Conversations Below Sea Level: Anne Beaulieu and Sally Wyatt

Digital Cultures and Research Practices — An Interview with Anne Beaulieu and Sally Wyatt

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(Anne Beaulieu (left) and Sally Wyatt. Photo and interview: Ulises Mejias, Creative Commons 2008)

Anne Beaulieu (bio, publications) is a Senior Research Fellow at the Virtual Knowledge Studio (VKS). Sally Wyatt (bio, publications) is Professor of Digital Cultures in Development at Maastricht University and also a Senior Research Fellows at VKS. The Virtual Knowledge Studio “supports researchers in the humanities and social sciences in the Netherlands in the creation of new scholarly practices and in their reflection on e-research in relation to their fields.” My interview with them took place on June 6 at the VKS Amsterdam offices, housed in the International Institute of Social History.

Ulises Mejias: Why don’t we start by you telling me what the VKS does?

Anne Beaulieu: The Virtual Knowledge Studio has a dual mission of studying new research practices and also supporting researchers who want to ‘play around’ with new research practices. We are called upon to play three different roles: The first is as broker, as someone who can translate between the different groups who are active in this new area of e-research–between humanities scholars and people who are actually building tools, for instance; and the requests for us to play that role can come from both kinds of actors. Another role we have is to document what these practices are, whether it means new kinds of collaboration, or new kinds of communication, or new ways of producing data or sources. That work is of interest to people in technology studies, but also to people in the field, where we are studying the practices. The third role is really to think and try out new practices, and sometimes these are things we do in-house, in our ‘collaboratories,’ but it can also be very concrete contributions in ongoing outside projects.

Sally Wyatt: One of the main ways of collaborating with researchers is through what we call campus sites. We now have one at Erasmus University in Rotterdam and the other at Maastricht University, which I’m responsible for and which we just started a few months ago. So that’s a way to extend our reach.

THE METAPHOR OF VIRTUALITY

UM: Let’s go back to the name of the organization: Virtual Knowledge Studio. Sally, in your paper Danger! Metaphors at Work in Economics, Geophysiology, and the Internet (PDF) you write:

“The future of science and technology is actively created in the present through contested claims and counterclaims over its potential. Language is an important tool, alongside social practices and material objects, in attempts to construct the future. Metaphors not only help us to think about the future; they are a resource deployed by a variety of actors to shape the future.”

What about this metaphor of ‘virtual knowledge’? Has knowledge been indeed virtualized by ICTs?

AB: This is actually a question that has been asked in relation to the Virtual Ethnography collaboratory, in exactly those terms. In some ways ‘virtual knowledge’ is a label that is meant to invoke something different. You probably heard Paul (Wouters) elaborate on the three aspects of our name in the video commemorating the launch of VKS. Certainly we are well aware that we have some accountability or responsibility to the hype that goes with a term like ‘virtual.’ The term carries some kind of promise, or some kind of evocation of change or difference and improvement. And part of the vote of confidence we had in setting up the studio was fueled by those kinds of aspirations. On the other hand we want to stay critical of the hype, so we embrace it but not in a naive way. And I don’t think we could’ve picked a name that didn’t carry any kind of connotation…

UM: To me, ‘virtual’–at least in the way in which it is sometimes used in critical theory–suggests disembodiment. But it seems like the kind of work that you do is very much about trying to localize and situate knowledge, as a social construct.

SW: I think what I like about the term ‘virtual knowledge’ is that it does capture the notion of ‘knowledge between people,’ the shared nature of knowledge, the different ways of doing that, getting into the –as you say– practices and situatedness of knowledge, which I think is an important dimension of our work.

THE SOCIAL AS OBJECT OF STUDY

UM: Another common metaphor these days is that of the ‘social’ (social software, social media). But maybe the metaphor has become a bit overused? In a recent blog post, someone stated: “Let’s Get Rid of the Word ‘Social’ in ‘Social Network’… we do NETWORK SCIENCE ….. not SOCIAL NETWORK ANALYSIS.” Which to me sounds like a questioning of the value of the social sciences as a way to study these new technologies of mediation. What are the limits, in your opinion, of a research methodology based on the social sciences?

SW: I think there are two questions there…

UM: There might be a lot of questions packed in there! [laughter]

SW: One is about social sciences as an approach, and the other one about ‘social’ as an object. Personally–and my guess is that within the VKS there might be differences about this–I still think ‘social’ does some important work, in both of the senses implied by your question. My worry about dropping the word ‘social’ from ‘social network analysis’ is that it would give primacy and priority to the material components of networks.

AB: Social networks as a field of study was around long before we started thinking about computer networks. And then with the Web–with email and social networking sites–it’s as though the hardware or electronic network starts to overdetermine the object of social networks… you can point to it, and you can measure it… it’s as though it becomes data-driven. And I guess I feel that by removing the ‘social,’ it’s kind of one step further in that direction…

UM: Let’s switch gears a little bit. I don’t know if you’ve heard about this search engine, Rushmoredrive.com. Basically, it advertises itself as a search engine for the Black community. They have an algorithm that supposedly yields results based on the preferences, likes, dislikes, of someone who is Black (and they say Black as opposed to African American because they are international in their focus). So the next step is a search engine for every minority. Will there still be margins in the information society when everyone has their own custom-designed search algorithm?

AB:…The mind boggles as to how one can derive Blackness from a search engine operation!

UM: I don’t know much about the mechanics of it, but I’m assuming that certain results are weighted more than others. So the assumption is that they have a formula for weighting some elements of the search results more than others.

SW: But weight them according to what? Sounds like a fascinating thing to study.

AB: It’s embedding racial distinction into the level of the technology… But these fears of fragmentation were already being voiced in terms of being able to customize interfaces, and I don’t think that has really happened. The fear was that we would loose this sense of public experience, of public discourse, by having this possibility of customizing information.

SW: Right. We had all these discussion in the late 90’s about portals, gated bits of the internet, much more highly mediated and structured experiences. But they really never took off, did they?

AB: I think the narrative is that search engines became so efficient as to bypass any kind of editing or structuring. And I don’t mean to sound like I’m saying: ‘Search engines are neutral, let’s not racialize them!’ Maybe this is interesting because in some ways it interrogates the whiteness of mainstream search engines.

SW: Which is of course just as mysterious in terms of how they work.

NEW MEDIA AND RESEARCH METHODOLOGIES

UM: In another piece co-authored by various people at VKS (Messy Shapes of Knowledge: STS Explores Informatization, New Media, and Academic Work, PDF), you talk about a certain form of method-oriented technological determinism, the idea that new media requires new research methods. Don’t we in fact need new methods to study the social impact of new technologies?

SW: Do new objects always require new methods of study? Yes and No is the easy answer.

AB: ‘No’ because otherwise you deny that any kind of practice or tradition informs that particular technology. And ‘Yes’ because you might otherwise not be sensitive to some innovative elements that might be present.

SW: I think it goes back to something we said right at the beginning about the dangers of hype and novelty. I think that applies to methods as well as objects. But to take a slightly different approach to the question, it also about whether or not the technologies themselves enable different methods. I remember once reading something where the researcher was saying that online interviews (conducted via email) were not that different from face-to-face interviews. And I thought: Well, that’s a kind of a healthy skepticism. Then a bit later this person said that they went back to the respondent 23 times. I thought: You don’t do that in face-to-face interviewing. It is completely different! And then I think you need to reflect on that difference. Because you have a very different kind of relationship to your respondents, than if you interview them once, maybe twice… very occasionally three times. But certainly not 23 times! There is a kind of going back and forth that email facilitates… It might have started out as analogous to face-to-face interviewing, but then fairly quickly became something different that was facilitated by the medium.

AB: On the other hand, this difference can become the grounds to launch vitriolic attacks towards the medium, like when people say: You can’t possibly do an interview on email!

UM: Thanks for participating in this interview, and I promise I won’t come back to you 23 times!

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