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Data and culture come together in realms beyond just archiving (but there’s lots of archiving), plus a local band serves up dystopian mythology (and primal screams).
The role of data in the way humans develop relationships with the arts and humanities is at the helm of understanding modern, digital cultural literacy.
Erin Glass, digital scholarship librarian at the UC San Diego Library and founder of KNIT — a non-proprietary academic “digital commons” style social network for San Diego — first unintentionally embarked on her career when she went off the grid. She moved to an entirely rural, unplugged lifestyle: working on small, organic farms and writing and reading in the evenings.
“Turns out, however, life without technology isn’t as peaceful and intellectually dreamy as I had hoped,” Glass said. Instead, she felt isolated. “Digital technology, I realized, wasn’t likely an evil in and of itself; what mattered more was the interests it served, and who had the power to shape it.”
Digital humanities is an area of research and study that applies humanities methodology to tech and, in a bit of a chicken vs. egg situation, applies technology to the humanities methods, Glass said.
One approach, said Robert Twomey, a postdoctoral researcher at the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination, is to use data-driven techniques like computational analysis to study and process existing works of art — which could quantify or track anything from process or materials to engagement. Another approach is to use the digital tools to make art, whether it’s work inspired by tech or an actual automation.
This sense of data-driven artistic generation is bigger than just programming a bot to write like Shakespeare. It’s the ways in which analytics and algorithms influence or dictate the work that’s created next. In a ratings, awards and hype-obsessed culture, that isn’t particularly new.
“We, as humans, cannot perceive the contents and shape of vast digital collections, which means we need computational analysis and visualization tools,” said Twomey, which requires data scientists as well as public data literacy.
“We wanted to create a space where folks from across the arts and humanities could consider the cultural implications of data. As the datafication of society increases, it’s vital that we amplify diverse perspectives on its consequences and opportunities,” said Glass.
The frontiers of technology are increasingly within consumer reach: smartphones, smart home tech, social media, photo manipulation apps, digital assistants we’re on a first-name basis with, etc.
“I became particularly interested in the way that our everyday digital technology normalizes — or teaches us — to accept certain digital power dynamics as natural and inevitable,” Glass said, pointing out that the surveillance and forfeiting of control do not need to be necessary elements to smart technology’s influence in daily life.
Storage, access and surveillance complicate data use, and surveillance in turn can shape the very digital culture it is watching. Glass said that people feel powerless about stopping, changing or consenting to unchecked monitoring of social or creative practices.
“As we’ve seen play out in the headlines, this has led to concerns over the future of everything from human privacy to the democratic project,” Glass said. But she adds that data science and analysis have the potential to solve major global problems.
Twomey is also fascinated by both sides of the surveillance coin, and advocates for more robust data literacy to protect the privacy and autonomy of communities from constant digital surveillance. Still, he approaches his work with curiosity.
“There is a long history of machines as surrogates or computers as interlocutors as a way to elicit new understandings about ourselves,” he said.
Part of the work of digital librarians is balancing the ways in which communities archive their own cultural artifacts as well as the mundane, like emails, chats and photos. “There are very real questions about who decides what is and isn’t archived as culture — what counts, literally — as well as who controls access, licensing, etc. for those new cultural archives,” said Twomey.
“My goal is to get folks working in the arts and humanities to see that the crisis we face now is not technological, but a crisis of the imagination,” Glass said.
What is being done to achieve this? In founding KNIT, the non-commercial, non-predatory social network for academics, Glass hopes that UC San Diego — and arts-oriented people — can lead the way in developing these alternatives. Glass and Twomey are also currently working with the campus to develop and host a new “Cultured Data” symposium to study and share innovations in February.
“If we are to build a digital world that truly serves democracy, creativity and the well-being of all, we need the arts and humanities to help us imagine what that might look like,” said Glass.
San Diego two-piece band Blood Ponies serves up fresh disorder and dystopia, and lucky for your doom-filled hearts, their first full-length, “Hoax,” comes out on Friday.
Hoaxes — and mythology in general — are integral to the album. Drummer Candice Renee said things like spirit photography and chain letters share common ground with their music.
“We’re so willing to believe! Even when our rational selves know better. Even when faced with evidence to the contrary. We’re willing to buy into something supernatural or conspiratorial when most of the time there’s a much simpler truth,” she said.
“Hoax” interplays the occasional primal scream (perfect for your commute) with highly stylized sonic layers. The vocal melodies sometimes evoke Joy Division or Nick Cave, but often feel a bit harder to pin down: a little punk, a little rock, a dash of brooding, and it ends up feeling relatable and listenable. And, like a hoax, a little bit untrustworthy.
“Most of our songs are some combination of spooky stories you’d tell after dark and reflections on real things happening right now,” said guitarist and vocalist Jeff Cesare. “‘The Body’ could be about faking your own death or it could be about grooming a political candidate. ‘Hostile Takeover’ could be about vampires or it could be about capitalism.”
San Diego’s local dark music world — once a seedy subculture — is now a burgeoning and accepted scene. “We had a lot of surfy garage rock stuff for a while, and I think the music community was just ready for something a little less sunny,” said Cesare. Renee thinks there’s more to it. “I think that typically laid-back San Diego attitude also has a positive effect on the artistic community, because there’s less of a sense of the elitist gatekeeping that can sometimes come with goth culture,” she said.
Their record release show, this Saturday at Vinyl Junkies Record Shack in South Park, will also feature the art of local photographer Becky DiGiglio (known for her spirit photography-esque style of capturing local musicians), DJs and an actual medium.
Mediums and spirit photography are not just party favors for Blood Ponies.
“Whether it’s political fraud, financial fraud or just social fraud and the performative versions of ourselves that we post online, we’re all creating and interacting with our technology to create cultural folklores in essentially the same way throughout history,” said Renee.
Watch the video for their latest single, “Submit/Surrender,” directed by San Diego’s Evan McGinnis.