The Digital Studies Institute is pleased to recognize a number of excellent research, teaching, and intellectual community building projects that have received funding support from our first cycle of DSI Research Grant Awards in Winter 2020. These projects demonstrate the range of our faculty interest and expertise. We look forward with great anticipation to see them develop in the coming year.

Data Noire

Irina Aristarkova, Associate Professor of Art & Design
Imani Cooper Mkandawire, Graduate Student in Comparative Literature

Data Noire, to search between archives, beneath algorithms, below code, explores notions of data + automation that are crafted through a sense of urgency, agency, and intervention, within black diasporas. Presenting works that straddle creative technology, art objects, and multimedia critiques, this exhibition activates a dynamic discussion troubling past and present claims of data neutrality, structural biases within information politics, and alternative logics for technological innovation as it intersects with black social life. Data Noire signals a stance and practice, about being in relation with a longer history of data + technology, and daring to imagine otherwise. 

See “Inheritance, Ode to N’TOO” (Mkandawire, 2019) as an example of experimental poetic prose that grapples with the inner workings of deep learning for AI, inspired by Stephanie Dinkins project Not The Only One (2018- ongoing).

Humans and Their Emotions? A Critical Take on Emotion Recognition-Enabled Voice Assistants

Nazanin Andalibi, Assistant Professor of Information

This study investigates people’s attitudes around emotion recognition in voice assistants that are becoming more and more prevalent, such as the Amazon Alexa and Echo. Despite the deeply personal nature of human emotions, Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithms are built to recognize, infer, and harvest emotions using data sources such as social media behavior, streaming service use, voice, facial expressions, biometrics, and body language in ways unknown to users. Emotion recognition refers to interpreting data to decipher one’s emotional state, but missing in such discourse is that of the humans who produce the data that make emotion recognition possible, and whose experiences are shaped by these technologies. This work will focus on emotions and users’ attitudes towards emotion recognition technologies to contribute to our knowledge about socially and ethically responsible use and treatment of data in algorithmic decision-making that impacts humans’ personal lives.

Network Structures: Buildings, Publics, and the Internet in Detroit

Cyrus Peñarroyo, Assistant Professor of Architecture
McLain Clutter, Associate Professor of Architecture
Sarah Murray, Assistant Professor of Film, Television, and Media

This collaboration between UM faculty in the Digital Studies Institute, Taubman College, and Detroit’s first Director of Digital Inclusion, Joshua Edmonds, works toward providing internet connectivity in Detroit’s marginalized neighborhoods, where economic precarities, high costs of individual internet access, and uneven broadband service through Detroit’s neighborhoods create a digital divide akin to “digital redlining.” One solution is a municipally subsidized community mesh network, connecting routers across neighborhoods in strategically located positions. Through this dispersal, the mesh network becomes a uniquely spatial and urbanistic lens through which to design for internet access. As routers connect and combine points throughout urban space, they likewise articulate a diagram for the emergence of social networks, implicating new and emergent patterns of urban life around common causes. The initial outcome of this project is a feasibility study that will provide the basis for further design development as construction documents for realized adaptive reuse projects, increasing the viability of implementing this research and design in real, applied ways that meet DSI’s mission to be an activist-oriented, community-engaged institution.

Past Tense: Archival Exclusion, Revision, and the Future of History

Megan Sapnar Ankerson, Associate Professor of Communication and Media

Eventually taking the shape of a book chapter, this project examines how media industries, news organizations, and software companies are re-conceiving the concept of “archive” in the digital age of “post-truth” politics through automated archiving. While scholars have made significant contributions in attending to the politics of archives, recognizing social biases and exclusions that have elevated dominant voices over marginalized ones, media studies has yet to fully grapple with the newer conditions of how robots, metadata, and algorithms interact with user data in the construction of internet archives, news headlines, digital photo albums, search engine results, self presentation narratives, and the visual representation of digital maps. This award supports travel to New York City to visit two sites: the headquarters of TimeHop, a social media app that connects nostalgia with marketing, and the New York Times, a major American newspaper embarking on a collaborative project with Google Cloud to digitize 6 million photographs taken since the late 19th century and stored in the Times archive (“The Morgue”). Ankerson is particularly interested in focusing on the problem of exclusion and revisionary methods for addressing the memories and media experiences of those who fall outside the dominant media institutions, logics and norms.

Video Games and Learning

Rebecca M. Quintana, Learning Experience Design Lead in the Office of Academic Innovation and Lecturer in the School of Education

This award funds the research, presentation, and publication of scholarship on role-based simulations in higher education settings through co-design approaches and use of educational technologies. In role-based simulations, participants take on well-defined, identity-based roles and follow a set of rules specific to the context of the simulation that allow them to advance towards a specific goal or desired outcome. In previous scholarship, Quintana et al. (2020) have discussed technology-mediated simulation pedagogies in large undergraduate courses, co-designed with graduate students. This new project includes collaboration between Quintana and those graduate students as researchers and co-authors, interviewing undergraduates from these courses to learn more about their experiences and how they navigated the roles they were assigned. Using data from this research, the authors will submit proposals to two conferences and an article to an education journal.

JIF: Junior Incubator Fellowship

Sarah Murray, Assistant Professor of Film, Television, and Media
Anna Watkins Fisher, Assistant Professor of American Culture
Silvia Lindtner, Assistant Professor of Information
Oliver Haimson, Assistant Professor of Information
Patricia Garcia, Assistant Professor of Information
Nazanin Andalibi, Assistant Professor of Information

The Junior Incubator Fellowship establishes a continuing commitment to junior and precarious faculty intellectual growth and research productivity within Digital Studies Institute by setting up concrete and collegial markers in a given semester toward publishable work. Through writing sprints and regular meetings throughout each semester, JIF will be a writing group that not only carves out time for revising journal articles or book chapters, but also brings together early-to-mid career scholars across many departments who may otherwise feel isolated in their respective approaches to critical studies of digital cultures and infrastructures. The word fellowship intends both financial support and communion as JIF offers a material, institutionalized mode of support for tenure-track and precarious faculty.

Resistance in the Age of Inevitability

Anna Watkins Fisher, Assistant Professor of American Culture

Fisher received two research grants: for a one-day research symposium and an article workshop, both supporting a new book project that examines the transformed conditions for resistance and critique in digital culture. The symposium will bring together faculty, graduate students, and two external scholars whose interests converge in the challenges to traditional means of political action and critique posed by the extreme scale, complexity, and automated nature of digital technologies. The article workshop will enable Fisher to get feedback on a chapter from her book project, Resistance in an Age of Inevitability, which studies how big tech cripples long-accepted conceptions of resistance and critique, and how these concepts are being reimagined by everyday users, activists, and artists.

Smart: A Cultural History of Ordinary A.I.

Sarah Murray, Assistant Professor of Film, Television, and Media

This award supports archival research integral to the completion of a book project titled Smart: A Cultural History of Ordinary A.I. Tracing the history of the entangled myths and materialities of the word “smart” in film, TV, literature, popular press, blogs, and advertising, Murray shows how the validating credentials of intelligence evolved over the the 20th century to become the foundation of an American ideal of acceptance and enthusiasm for immersive digital mediation. More than marketing strategy or simplified definition, however, “smart” has come to signify a lifestyle augmentation: “smart” became “dependable.” Murray argues that “smart” is not only capitalist expansion, but also a powerful discourse of technological kinship and compromise that has been naturalized into the fabric of everyday life.

Collaboration, Innovation, and Practice in Media Studies Scholarship Symposium

Rae Moors, Graduate Student in Communication and Media

This symposium is geared towards fostering networks and intellectual communities for graduatestudents working in digital media studies or related fields within departments that havehistorically supported a single-author monograph model. Organized around the keywords “collaboration,” “innovation,” and “practice,” this event will explore exciting work that has already been accomplished in various collaboratives and academic institutes, what these modes of scholarship look like, and how adopting different modes of scholarly production can generate better knowledge and insights about the world. The event is guided by the idea that we should not only be curious about media and technology as an object of study, but as a method of knowledge generation and engagement with the world more broadly, encouraging graduatestudents to consider collaborative, innovative, and practice-oriented approaches to media- andtechnology-centric scholarship in a world that continues to grow more complex and connected.

Ideologies of Care in Health Surveillance Technologies

Young Rim Kim, Graduate Student in Communication and Media

This project unpacks the promise and politics of health surveillance technologies by comparatively analyzing data-driven quarantine measures that the Chinese and South Korean governments are utilizing in COVID-19 control. Kim will investigate how these two different governmental regimes--one authoritarian and the other democratic--construct and propagate what their state-of-the-art surveillance technologies can offer to the public in moments of emergency. As surveillance tactics that were deemed oppressive and undemocratic in ordinary times get easily normalized in crisis situations, these moments reveal the precarious and flexible nature of surveillance and privacy while destabilizing the West-oriented, dichotomic understanding of these concepts. By observing how the concept of "care" is being inscribed into the design and communication of these surveillance apps, this study aims to complicate the binary, trade-off understanding of surveillance/privacy and explore the societal acceptance of these seemingly "oppressive" technologies without undermining the Chinese/South Korean public as oblivious and/or negligent to privacy issues.

Designing Trans Technologies

Oliver L. Haimson, Assistant Professor of Information

This research builds from an initial series of participatory design sessions, in which the research team developed a community-centric understanding of trans people's most pressing challenges. In collaboration with this community, four types of technology were identified and envisioned for supporting trans people: technologies for changing bodies, technologies for changing appearances / gender expressions, technologies for safety, and technologies for finding resources. The next phase of research supported by this award includes creating digital prototypes of some of the technologies participants described, followed by a series of participatory design sessions in which these prototypes are brought back to trans participants to gather feedback and iterate on the designs. While some designs imagined by participants are not physically and technologically feasible to build, others can be built in the near future and can begin to address some of the challenges faced by the community.

Genealogies of Silicon Valley

John Cheney-Lippold, Associate Professor of American Culture

This project involves research connecting stoic philosophy and Italian futurism as theoretical foundations that have been taken up and valorized by tech workers, venture capitalists, and tech-adjacent cultural figures online. The philosophy of stoicism has been used to justify many of the abhorrent ideologies that populate the online “manosphere,” a subculture where stoic principles are marshaled to defend misogyny, white supremacy, colonial occupation, body dysmorphia, and sexual conquest. Similarly, the Futurists—an aesthetic-political movement that emerged alongside, but sometimes conflicted with, Mussolini’s Fascist Party—also provides an ideological template for contemporary “move fast, break things” Silicon Valley mantras of production. Through a combination of archival and ethnographic research, Cheney-Lippold plans to analyze how futurist thought, and its heretical proclivity against tradition, might help both historicize and complicate our understandings of contemporary Silicon Valley cultures.

An Alien Phenomenology Autograder

Christian Sandvig, H. Marshall McLuhan Collegiate Professor of Digital Media, Professor of Information

The goal of this project is to produce software that can grade students’ coding projects differently, supporting a critical practice-oriented format that can lead to critical reflection on digital technologies rather than simply getting the code to work. Drawing on concepts of alien phenomenology and software carpentry, this software will enhance a pedagogical shift that existing autograders do not effectively support. The software package that comes from this study will be released on GitHub for other instructors to adapt and use, which will allow students to test their own code and assess them on a pass/fail basis, including provocative questions evaluating the code within the intellectual focus of the course, emphasizing critical thinking about technology.