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NU Books from the NULab

By Jeff Sternberg

On November 19th at Northeastern University’s Alumni Center, five NULab faculty members presented on their new books, discussing their reasons for writing and the roles of the NULab in their work. These books are on a variety of subjects that include hashtag activism, deliberative democracy, and the urban commons, but they all share common concerns with the place of technology in research and society.

#Hashtag Activism: Networks of Race and Gender Justice, Moya Bailey, co-authored with Brooke Foucault Welles and Sarah Jackson. 

Moya Bailey, Assistant Professor of Cultures, Societies, and Global Studies and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Northeastern, presented on her book #HashtagActivism, co-authored with Brooke Foucault Welles and Sarah J. Jackson. Bailey started her presentation by remarking that the NULab made their book possible by providing support and encouragement. The authors initially struggled with whether this book project was a good use of their time when their fields prioritize journal articles and solo-authored monographs. Bailey remarked that the NULab pushed them to commit to the book project, providing both the initial space where the idea for the book was conceived as well as seed funding and mentorship to carry the project forward. This project began a few years ago, sparked by an interest in trying to understand the increased occurrences of hashtag activism they were witnessing.

Outlining the structure of the book, Bailey described how it contains case studies focusing on different hashtags and their uses in activist environments. Bailey and her co-authors found that their preconceptions about activist hashtags changed fundamentally during the writing process, leading to new and important insights. For example, they had thought digital ally-ship would be a dominant part of hashtags’ spread and evolution; instead, they found that many hashtags were created by people directly affected by acts of injustice and gained momentum primarily with help from their communities. The authors grounded their claims by involving activists in writing for the case studies in the book. The seedling grant from the NULab made it possible for the authors to pay these activists for their contributions, and thus recognize the significance of their work. Bailey emphasized the importance of bringing in activist voices and perspectives, noting that creators of digital content have often found that academics take their stories and use them for their own purposes. For Bailey and her co-authors, the book was always intended to highlight the work these activists do, which is why it was crucial to include their direct contributions and compensate them for their labor. Bailey closed by asserting that #HashtagActivism exists as a project only because of these digital content creators and activists.

The Shape of Data in Digital Humanities: Modeling Texts and Text-based Resources, Julia Flanders, co-edited with Fotis Jannidis

Julia Flanders, NULab Interim Co-director and Professor of the Practice in English, presented next on her book The Shape of Data in Digital Humanities, co-edited with Fotis Jannidis. Flanders began by explaining that this book resulted from a conversation she had with researchers and practitioners in a digital humanities workshop about the need for a text on data modeling focused on practical applications for the digital humanities. At the end of this conversation, Flanders came away feeling that “somebody should write this.” Ultimately, Flanders and Jannidis decided that they would take on this project.

Flanders noted that while the book project started before she came to Northeastern, in interacting with Northeastern students and faculty, she gained a better understanding of who the book was for. The broad spectrum of research and themes covered under the umbrella of the work done at the NULab, including its emphasis on the digital humanities and computational social science, helped her to better understand the needs that the book was intended to meet.

Flanders explained that this book attempts to help practitioners and researchers think about what it means to do data modeling and analysis in digital humanities. She then referenced a few particular chapters, such as one Jannidis wrote about foundational concepts for data modeling, and another chapter by Ben Schmidt on modeling time. There are also chapters on modeling space, algorithms, text analysis tools, and more. In closing, Flanders expressed her gratitude to her contributors and her excitement about how their work came together in the final form of this book.

Politics with the People: Building a Directly Representative DemocracyDavid Lazer, co-authored with Michael A. Neblo and ‎Kevin M. Esterling

David Lazer, NULab Co-Director and University Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Computer and Information Sciences at Northeastern University, presented on his book Politics with the People, co-authored with Michael A. Neblo and ‎Kevin M. Esterling. Lazer began by describing the book’s cover photo: the US Capitol under reconstruction, emphasizing this was an important moment when democracy was challenged and then reconciled. Today we are in a similar situation, in which existential threats to democracy have been multiplying. He explained that this book chronicles a set of experiments in democracy that use the technological achievements of the past few decades in an attempt to meet threats to democracy head-on. Lazer and his co-authors secured the buy-in of government agencies and legislators in the performance of their experiments, creating grounds for truly novel forms of collaboration.

One of the main forms of collaboration was experimentation with digital town halls where participating legislators were assigned to constituencies, an attempt to update the format of the town hall in the digital age. Lazer argued that the digital town halls demystified the policy process while also calling attention to its complexities, helping citizens see that not all problems can be fixed through simply “draining the swamp.” Participants reported that they learned that policy is complicated and even well-intentioned politicians face significant challenges in writing good policy. This went both ways because politicians recognized the ways that citizen participation can be used to shape better policies.

Moving away from this specific example, Lazer returned to the larger contributions and implications of Politics with the People: we can improve democracy by rewiring it. By introducing new technologies to existing democratic institutions, we can help make democracy function better. Lazer closed his talk by discussing the role of the NULab in making this book, and the other books discussed in this panel, possible. The NULab creates spaces (including the “NU Books” event itself) that do not exist in most of academia due to the ways in which institutions are siloed. One of the most important things the NULab does is connecting people, facilitating both better knowledge production and more participatory and democratic processes like those discussed in his book.

The Urban Commons: How Data and Technology Can Rebuild Our Communities, Daniel T. O’Brien

Daniel T. O’Brien, Associate Professor of Public Policy and Urban Affairs and Criminology and Criminal Justice; and Co-Director of the Boston Area Research Initiative, presented his new monograph, The Urban Commons. O’Brien focuses on the role of data in cities, saying that the format of the book functions as a platform for making a big, coherent statement that reaches beyond academic journal articles. He looks at the current state of data use in cities at three different levels of analysis: individuals and communities, institutions, and the larger urban context as a whole.

At the individual or community level, O’Brien discussed the case study of Boston’s 311 service. 311 is a non-emergency public service where people can report public space problems like broken streetlights, potholes, or damaged playground equipment. The 311 service is, therefore, a method of shared-space caretaking. O’Brien has found that people use 311 because they have a sense of shared ownership over their neighborhoods and community environments.

O’Brien extended his argument to the institutional level with the example of the Boston Area Research Initiative (BARI) which is an interdisciplinary and interuniversity collaboration between researchers, policymakers, practitioners, and civic leaders to bridge the gaps amongst data, research, policy, and impact. The final level of O’Brien’s analysis considers the rise and importance of urban informatics, and speculates on where modern cities are headed in their data usage. As so-called “smart cities” continue to dominate the news on urban spaces, The Urban Commons is a critical tool for understanding the theory and mechanics of data usage for city communities and institutions.

The Social Fact: News and Knowledge in a Networked World, John P. Wihbey

John P. Wihbey, Assistant Professor of Journalism and Media Innovation and Co-Director of Northeastern’s Co-Laboratory for Data Impact, discussed his new book The Social Fact: News and Knowledge in a Networked World, which also features work by NULab Faculty members Moya Bailey and David Lazer. Wihbey presented his book as a window into today’s world of easily accessible knowledge, but also misinformation. In The Social Fact, Wihbey details what he believes to be the role of journalists in the contemporary political environment, reconciling the need for journalists to serve simultaneously as information brokers, civic institutions, and links between citizens and their government.

To situate his own research, Wihbey referenced the 1920s debate between the journalist Walter Lippmann and the philosopher John Dewey on the role of journalism and information in modern democracy. The debate was a conflict between top-down and bottom-up views of journalism’s role in democracy. Lippmann argued in his book Public Opinion that more information does not necessarily produce a more informed citizenry capable of meeting the requirements of democracy. According to Lipmann, most high-level journalism is lost on the average citizen. Instead, he advocated for the introduction of a top-down, technocratic, information division of the government staffed by policy experts and scientists. Dewey disagreed with Lippmann’s conclusions, arguing that political knowledge comes instead through active discourse among citizens. In Dewey’s framing, the role of the press is not to serve as an information dispenser, but instead to provide a vital link between citizens and the government.

In The Social Fact, Wihbey attempts to reconcile Lippmann and Dewey’s arguments. He argues that journalists can help citizens better understand the stakes of democratic participation. Knowing the stakes will then incentivize learning political information and engaging with other people to build political knowledge. Learning and engagement then helps people understand common ties. The role of journalism in our misinformation-rich political environment is to help educate people on the stakes of democracy so that they will engage with one another as active and informed participants in a democratic society.

Following these presentations was a discussion and reception, in which one key theme emerged: interdisciplinary collaborations produce important, timely, and innovative research projects. We look forward to hosting many more “NU Books from the NULab” events in the years to come!

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