Onwards and upwards for Digital Transformations

Tomorrow, a number of researchers involved in the AHRC’s Digital Transformations programme are heading off to the Cotswolds – which, for international viewers, is a pretty bit of the English countryside somewhere near Oxford – to consider what this research programme should do, and what it should become, as it shifts from its smallish first stage to a grander second phase.

AHRC Digital Transformations project leaders

The first stage has involved 18 relatively inexpensive projects: each has a budget of under £30,000 – although of course this adds up to a significant investment when multiplied by 18. I gathered the summaries of these projects into this handy PDF. The projects are running from February to August 2012.

On 30 April we had a meeting of the leaders of this first set of projects, at the University of Westminster. You can see our happy, digitally untransformed faces in the photograph here. Surprisingly, all but one of the project leaders was able to attend, and we were joined by Mark Llewellyn, the AHRC’s Director of Research, and Christie Walker, the AHRC’s Strategy and Development Manager responsible for Digital Transformations.

This first set of projects represent quite a mix of interests. The ‘subject areas’ covered include design, performance, literature and publishing, history and archives. But the whole idea of digital transformations, as far as I’m concerned, involves a disruption of the established notions of arts and humanities disciplines, and happily these projects are cross-cut with themes including co-curation, experimentation, collaboration, platforms, communities of practice, translation, games, IP & rights, and all kinds of general disruption and questioning. Good.

As it steps into its bigger second phase, I fear that some scholars might see the notion of ‘digital transformations’ as a kind of armageddon, where all the things we knew and loved are blasted to bits by the coming of ‘the digital’. Of course that’s not the intention. Arts and humanities research addresses timeless questions about the nature of human identities, communities, and creativity. New technologies do not alter that. But digital technologies bring new issues, and questions, and tools, which can challenge and transform what we are looking at, how the work is done, and how society can engage with it.

In a recent email, the AHRC writes:

With the introduction later in 2012 of a new Large Grants Programme, the Arts and Humanities Research Council will seek to encourage, support and reflect the unique role of Arts and Humanities Research in a period of intensive technological change. The term ‘digital transformation’ is applicable across the breadth and width of AHRC-funded research. Its impact is plural, transversal and generative: reaching from situations where digital media enables the broadening of audiences for funded research to the emergence of singularly new practices which are embedded in and integrated with rapidly changing media.

This is exactly the kind of thing I would say, and certainly the AHRC will need to push the Digital Transformations programme to be as adventurous and as innovative as possible. It can’t just be a place where researchers add a ‘digital’ veneer to existing interests; the programme is absolutely obliged to be as cutting-edge as possible, I think. But I can appreciate that the breadth of this attack could seem rather scary.

For that reason I offer my helpful ‘three spheres’ diagram, which breaks ‘digital transformations’ down into manageable blobs. It also shows how far-reaching the impact of ‘digital transformations’ should rightly be. But at least, when broken down like this, we can hopefully get our heads around it:

So the three spheres are:

  • Transformations in cultural life and cultural artefacts: Digital technologies and cultures lead to new objects of study – new communities, networks, devices, texts and artworks which should be the focus of innovative academic research.
  • Transformations in theories, approaches and tools: These developments lead to transformations in research practice – suggesting ways of thinking, connections, and ways of working, which change the practices and processes of research.
  • Transformations in communication, engagement and participation: The ways in which research can be shared and engaged with is also transformed by digital technologies, which offer compelling new avenues and opportunities.

Of course, these three spheres are – or should be – highly interconnected. But this is one way of thinking about it, anyway. I especially like the third one, which is all about how we go about things – the ‘lively new life of research’, as I have called it elsewhere, where research can take on a life of its own which was all-but impossible before, enabling us to have conversations with a much broader spread of people and groups and organisations, and make connections which can add to the exciting project of breaking down all those tiresome silos which still exist across academic life.

With any luck, of course, this model of ‘digital transformations’ will itself be battered and transformed as we exchange ideas in the sunny Cotswold hills (or, er, a conference room somewhere near the sunny Cotswold hills) over the next couple of days.

Top photo of the Soyuz TMA-18 rocket launch by NASA HQ Photo on Flickr. Some rights reserved under a Creative Commons BY-NC 2.0 licence.

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