Digital Culture

Exploring the intersections of technology, knowledge, and culture in a digital age

"Macro Computer Circuit Board #1" [cropped] by Randy Pertiet.

The Digital Culture program explores the ways in which digital transformations are reshaping scholarly knowledge in general, and the social sciences in particular. Guided by an advisory committee drawn from a diverse set of experiences and institutions, the program is mobilizing working groups around three current areas of interest. The first considers issues of curation—the impact of digitization on the ecosystem of scholarly publishing and the challenge of increasing access to knowledge while deepening its quality. A second thread focuses on emerging social science practices that use “big data” or digital tools like data visualization, and the practical and ethical concerns that accompany such work. A third strand explores how to broaden, in ways consistent with the goals and methods of diverse research communities, the transparency of social science research in order to strengthen its reliability and capacity to serve as a public good. The program supports publications and public debate, including an online forum devoted to the program’s core concerns, which will be launched in early 2016.


Working Groups

Curated Knowledge Under Digital Conditions

Transformations associated with digitization are causing significant shifts in the “scholarly ecosystem” of universities, book and journal publishers, and libraries that have historically served to set standards for the judgment of scholarly quality and impact.  In light of the increased access to knowledge that digitization allows, one central concern is how to maintain and even enhance standards of quality while democratizing access. Key questions follow. What is the role of the traditional “gatekeepers” of scholarly knowledge in this context? When are more open forms of curation compelling, and when are more traditional and demanding approaches appropriate? How can core values and practices of scholarship (e.g. peer review) be preserved under changing conditions, and how should scholarly practices and institutions be modified and adapted in light of these transformations? By what criteria should libraries, archives, and other curatorial institutions make choices in regard to what they collect and preserve? This working group brings together representatives from these different realms in order to discuss the principles, standards, and practices that should govern editorial curation.


Digital Social Science

This working group will engage how social scientists use digital tools, methods, and data sources in their research. This includes “big data” (whether from the internet, social media, geo-spatial techniques, or more traditional quantitative and textual sources); the use of visualization tools for the collection, organization and analysis of data; and other ways in which data and information science is intersecting or could intersect with the social sciences. Along with these opportunities come serious challenges—scientific, practical and ethical—that may result from the expanding use of these forms of knowledge. What can “big data” tell us about our social world and how it works—and what can’t we learn from it?  How can social science shape the norms and rules for how “big data” is collected and made available? How can we establish partnerships between social scientists and the businesses that own proprietary data, as well as the algorithms that organize their collection and use, for scientific and public benefit—while at the same time protecting privacy of research subjects when “informed consent” is neither required nor expected? How will new tools like information visualization, increasingly being used in fields like history, shape how social scientists are trained, and how they collaborate with each other?

The group brings together a range of interested scholars and constituencies—social scientists, data scientists, legal scholars, digital humanists, and relevant actors in the private and public sector—to more deeply understand the ramifications of these innovations in the study of society, and to discover and shape how they might be used in ethical and public-minded ways.


Reliability and Transparency in the Social Sciences 

Enabled by advances in digital technology, the availability of social science research has increased exponentially, and the stakes of making it so have increased with it. Recent high-profile media coverage concerning the practices and reliability of the social sciences has brought it much attention, and not all of which is positive. More accessible data can deepen the reliability of social science, and is called for by funders and an increasing number of journals in a range of fields.  Digital technology also allows for scholars to provide access to the analytical process they use to connect evidence to interpretative and theoretical claims in ways not possible within the space constraints of a journal article.  Making this process “transparent” is central to sustaining a broader scholarly conversation.

While the benefits of access to knowledge for use by the broader research community are many and varied, research transparency as a scholarly value is at times in tension with other values. These include the protection and privacy of human subjects as well as the safeguarding of intellectual property, not trivial for scholars who seek “first use” of the knowledge they produce.  Concerns have also arisen that the emphasis on transparency privileges some methodological and epistemological commitments over others.  

This working group convenes a cross-disciplinary group of scholars to consider the current state of social science reliability and transparency across a variety of approaches, and explores whether and how principles of transparency and data access can be articulated to encompass different fields and ways of producing knowledge on and understanding the social world. 

Photo credit: "Macro Computer Circuit Board #1" [cropped] by Randy Pertiet / CC BY 2.0.

Program Director
Ronald Kassimir
Program Assistant
Penelope Weber