Last week, I was in Washington, D.C. to present our work at the annual conference of the Society for Social Studies of Science. Here is a link to our abstract. The session we were in was organized by Catelijne Koopmans, National University of Singapore, under the title “Data Riches: The Practices and Politics of Exploiting Digital Data Sets’. There were lovely papers by Simon N. Williams, Cardiff University (on the democratic use of digital data in electronic public engagement), Catelijne herself (on how in practices of data handling notions of ‘riches’ are maintained, illustrated via the case of visual analytics), Corinna Bath, Humboldt University Berlin (on gendered orders of knowledge in the semantic web), and Martin Hand & Ashley Scarlett, Queens University (on epistemic and ethical performativity of images in web-based photo-sharing practices). One of the session participants, Denisa Kera, wasn’t able to attend the conference, so unfortunately we had to do without her presentation on data realism of visualizations and application mashups.
Lane DeNicola was kind enough to act as session discussant. Lane works as a lecturer at a newly developed program in digital anthropology at UCL. He did a great job of tying some of the themes together that surfaced in our respective presentations. For our Network Realism project, the digitization processes Lane mentioned as a distinct point of intersection was indeed interesting. He gave the example of the British museum, where a high resolution scanner is used to make 3d visualizations of parts of the collection. These are not only used in the museum, but also for digital repatriation, where the vizualizations are offered for use by indigeneous people. As Lane argued, the process also raises the question of what exactly is left in the artifact itself that the BM wants to hold on to. Lane also raised the issue of the interface, what it does to data when it is presented in visual form, and how that relates to the interpretative power of the human. In addition, he noted that the terminology of data mining presupposes the ‘riches’ we refer to in our session title, while obscuring the interpretative process, and who controls production.
After the session, some of us talked further on how to pursue ethnographic work via networked interactions with our informants, and we discussed possible ways to stay in touch on the topic. There is of course much more to discuss and many more avenues to explore, as there were indeed interesting intersections between several of the presentations. This post is meant as a step in that direction, and as an invitation to all readers to share their thoughts with us.
We will be presenting on the project at two conferences in the Fall. The first will be a presentation on the methodological approach we are developing, in a session organised byElisenda Ardévol and Adolfo Estalella, and with contributions by Sarah Pink (Loughborough University, UK), Francesco Lapenta (Roskilde University, Denmark) as well as by the organisers. The title of our paper is Mediated ethnography and the use of digital and networked images, or ‘How to study ‘network realism’ as visual knowing’, and here is the abstract:
- This paper conveys our methodological approach to the study of ‘network realism’. Network realism is investigated as a particular form of visual knowing around databases of images on the web. This approach was developed drawing on three bodies of work. With regards to visual knowledge, we use work in science and technology studies (Beaulieu, van Dijck, de Rijcke, Daston & Galison, Hine); with regards to the study of visual material, we draw on visual anthropology (Pink, Banks, Edwards& Hart) ; and with regards to digital culture, we are inspired by scholarship on the cultural particularity of digital forms and of the internet (Elkins; Thurtle& Mitchell).
- The project includes four different sites: Funda, a database of real estate in the Netherlands; Flickr as used by scholars of street art; the database of the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam; and the database of the documentation center of the Rijksakademie for visual arts, Amsterdam. We have developed an ethnographic practice in this project that embraces mediated interaction. This means that a range of forms of participant-observation is used in this project, including co-present and face to face interaction, observations of traces left by users in the various databases, and interaction with the various digital infrastructures.
- This diversity enables us to examine four important dimensions of visual knowing:how these databases and the web form a networked context for users and viewers of these images; how images have an active function besides being ‘viewed’, since these databases configure images as interfaces to other kinds of information or to other kinds of activities; how images in these databases become involved in textual and visual practices, through tagging, commenting and annotating; how the use of these images is supported by a particular kind of materiality, (including screens, image file standards, html code, etc) and how these images relate to the collections of material objects at all four sites.
- The presentation will contextualize and illustrate research on each of these four dimensions.
Our second Fall conference will be the Annual Meeting of the Society for the Sociat Study of Science, in a session organised by Catelijne Coopmans on “Data Riches: The Practices and Politics of Exploiting Digital Data Sets”. We will speak on Network Realism as Engagement with Networked Databases of Images, and here are the main points from our abstract:
- In contexts where visual representations are taken as evidence, debates around observation, knowledge and empiricism have always been complex. The development of infrastructures that enable new kinds of manipulation, interaction and circulation of images seem to further challenge their documentary role. Our paper will take as a point of departure the intersection of digital images and computer networks at the point where they purport to convey the ‘real’. It explores the ways in which digital images in networked contexts are produced, treated and valued as sources of knowledge about physical objects. Increasingly, such activities involve a new form of visual knowing that we label network realism. As part of the label, ‘realism’ draws attention to the way these images are involved in practices that are factual, material and consequential. The term ‘network’ invokes the novel contexts and practices around these images. Our paper conceptualizes and investigates this widespread but underexamined use of images, at the intersection of digital and networked technologies. We will discuss preliminary results from field work at four sites where network realism is central: the Rijksakademie for the visual arts; the Tropenmuseum (an ethnographic museum); real estate database Funda; and Flickr as used by scholars who study street art. At each of the fieldsites, images are part of databases and circulate in complex electronic networks in ways that are not reducible to, but are intimately related to their digital format. The manipulation of digital images in networks enables other kinds of knowledge than those possible by physical co-presence with the objects represented. The ethnographic study of interactions with databases provides insight into the specific ways in which users and producers come to know through networked images, in contrast to other forms of visual knowing.
More details on the events page!