Culture and humanities in the maturing digital era

Introductory talk at the 10th Winter School of the Estonian Graduate School of Culture Studies and Arts

This winter school is generally about the ‘digital condition’ and the role of arts and culture within it. To discuss this, we need first to consider culture. There are, of course, tens of different definitions of culture, but if we see culture as a very heterogeneous system of meanings that evolves and changes through communication between people and between different subsystems, then of course, the digital condition changes, and has changed, everything.

What digital materiality and mediation mean for culture is often conflicting and full of paradoxes. However, we must start from somewhere:

  • Firstly, it is simply about the affordance of storing data (that is, potentially meaningful material).
  • Then, it is about interlinking those meaningful units, which may change their relationships. This is what is happening in contemporary cultural databases, where changing metadata schemas and algorithms are facilitating the changes in these relationships. However, paradoxically, there’s also a risk of fixing those relationships, of making them permanent and channelling them – as digital links fix only a select few of the relationships, potentially reducing the degrees of interpretative freedom, diminishing the relative openness and casualness of meaning that is associated with analogue cultures.
  • However, it is also, of course, about easing communications. Digital networks enable new communication channels between people and cultural subsystems and make it easier for people to access information and meanings.
  • The latter also makes it easier to interconnect meaning systems, to combine cultural forms and epistemic communities and in this way, to create new meanings and forms, new identities and new creative communities.

As said, when making interconnections between a culture’s texts and when (re-)combining the forms and conventions, new ones tend to emerge. So, digitality can also be seen as a process that leads to textual innovation. Examples include:

  • New forms of interactive and networked literature started to emerge in the late 80s when Apple introduced the HyperCard, which motivated new experiments in digital poetry and hypertextual writing.
  • There are new forms of interactive film (while they have a long history, it is only now that this form is taking off). There’s also YouTube, which is, effectively, a hypertextual video network that facilitates new kinds of sub-systems and continuities in culture.
  • For music, Spotify is having a similar effect, especially its playlists, which create new combinations, new cultural continuities, new practices and, perhaps, also new musical identities and forms of belonging and social organising.
  • There are also the new hybrid forms, for instance, the many contemporary videogames that increasingly combine the conventions of filmic storytelling with many other interactive and participatory digital formats and conventions.
  • Lastly, on a higher level, the cultural process of linking and combining texts and a culture’s subsystems is increasingly known as transmedia communication. Transmediality can be understood as a broader phenomenon consisting of numerous practices, but increasingly codified practices of transmedia storytelling have also emerged. These bring us well-designed storyscapes, such as the Star Wars universe and many others.

However, such interlinking and innovation is often seen as intensifying time. And also making time irrelevant. On the one hand, change has become more rapid and cultures are not getting much time to digest the changes. There is only little time for the new forms, concepts and relationships to solidify. Our meaning systems appear to many as constantly unearthed and unstable, which causes many of the contemporary conflicts. However, there’s also the squeezing of time, as texts from different eras are becoming interconnected in the databases. Old texts are easily accessible and becoming recombined with those from different eras. Thus, suddenly, the time between them no longer matters. Time has become abstract. Databases create their own times, temporary ‘micro-times’ as it has been also put.

So, times change. What does this mean for the humanities? On the one hand, we have new and better tools to study changes over time:

  • By using data or network science to explore digitised resources, we can study in new ways the relationships in and between past times. This is the kind of work we are doing more and more at Tallinn University (CUDAN).
  • However, we should take very seriously what such relativity of time means for contemporary culture. What does it mean for innovation and creativity? What does it mean for cultural memory formation? What does it mean for identities? And so on.

When we study contemporary cultures and their synchronic dynamics, we can see that the digital condition is an intensification of communication, dialogue and interchange. However, paradoxically, digital condition is also about auto-communication, which is still counterintuitive for digital cultural myths. With this I refer to closures, bubbles, echo chambers, the intensification of institutional or community auto-communications, the digging into digitised archives to celebrate one’s own pasts and the day-in-day-out confirmation of established genealogies.

Yet, there are also the many dialogues. Thus, there is a need to study the communications, dialogues and interchanges between different cultural subdomains. What does the digital mediation and the digital channels of communication mean for this dynamic? Some argue that mobile social media constituted the new communication channels that enabled the Arab Spring to happen ten years ago. If so, then what are the roles of the new decentralised communication platforms and the new cultural forms of meaning in the current events in Belarus and Russia?

Of course, in this context, we need to emphasise that the digital condition is as much about decentralisation as it is about centralisation. To a very significant extent, platformisation is shaping the modern internet.

  • Platformisation is almost automated in digital culture, as in economic terms, digital culture operates with information goods that favour economies of scale. Plus: the networked communications condition also ‘network externalities’ – in terms of utility for users it makes always sense to join the biggest network. So, a few networks grow while others don’t.
  • We use these dominant networks and platforms, and we feel empowered by their participatory and interactive affordances. However, at the same time, we provide data about our lives and desires to those platforms, which then use us and our data for their operations. Such data collection and use for further decision making is called datafication of society/culture.
  • The risks of datafication are apparent. Not only does it undermine our privacy, but the data collected is, also, unavoidably flawed. Data is always a summary of cultural complexities; it is a simplification. In terms of Juri Lotman, it is a simpler secondary modelling system. Such simpler models are good for noticing phenomena that otherwise we would not. However, in terms of Umberto Eco, data models are also, unavoidably, destined to lie. In the humanities, we need to become critically aware of how such models work in culture and the injustices they produce. To think about the risks, we have invited Professor Lina Dencik, the head of the Data Justice Lab at Cardiff University, to give a plenary talk on these issues.

We need to consider the risks, especially because digital culture is often framed by its futurisms. It is generally framed by optimism, expressed in the attempts to consider solutions for existing problems. For this it is also accused of ignorant ‘solutionism’ (by Yevgeni Morozov). Yet, we should not downplay the solution-orientedness, but emphasise the value systems that the solutions should be based on and driving. Humanities are very well placed to work on these value systems. As well as to address the cultural complexities that may be sometimes overseen.

Therefore, if we discuss critically, for instance, datafication and platformisation, then we should also ask: Are we going to be satisfied with more of the same or does something need to change?

Topics for the rather immediate future include:

  • What impact will the installation of 5G networks around the world have?
  • How will these networks enable the Internet of Things?
  • Will the 5G networks also make possible a spatial storyworld or spatial web (the “metaverse” or the “mirror world” to use the current industry-driven terms) based on augmented reality (AR)?
  • Will blockchain really be able to facilitate the decentralisation of the platformised internet?
  • Should there be limits to automation and the use of AI technologies in the governance of our cultural lifeworlds?

Based on these examples of future topics, perhaps one of the central questions for researchers of the digital condition of the future could be: What does it really mean to live in the metaverse or mirror world?

When planning our digital lives, what comes to the front is the relationship between the humanities and post-humanist thinking, because the further intertwining of technological and biological systems continues to emphasise the limits and limitedness of what it means to be human. However, I suggest the humanities should be driving this questioning and the necessary interdisciplinary dialogues. There is increasingly a need for a humanities-driven dialogue between biosciences and computer sciences, an area in which Estonia is well positioned due to its strong research traditions in biosemiotics and now also in cultural data analytics.

However, a research tradition that has not been much pursued in Estonian universities is the material study of digital culture, the studies of the machinery, the apparatuses, the ‘stuff’ that the signs, texts and meanings are made of. These machines then condition in specific ways what the texts and the meanings are really like. Here I am talking broadly about the various approaches within the broader domain of new materalism, more specifically, approaches such as media ecology, software studies and media archaeology. Due to this lack, we have put some emphasis on this topic in this winter school (such as the keynotes by professors Katherine N. Hales, Jussi Parikka and David Berry).

All in all, what does the digital condition mean for the students of the arts and humanities? It means studying the changing forms of culture, but also the dynamically changing relationships in culture. There are new tools, but also a need for a heightened reflexivity and critical stance towards these tools. It also means that there are new questions about the boundaries of culture and questions about if and how we should pursue the new interdisciplinary dialogues. There are new questions about the purpose of the humanities today. What is their role in the hierarchy and system of contemporary sciences?

Indrek Ibrus, 25.01.2021

This is a space for the Tallinn University research project on how data technologies such as Semantic Web and bockchain can be used for creating public value in cultural industries.