What is digital studies?
In January 2019, LSA announced the creation of a new Digital Studies Institute that would support the study of digital technologies from a humanities and social science perspective. The establishment of a formal academic institute followed the creation of the LSA Digital Studies Program in 2014 within the University’s Department of American Culture.
The DSI embraces an interdisciplinary approach, engaging different methodologies, frameworks and discourses from across a variety of academic fields. The particularity of DSI, however, lies in its singular focus on all things related to the phenomenon of digital technology. “We are the nation's first one-stop shop for all things digital,” claims the website’s “About” page, “including digital media studies, digital humanities, digital pedagogy, digital art, aesthetic practice and design, and critical thinking about our digital future.”
There is a question that remains unanswered, however, when we separate “the digital” from the more traditional concepts of the humanities, art and design: What are we studying when we study digital technology?
There are two immediate answers to this question. The first aims to explain what is distinctive about digital technology, namely its reliance on binary numbers, Boolean logic and computing. What differentiates digital from analog electronics is the capacity of digital electronics to process data in the form of digits, specifically zeroes and ones, and to display that information in a machine-readable format. Analog technology, on the other hand, relies on representations or analogies of information collected through the continuous measurement of a natural signal, such as a sound wave.
The second answer to our question of what scholars of digital technology study, however, relates to examining the historical emergence of digital technologies and their impact on human affairs; to be sure, scholars in the DSI program want to participate in the design of digital devices, but they also want to be more than just ethical consultants for engineers. With a vast field of inquiry in front of them, there are fresh opportunities to examine and understand the technologies that seem to pervade almost every aspect of our lives. What, then, is the role of this new discipline, and how does an organization like DSI push it forward?
Because digital studies cuts across so many academic disciplines, the minor in Digital Studies attracts students from the humanities, social sciences, physical and natural sciences and much more. With the growing salience of digital technology in the everyday lives of students, not to mention the general population, perhaps it was only a matter of time before the study of its relationship with art, society, ethics and politics became supported on an institutional level.
To learn more about DSI on its own terms, I reached out to administrators, faculty and students affiliated with it. My first conversation was with Lisa Nakamura, the director of the Digital Studies Institute and a Gwendolyn Calvert Baker Collegiate Professor in the Department of American Cultures. Nakamura, a scholar with a breadth of experience on issues of race in digital media, arrived at the University in 2012 to coordinate what was then the Digital Studies Program. Starting with the design of a curriculum, she noticed that many students were drawn to humanities and social sciences courses that addressed the role of digital technologies in society.
“We had courses for programmers already,” Nakamura told me during our Zoom call. “But they were applied courses, and these were more (about) understanding how the digital world works. You know, what everyday life is like on social media, or why is it that women don't feel comfortable playing games that men might feel comfortable playing?”
To meet this student demand, Nakamura assembled a “cheat sheet” of courses from a variety of departments, including Communication & Media Studies, American Culture, English and the School of Information. The courses were targeted both to students with technical experience as well as other students from non-technical backgrounds. Soon, there were enough students taking these courses to warrant going to the curriculum committee to suggest the creation of a five-course minor in Digital Studies.
“So if we can offer a five-course minor, students who have already done these things could at least get some credit for it; it could be visible on their resume,” Nakamura said. “So an English student or an Art History student could say to a parent who's nagging them about ‘well what are you gonna do with this degree’ and show them, ‘well, I'm taking a minor in digital studies.’ And we made the argument that it would help students show expertise and be more employable.”
According to Nakamura, big companies like Oracle, Amazon and Microsoft have indeed hired students with the minor for their expertise on digital culture and issues of representation in digital media. It is not hard to see why; in recent years the shiny veneer of the tech industry has given way to a somewhat more complicated image. A recent article from the Pew Research Center summarizing current public opinion studies claimed that 64% of Americans believed that “social media have a mostly negative effect on the way things are going in the country today.” There have been numerous influential books published on the impact of algorithms on income inequality, as well as the pernicious role of digital technology in perpetuating racial discrimination. Largely due to this shift of public awareness, tech companies have come under increasing scrutiny for their impacts on conflicts of class, race and gender, as well as their role in spreading misinformation and normalizing hate speech online.
While the minor in Digital Studies is designed to look good on a resume, in the midst of this recent shift DSI also promises something else to its students. Throughout the curriculum, there is a focus on fostering a critical approach towards new technologies.
What is criticism, though and why is it necessary to critique technology? First, it is essential to note the vocabulary of critique that professors in the humanities and social sciences employ. Critique is not the same as criticism, the latter meaning the negative judgment of something. There is a relationship between the two words, however: Critique, in the sense of systematic examination or analysis, can help us arrive at better-informed judgments. The corollary of the critical attitude is the evasion of dogmatism, which is the uninformed acceptance of an idea. The 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant was instrumental in working out the foundations of modern criticism and rejection of dogmatism, having written three major critiques in his lifetime. In his short essay “What is Enlightenment,” he implores his readers, “Sapere Aude! (Dare to know!) ‘Have the courage to use your own reason’ — that is the motto of enlightenment.”
The critique of technology, however, can be particularly frustrating because of the extreme positions taken either in support of or against it. Technophiles are especially dogmatic in their defense of permitting new technological innovations in the name of freedom, no matter the social cost. Conversely, technophobic, modern-day Luddites are no less dogmatic in their denunciation of technology, advocating radical reconstruction of the existing means of transportation, communication and distribution of technologies in society.
Between these two extremes, there is a middle ground which neither categorically fetishizes nor denounces technological innovations. It seems to me that this is the kind of attitude found at DSI.
Marisa Olson, the executive coordinator of DSI, said she joined the Institute out of admiration for the kind of critical work the students and faculty are pursuing. Olson worked with a number of other organizations investigating the relationship between technology and culture before arriving at the University, though she affirmed the unique approach she thinks the Institute brings to the table.
“There’s fun stuff like playing video games and the things that Lisa (Nakamura) is talking about,” Olson said during our Zoom call. “But a lot of it is really specifically thinking about technology in relation to race, gender, disability class and access. That’s really our primary focus.”
Turning to a real-world application, Olson explained how the awareness of multiple approaches to the implementation of technology might help students make a positive impact throughout their careers.
“The world tends to think about technology as a straight thing, even in relation to disability,” Olson said. “People might say, ‘let’s make this great technical object that’s going to really help disabled people’ and they don't really know what they're talking about.”
Technological solutionism, a term coined by the philosopher Evgeny Morozov, describes this tendency of well-intentioned technical professionals to place their full faith in tech, thus ignoring the perspectives of the people they are trying to help. More than due diligence, interacting with communities on the ground is an effective means of ensuring that a proposed “solution” will not create new problems of its own. When dealing with humans, as much as with technology, appreciating the nuances is key.
As an artist who creates work exploring the impact of digital technology on society, Olson often encounters an oversimplified, binary approach to judging the digital world.
“A lot of my artwork is about technology's impact on the environment,” Olson explained. “And I would say, you know, we may have new tools now to combat climate change like electric vehicles. But some of that is because of what technology already did to the environment. We may now have new ways to protest things, but we may be protesting things that were also caused by technology, so it's a kind of a cyclical sort of situation.”
At this point, it is clear that, in typical humanities fashion, members of our community who affiliate themselves with DSI are interested in critiquing actually-existing technology. Nothing is safe from examination under the microscope of the Institute’s various instruments of investigation, synthesis and analysis; not even itself.
When the critical lens is suddenly turned onto the critical theorists, there begins a moment of sobering reflection. The mission of the Digital Studies Institute is to connect a broad coalition of scholars and practitioners to study the relationship between technology and culture, but to what extent is this merely an organizational myth? DSI, after all, exists within the economic and bureaucratic constraints of the university. How can we understand its formation within this institutional context?
The recent creation of DSI fits into a longer historical trend of centers, programs and institutes. Especially among large public research universities, such as the University of Michigan, the University of California, Berkeley and the University of California, Los Angeles, and elite private universities such as Harvard University and Stanford University, the 1960s and 1970s saw a rise in funding for specialized centers, programs and institutes associated with the explosive growth of university enrollment in the post-War era.
Somewhat ironically, most of the research on centers and institutes as a new organizational form has come from the relatively new, interdisciplinary field of organizational studies, now offered as an undergraduate major at the University. In 1972, the American academic Stanley Ikenberry published “Beyond Academic Departments: The Story of Institutions and Centers,” in which he recounts the results of an extensive survey on the origins, structure, functions and issues surrounding institutions and centers. These new kinds of academic institutions formed, according to Ikenberry’s account, to conduct research on specific social problems and thus to carve out sub-disciplinary and cross-disciplinary niches for their graduate students and faculty.
Central to the story of institutions and centers is the friction between these organizations and traditional academic departments. The perception that institutes and centers are “cash cows” that drain funding from academic departments became widespread in their period of early growth. Additionally, Ikenberry recounts the frustrations of some faculty and administrators who believed the university was too eagerly “trying to be all things to all people,” indicating a general misalignment of the mission of the university and the various aims of its institutes and departments.
Similarly, Jerry Stahler and William Tash, in their 1994 paper, describe different types of institutes in the modern university, contrasting “paper institutions” that have no staff, no budget and only exist in the minds of their members to these new well-funded monolithic research institutes. Especially among the more influential institutes, conflict and institutional gridlock can arise when institutes compete with departments for faculty time, internal funding support, research infrastructures like laboratories and spaces and prestige.
How does DSI fit within these organizational frameworks? First, it is important to note that DSI receives all of its funding from internal sources; however, that does not mean it will not apply for grants in the future. Second, the central justifications for the creation of DSI are its interdisciplinary and flexible nature. It is an institute that primarily serves undergraduates, graduate students and faculty in their pursuit of research pertaining to the digital world — research that is almost certainly going to involve some level of collaboration across disciplines. Third, DSI is still quite small, so it is likely not yet drawing money away from other similar programs, nor will it necessarily need to in order to grow.
When I thought about what other programs might be in competition with DSI, however, the University’s Science, Technology and Society Program immediately came to mind. Like DSI, the STS program offers an undergraduate minor and a graduate certificate to students who complete the requisite courses. STS holds events on topics of interest in the field and supports its graduate students through workshops, reading groups and small grants. On the level of methodology and approach, both programs teach students a number of critical frameworks and methods to examine the interactions between technology, science, biology and human society.
There are, however, a few main differences between the two programs. When I spoke over the phone with John Carson, a professor in the Department of History and the Director of the STS program, he emphasized the disciplinary breadth and historical focus of STS compared to the curriculum in Digital Studies. The field of STS, also called Science and Technology Studies, has been around since at least the 1960s, having grown up around the increasing academic interest in the linkages between science, government, industry and life in society. It claimed a similar field of study as digital studies has today, perhaps an even broader one in comparison.
“We think about things other than the digital,” Carson explained. “And I still want to maintain that the world is not just the digital.”
While it may seem obvious, it became clear to me during the conversation that there is a difference between studying the history of digital technology itself and studying the broader role of technology in history. And indeed, while we certainly have the sense that we are living through a technological revolution, one has to wonder, is the fundamental premise that “digital is different” really justified? Carson was not convinced, comparing the intensifying interest in digital technologies with other recent bursts of enthusiasm.
“A few years ago innovation studies were the rage, and there were programs and departments and centers for innovation studies popping up,” Carson explained. “Now that seems to have suddenly died out. New things have taken over, not that innovation studies have completely gone away, but there was a kind of fad for them at one point. And now maybe it's more internet and digital, you know, again, not surprisingly there's also a lot of people interested in both the technical aspects of the digital and the cultural aspects.”
When taken in historical perspective, the rise of digital studies does take on a different mood. Chalk it up to basic economics: On the demand side, students and faculty draw a circle around “the digital” and express a desire to study it, and on the supply side, universities and external donors fund this new source of knowledge production. Knowledge about digital stuff becomes an ephemeral “hot commodity,” according to Carson, contrasting the more upbeat claims of employability and positive impact on the business world.
However, despite a healthy dose of skepticism, Carson was optimistic about the possible areas of collaboration between STS and the new kid on the block. “(The relationship) is amicable, overlapping in places,” Carson said. “But hopefully, the universe is wide enough so that we can both prosper.”
Given the description of the two programs and the distribution of personnel (faculty in history, medicine, Public Health are overrepresented in STS), there is no expectation of animosity in the near future. As Carson mentioned, there are even faculty members who are affiliated with both, including the aforementioned DSI Director Lisa Nakamura. After all, if the purpose of programs, centers and institutes is to serve as bridges between the disciplines, why should they not also be bridges to one another?
And while it is true that there is a lot of money associated with digital technology these days, the majority of faculty, administrators and students see DSI as a resource to support their academic endeavors. There is always time to lament the commodification of knowledge that has taken over universities or the pressure for researchers to publish in order to advance their careers, but the remarkable potential of DSI, STS and similar programs is to elevate marginalized voices within this system.
To a certain extent, everyone at the University is trying to find a place to call home. Whether it is within a friend group, a student organization or one’s field of study, finding people who support you and places where you feel supported can be life-changing.
When Casidy Campbell, currently a doctoral student in the Department of American Culture, was applying to graduate programs, she knew she wanted to study representations of Black women and girls in digital media. The digital studies component of American Culture was initially appealing because it would let her study the recent internet phenomenon of Black girl magic. Then and now, her work seeks to recount narratives of Black girlhood and articulate the particular challenges and pitfalls of being a Black woman in America — a potentially thankless task in an academic system that continues to devalue the work of Black women.
When I called Campbell to discuss her experience as a graduate student affiliated with the DSI, I still had a nagging feeling there was a dark underbelly of the Institute that I had yet to discover. Everything about DSI sounded too good to be true, though perhaps I was being too critical (a common pathology plaguing both journalists and social scientists).
However, as I listened to Campbell I started to feel more optimistic.
“I think out of all the things, well, since I have been here at U of M, and all the things I've gone through as a Black woman in academia, the Digital Studies Institute has been sort of a safe haven for me,” Campbell told me during our phone conversation.
This was an exceptional thing to hear. However, as Campbell continued to explain that she had access to a robust network of academic and professional support. For instance, funding is available for graduate students to conduct research, and the DSI sponsors visits to archives such as the Library of Congress. The DSI has also offered her opportunities to progress as a professional academic. During her first year, she delivered a “lightning talk” about her research, a rare experience that gave her exposure to members of the department and helped foster a sense of community. Campbell also participated in discussions and helped with the establishment of the DSI. The genuine opportunity to help shape the future of DSI as a graduate student reflects a high level of trust, openness and collaboration on the part of faculty and administrators, and Campbell herself attributes much of the Institute’s success to its leadership.
“I think if it was maybe run by somebody else then I would also have a raised eyebrow,” Campbell said. “But I think with someone like Lisa Nakamura, who lives what she writes about and practices what she preaches as a feminist scholar, as a woman of color ... The institute, in the ways that it has been erected, reflects how she chooses to operate in the world.”
While it is easy to be cynical about the intentions of centers, programs and institutes given their history, each case should be analyzed on its own merit. And, as Campbell rightly pointed out, the people are what make the difference. Even within the economic imperatives of the modern university, those within the system can find ways to resist these imperatives from within; to examine, critique and evaluate them, and receive compensation for their efforts. Reflecting further on her own experience, Campbell made a remark that, for me, constitutes a bottom line for why institutions like the DSI are ultimately worth our support.
“I've gotten tons of support for my work and the way that I think, and encouragement for the way that I think in the institute,” Campbell said, stressing the importance of that encouragement. “I'm not saying it's not without fault. I just think that, you know, relative to other spaces, and from what I have heard from other Black women academics in other spaces, I think it’s not too bad. You know what I'm saying? It's not that bad. And I'll take that.”