Learning to love the digital in order to understand the world

I was fumbling around for a way into a blog post this week, and was inspired by my classmate Judith’s entry; “If it’s boring, it’s important”, which made me laugh as it’s so painfully true.*

That said, I am loving they way that DITA is being taught, it puts a whole new spin on things that have otherwise never interested me, and I am certainly not finding it boring.  In fact it has me seriously questioning the ways in which I have ever been taught about digital technology in the past!  Ernesto’s slideshow for our last lecture on “Archiving, Understanding and Visualising Twitter data” is a good example of this “angle”, ending with a cartoon by Randall Munroe, creator of xkcd.com which has two stick figures in a dark and empty landscape full of possibilities saying “Let’s find out”.  Ultimately, all of this is about being curious and having questions, and using information, such as from Twitter, to find out about the world we live in.  When information technology is looked at in this way, it is much less daunting.

Having my mind opened up in this way is leading to some important realisations.  For example, it now seems clear to me that leaving Twitter data out of the equation when analysing modern communication networks, topics which groups of people care about, and the way current events unfold which will one day be of historical importance, is bordering on irresponsible.  As Ernesto Priego says in his blogpost ‘Twitter as public evidence and the ethics of Twitter research’, “these days what’s unethical is not to use Twitter as a research tool”.  Indeed, the Library of Congress signed an agreement with Twitter in 2010, which gave them access to an archive of public tweets from 2006 – 2010, and Twitter continue to provide the Library with access to public tweets to this day.   On the Library of Congress website, it is explained that the reason for this is that the Library’s core mission is to “collect the story of America”, demonstrating the importance of social media-as-document, and consequently in the way in which we understand our world.  As Lyn Robinson states in ‘The future of documents’, networked technology is only going to become more pervasive, and as such social media will not be going away any time soon.  Furthermore, the role Twitter and other social media play in political protest and world-changing events is the subject of much recent debate in the media, and even when the position is taken that it’s actually not very important, such as this article by Laurie Penny for the New Statesman, ‘Revolts don’t have to be Tweeted’, Twitter et al is still central to the discussion.  Either way, social media can’t be ignored.

That said, I had never used Twitter until I needed to for #citylis and therefore I remain skeptical about privileging Twitter (though I do understand that it is the public nature of Twitter which affords itself to the study of it in the context of a classroom). Adding to my skepticism is my experience working in a public youth Library in New Zealand. It was the early 2000s and Bebo and MySpace were new on the scene. Interestingly, many of my peers who lived in the central city and were interested in punk music took to using MySpace, while almost all of the kids who used the library (which was based in an economically underprivileged suburb), and who generally listened to hip-hop and R&B used Bebo.  These different groups were having conversations and building communities that didn’t seem to touch each other, though they were all living in the same city. And to this day I don’t quite understand why one social media platform would be chosen over the other on the basis of socio-cultural/economic factors, given that both were free.

I am therefore finding myself quite drawn to literature which points out the biases which occur in analyses of Twitter data, particularly in relation to when these analyses are used to explain social and historical events by the media.

In ‘Assessing the bias in samples of online networks’, Gonzalez-Bailon et al describe their use of the Twitter search API (application programming interface) and the Twitter stream API using various filters to compare what kinds of data each bring up about the Spanish ‘indignados’ protests in 2012.  Probably not surprisingly, they found that smaller samples don’t reveal the diverse array of peripheral activity/conversations that was going on, and their data using the Twitter search API with filters was biased towards the centrality of certain tweets/users.  Unfortunately, unless you are the Library of Congress or some other big organization which can pay for archives of “all” the tweets, you will be limited to smaller samples, and will therefore get a skewed picture of communication networks.

But this brings me back full circle to things that are, if not boring, at least seemingly impenetrable at first glance being the most important. As researchers, librarians, information specialists we need to be able to understand things such as how APIs  work and their inherent limitations in order to best assess the data we collect.  I am also interested thinking about why certain people use Twitter and others don’t and why some groups were using Bebo and others MySpace in the mid-2000s.  How does this affect data visualisation?  You only have to be a New Zealander, and look at the picture of the world-as-connected-by-Facebook on Facebook’s login page and see your country is left out of it, to realise the limitations of Big Data, and remember there is always another story going on beyond the one gleaned from the algorithms.

*Entertaining aside, I shared this link to an article by Charlie Brooker for the Guardian on Judith’s blog, “What is Drip and how, precisely, will it help the government ruin your life?” about the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers bill which Brooker describes as “the most tedious outrage ever”.  This is how They will get us in the end, by boring us to death with things that matter the most.

Digital representation and realness. And Charlie and the chocolate factory.

Hearing the name “Foucault”  in the first DITA lecture gave me the warm fuzzies, as  a while ago I did a post grad diploma in post-structural feminist theory.  I still takes me forever to crack Foucault’s code and figure out what he’s on about (I finished that degree 12 years ago and haven’t picked up a text book since – apart from to shelve it of course), but it’s always a worthwhile process. The concept of the panopticon still frightens me, and I find it interesting that at Birkbeck where I work, they now use lecture capture technology called…panopto…

Ernesto commented in the first DITA lecture than when we digitise a thing it’s as though we atomise it, with the bits coming together as a digital representation of the “thing” on the computer screen. So one of the first things I found myself thinking about in DITA was Mike Teavee in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Desperate to get “on” the TV he is shrunk by a ray and “atomised”, before appearing on/in the television screen.  And of course when he is comes out of the TV, he remains tiny.

This explained a lot to me as a child, how else, after all, did things appear on TV? It was one of those taken-for-granted technologies, just like “the Cloud” is today. (Has anyone else noticed then when most people talk about the Cloud they seem always to look up at the sky and wave their hands about vaguely? If only Roald Dahl was still around to explain it all to us).

The concept of the “realness” of digital representation interests me.  At Birkbeck Library, for example, when we order an article as an inter-library loan from the British Library, it will come as a Secure Electronic Delivery (SED) which is a link that can only be opened once.  The life cycle of this SED is this: the British Library scans an article from the hard copy of one of their books.  They email it as an SED to Birkbeck Library. Birkbeck then opens the file and prints it out again, before re-scanning it, turning it once again into a digital file. The link to this file then gets added to a reading list in a Moodle module.  The student then, more often than not, clicks the link in Moodle and prints the article again, I suppose for ease of reading.  If the article was Mike Teavee it would be absolutely miniscule at the end of this process.

The reason for all the palavar, is, of course, copyright, wherein the restrictions don’t seem to have caught up with the digital age.  The BL doesn’t want Birkbeck to willy nilly distribute the article online, however, printed versions can be photocopied to death, as has been the case for years.  Somehow the digital is more dangerous? And for the student, the printed copy more tangible?


Update to this post: the UK Government has actually made reforms to copyright low specifically to reflect the digital age: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-exceptions-to-copyright-reflect-digital-age.  Of particular interest to me is the way in which these changes have opened the options up for disabled students, as now any students with a disability are legally allowed to modify texts in order to improve accessiblity.