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NULab Spring Conference 2021 Recap

By Talia Brenner, Caroline Grand, Vaishali Kushwaha, Milan Skobic, Adam Tomasi, and Julianna Wessels

The NULab’s fourth annual Spring Conference, “Data and Social Justice,” brought together an exciting group of faculty, graduate students, and researchers discussing their recent findings and ongoing projects at an all-day event on April 9. Uta Poiger, Dean of the College of Social Sciences and Humanities and Professor of History at Northeastern, opened the conference by commending the NULab for supporting scholarship that “combines the humanistic and technological for exciting collaborations,” and these interdisciplinary collaborations were on display during each of the conference panels.

Patricia J. Williams, University Distinguished Professor of Law and Humanities, delivered a powerful and urgent keynote address. Drawing on her current research in legal and ethical issues in technological platforms, Williams described the effects of unregulated social media platforms. She argued that large tech companies set up their own small sovereignties which, due to the lack of regulation, are unaccountable to the broader public. This lack of accountability enables social media companies to create a “psychic trap” that trades on human anxieties and our worst instincts. Williams argued that social media breeds fear and loneliness, while synchronizing people’s emotions to an unprecedented degree. She particularly emphasized the rapid speed of social media, a temporal bending that invites unexpected outcomes and a sense of uncertainty. Citing philosopher Paul Virilio, Williams described how the synchronization of social media makes people immobile. 

According to Williams, these issues are not exclusively limited to digital technologies. She shared a personal anecdote from her own high school experience of an anonymous, analog “Facebook” that was a site of cruel bullying. Social media, however, has exacerbated these human tendencies towards fear and cruelty. Today’s version of Facebook, Willaims argued, “retains aspects of that sophomore instrument of revenge.” She maintained that this situation is not accidental. Our current moment is not the “mere mismanagement or broken norms or even as corruption,” she said, but rather “the intentional inducement of paralysis.” Williams detailed how this social media situation has promoted a right-wing “imagined hellscape” in the United States, where people believe they are under attack from a dangerous other. This lonely panic has facilitated the reemergence of frontier individualism among right-wing groups, who promote an extreme definition of liberty that privileges individuals’ feelings over the common good. In this landscape, even realities like the ongoing coronavirus pandemic are regarded as questions of individual choice.

Williams concluded her address with a call to action. We can resolve these problems, she insisted, although doing so will require expansive thinking. The future has only been artificially “foreclosed by the technological choices made in the engineering and design of these platforms,” she said. In the Q&A session that followed Williams’s address, participants commented on the affective dimensions of her argument and asked follow-up questions. Williams reiterated that the current state of right-wing politics in the United States is a combination of long-term historical trends and the more recent effects of social media. She also specified that there should be more congressional oversight of social media platforms and extremism. The harmful algorithms are fixable by law, she explained, but this process will be complex.

The first panel, “Race, Space, and Place,” was moderated by David Lazer, NULab Co-Director and University Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Computer Sciences, and Sarah Connell, NULab Assistant Director. Participating in this panel were Olly Ayers, Senior Lecturer in History and the Director of Graduate Studies at the New College of the Humanities at Northeastern (London, England); Jessica Linker, Assistant Professor of History at Northeastern; Ángel David Nieves, Professor of Africana Studies, History, and Digital Humanities and Director of Public Humanities at Northeastern; and Matthew Simonson, a PhD candidate in Network Science at Northeastern.

Ayers’ project, “Mapping Black London in World War II,” uses an ArcGIS StoryMap to represent the large and vibrant Black community in London during the interwar years. Ayers, in collaboration with graduate students, visualizes this history to complicate the idea that “Britain’s encounter with race” began with postwar decolonization. The StoryMap includes multiple layers that visualize Black residences and other key locations in Black London through individual markers and heat maps. Another historical visualization project, Linker and Nieves’s “Building 3D Historical Black Boston,” virtually reconstructs Black abolitionist David Walker’s home at 8 Belknap St. (now 81 Joy St.), on the north slope of Beacon Hill during the early nineteenth century. Working with a team of undergraduate and graduate researchers, Linker and Nieves are developing a prototype of an “annotative and interactive” virtual reality space that represents the material culture of David Walker’s home, his clothing business, and the Black community of nineteenth-century Beacon Hill. Their research is supported by a Fall 2020 NULab Seedling Grant. Simonson’s project, “Black Networks Matter,” reviewed survey data from participants in the Black Lives Matter movement during the summer of 2020. He collected this data in collaboration with The COVID States Project, alongside Lazer, and found that protest participants represented a “broad interracial coalition spanning half the ideological spectrum,” and were inspired by the “strong informal ties” of Black people and young people.

A slide from Linker and Nieves’s presentation on “Building 3D Historical Black Boston.” Image courtesy Jessica Linker and Ángel David Nieves.

The second panel, “Speculative Knowledge,” was moderated by Elizabeth Maddock Dillon, NULab Co-Director and Distinguished Professor of English at Northeastern. Participating in this panel were Nicole Aljoe, Associate Professor of English and Africana Studies and Director of the Africana Studies Program at Northeastern; Avery Blankenship, a PhD student in English at Northeastern; K.J. Rawson, Associate Professor of English and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Northeastern; Cailin Roles, a PhD student in English at Northeastern; Eamon Schlotterback, an PhD candidate in English at Northeastern; and David Smith, Associate Professor of Computer Science at Northeastern.

Aljoe and Blankenship presented their ongoing work on “The Fugitive Caribbean Project,” a project of the Early Caribbean Digital Archive. The project is working to develop a digitized text database of fugitive slave ads in the Barbados Mercury from 1762–1848. The ads, slight but evocative documents, invite the audience to read between the lines and engage in the process of “critical fabulation,” as coined by Sadiya Hartman, as a means of decolonizing the archive, resisting objectification, and empowering the records. Next, Rawson, Roles, and Schlotterback presented their work with the Digital Transgender Archive, a free online repository for trans-related historical materials. The archive engages with “trans-ing” gender as a practice, and not as an identity term; nevertheless, Rawson, Roles, and Schlotterback recognize the necessity of speculation when creating metadata for Digital Transgender Archive materials. Leaving subjects’ gender identity unrecognized can lead to systematic erasure and render materials unfindable, they explained, but there are also many complexities when assigning identities. Rawson, Roles, and Schlotterback recognize that “best practices” are not universal, and work against Library of Congress name authority records so that their metadata can accommodate name changes and variations, thus respecting their subjects’ different presentations and making resources with different names findable. Finally, Smith presented his work on natural language processing to demonstrate that “uncritical” fabulation has a long history in the humanities and continues in the present day. Using an example from Goethe, Smith demonstrated the ways in which human translators engage in speculation and fabulations about imagery and meaning in the works they translate. Machine translators as well as human translators engage in these fabulations, and Smith invited participants to think critically about the inferences made when both humans and machines reuse source materials.

The third and final panel, “Good Data/Data for the [Public] Good,” was moderated by Brooke Foucault Welles, Associate Professor of Communication Studies. Participating in this panel were Rahul Bhargava, Assistant Professor of Journalism and Art + Design at Northeastern and a Research Affiliate in the Data + Feminism Lab at MIT; Angeles Martinez Cuba, an MA student in Urban Studies and Planning at MIT and a Research Assistant in the Data + Feminism Lab; Tieanna Graphenreed, a PhD student in English at Northeastern; and Meg Heckman, Assistant Professor of Journalism at Northeastern.

Bhargava and Martinez Cuba presented their process of co-design in the computation of femicide data in Latin America, the Caribbean, and beyond as a means of “counterdata” collection. Their team has been working with grassroots movements collecting femicide data across the Americas to develop digital tools that augment, reinforce, and support their work. They highlighted challenges such as limited resources, media bias, missing data, and irrelevant results. In response, they have created an email alerts tool and data highlighter tool for these activist movements in order to increase their volume of relevant data and ease the manual labor of extracting it. Next, Graphenreed presented her ongoing work on the archiving of The Brownies’ Book, the first African-American children’s periodical, piloted by and featuring the work of leading Harlem Renaissance writers and poets. Graphenreed’s Annotated Index aims to recover The Brownies’ Book from obscurity and interrogate the ways in which unnamed child authorship in the periodical can be represented in archival metadata. Though many child authors in The Brownies’ Book direct and advise the nature of the content in the periodical, they go unacknowledged. Graphenreed underscored that this omission demonstrates that data collection is not a neutral practice and that who gets represented in metadata makes a difference. Finally, Heckman presented her work on journalistic reconstruction in filling in archival gaps in the online news documentation of the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing. Heckman explained that the attack occurred when many large news organizations first began publishing online. However, due to the obsolescence of these technologies and a lack of long-term data storage infrastructure, no archival remnants exist of this watershed event for online news. Heckman has been using the practice of journalistic reconstruction to respond to these absences. Her process involves interviewing people who reported the event and examining descriptions in trade publications to reconstruct these websites and their news ledes, creating an alternative archaeology for the historical record.

Dan Cohen, Dean of Libraries, Vice Provost for Information Collaboration, and Professor of History at Northeastern, provided the conference closing. Cohen highlighted a common motivation and question behind all of the projects showcased: how can we apply humane values to data-focused projects? Cohen invited conference participants and attendees to explore the ways in which the lessons of the conference projects—including an appreciation for nuance, context, and compassionate values—might be useful in non-academic settings.

The Spring Conference was an exciting showcase of digital scholarship at Northeastern and a catalyst for conversations about future projects. The current cohort of NULab fellows wants to acknowledge the 2019–2020 cohort, whose hard work planning the 2020 Spring Conference was unfortunately lost when the conference was cancelled at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. We’re grateful to have been able to conduct the all-day event in an entirely virtual setting this year and look forward to when we can again hold the NULab Spring Conference in person.

Resources shared during the conference:

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