adapting these methods to the digital domain, or rather formulating new research questions and methodology that is adequate to understand the nuances of the digital sphere was one of the key challenges of this exercise. Some of the learning outcomes from these studies may be summarized under the following themes:

The Emergence of the (Digital) Public Sphere

The advent of the internet and digital technologies has largely been considered enabling, in terms of what it allows you to do and be both in the real and virtual worlds. The growth of online activism in the last couple of years is indicative of this change to a large extent. This has been particularly true of traditional forms of activism that have now adopted the digital space, such as the LGBTQ or feminist movements. A majority of the respondents in the studies focussing on these two themes have endorsed the positive aspect of activism in the online space, in terms of organising people and connecting civil society and the community, and bringing these issues into the mainstream. Most felt that the internet offers a space, and a relatively safe one at that, to talk about issues related to sexuality and gender. Not only in terms of its potential to garner large numbers, disseminate information and create wider transnational networks, the online space can now also be seen as the space where the activism originates, rather than merely supplementing or facilitating traditional on-the-ground movements. As such, the digital has evolved into an alternate critical public sphere were the discourse around identity, citizenship, and socio-political participation has become more varied, even if not yet adequately nuanced.

While most of the studies endorse the democratising potential of the internet and digital technology, particularly that of mobile phones which have made these networks and resources accessible to a larger cross-section of people, many have also speak about the replication of several forms of systemic injustice and marginalisation that exist in the real world in the online space. The project on the gender-gap on Wikipedia cites examples of such a politics of exclusion in the knowledge-making process, not just with respect to content on Wikipedia, but also in the inclusion of women in the process of content-generation. Respondents in the other two projects on activism also spoke of instances of gendered violence and abuse, often a repercussion of being vocal online, thus highlighting the problematic duality of the condition of being visible and vulnerable. The imperative of creating safe online spaces to voice opinions, show solidarity or express dissent has been stressed by a majority of respondents in these studies.

Being Digital: Visibility and Accessibility

Moving from the question of doing to being, a paradox about the online space has been the way in which it accords a certain hyper-visibility, and increasingly makes invisible people and discourses, many a time not by choice. The option of anonymity accorded by the online space has been important for many voices of dissent to find expression, and for non-normative discourse to become visible in mainstream debates. However, the problems of anonymity can be several, as seen in the case of the study on the Facebook confessions. ‘Performance’ is an important aspect of these confessions; whether it is in the nature of a comment on another person or a representation of the self. The creation and performance of identities has been a significant component of studies on digital and cyber culture studies. The internet as facilitating performance of a certain gendered identity, while also in some ways obscuring certain others – as in the case of the marginalisation of lesbian, bisexual or transsexual individuals within the queer community is a case in point. Further the visibility accorded to issues in the online space is also conditional, in terms of what gets viewed, discussed and acted upon. The Wikipedia study discusses this in terms of a ‘covert alliance-building’ of editors or consensus on what goes up online.

Another positive attribute of the online space as reiterated by most people in the projects was that of increased accessibility - to networks, people and resources. But as is evident from the earlier paragraph, such accessibility often comes with a caveat - the conditions of the access are also as important. In the case of the survey on Bengali materials, the availability of a large corpus of materials in various spaces and the efforts to digitse them is an insufficient measure given the poor accessibility to such digitised materials available online, due to issues of copyright, metadata, technological support and lack of subject expertise. Accessibility is an important aspect of being digital as understood in the project on mapping the digital classroom. While students in most undergraduate classrooms have access to digital devices in one form or the other, the use of these devices in learning is contingent upon several factors such as student and teacher competence and comfort, and the ease to adapt to changing teaching-learning environments given cultural and linguistic divides. More importantly, the perception of the internet or digital technologies as a tool to merely facilitate communication or learning, rather than a space of critical engagement is the predominant understanding, with few notable exceptions.

New Knowledge-making Practices

Combining the being and doing in the online space are the new modes of knowledge formation engendered by this medium. The Wikipedia is illustrative of the process of collaborative knowledge production, and the politics inherent therein. The problems and challenges of digitisation and archival practice as evident in the study of the Bengali digitised materials is also an example of this knowledge vs information conundrum. However the connect with higher education, as in the availability of scholarly materials in regional languages in the latter case, and the need to acknowledge non-traditional sources as scholarly as in the former, are some of the immediate challenges identified by these studies. The model of annotations and referencing, as made possible by collaborative and dynamic knowledge repositories is an important concern of the DH debate as well, in terms of questioning existing hierarchies of authorship and expertise.

The bringing in of non-normative discourse on sexuality and gender into the mainstream, and the emergence of new issues in some sense has also been facilitated by the online space to some extent, even if within certain exclusive communities or spaces. An example of this is in terms of narratives of pleasure in feminist discussions, which seem to have found a space online but not so much in debates otherwise seen in India.

Changes in learning and pedagogic practice are an important aspect of new knowledge-making practices, and as mentioned earlier this is apparent in classrooms today given that students and faculty recognise the potential of digital technologies. However, the primacy of textual material in most classrooms, and a certain reluctance to engage with digital media and texts on the part of faculty and students in a substantive way is an attribute of the classroom today. Indeed, ways of reading and writing have changed with the onslaught of technology; as the study on confessions demonstrates communication on social media and mobile phones have evolved a different linguistic forms, both in English and regional languages. This and the problem of an information clutter, or ‘excess’, without the option of verifiability in most cases, is one of the major concerns of faculty with regard to technology.

While the projects in themselves may have only indirectly contributed to our understanding of DH, the process of formulating these questions and trying to find some answers to them have been insightful, particularly with respect to the problems with understanding technology, the importance of form and process, and the growth of alternative spaces of learning, all which are relevant to the DH discourse. For some reflections on the individual projects, see the guest posts by the researchers on CIS-RAW; the complete research reports are available at http://cscs.res.in/irps/heira/irps/heira/documents

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