Sussex Humanities Lab

Projects

SHL Research projects

Digital Culture and the Limits of Computation

British Academy/Leverhulme Small Research Grant
Dr Beatrice Fazi  

As the speed and scale of computing expand, and as software becomes more ubiquitous in everyday life, the following question comes to the fore: what, today, can be said to challenge, or even resist, the calculations of computation? This research engages with that question by bringing the notion of ‘incomputability’, as defined by mathematics and computer science, into the cultural theory of digital media. Computing is founded upon the logical discovery that certain functions will never be calculated. In 1936 Alan Turing showed that there are limits to computation, because there are problems that cannot be resolved via algorithmic means. In digital media theory, questions about the limits of computation have become equally important, and are often expressed via renewed critiques of instrumental rationality. These critiques are often drawn and developed from established philosophical traditions within the humanities (e.g. phenomenology, critical theory, poststructuralism), which see computation as limited because life, experience and culture itself can never be fully encompassed by calculation. The two debates, in science and the humanities, are different, yet they are both predicated upon the same striving to understand processes of mechanisation. This project will bring the two perspectives into dialogue with one another in order to explore some of the ways in which the limits of computation can be theorised in digital media studies.

BBC Connected Histories

BBC Connected Histories is a ground-breaking collaboration between the BBC and the University of Sussex (Sussex Humanities Lab), creating a new digital catalogue of hundreds of rarely seen audio and video interviews with former BBC staff – from those in the corridors of power to those at the broadcasting coal face.

Notable interviewees recorded over the years include Sir David Attenborough, the drama director Sydney Newman (creator of Doctor Who) and the pioneer of political programming Grace Wyndham Goldie. Also featured are BBC Directors-General and Chairmen, politicians involved in the nation’s broadcasting policy including Harold Wilson and Tony Benn, as well as less establishment figures, such as telephonists who worked at the BBC's Savoy Hill headquarters in the 1920s.

This unique archive will be enriched by expert curation from Professor David Hendy and colleagues from  Sussex Humanities Lab, framing the archive in a wider societal context. They will also create thematic online collections on key subjects such as War, Entertainment, and Britishness, building on earlier successful pilot collections on Elections and Early Television.

More widely, the team of researchers will transform the archive search options through innovative data tagging and data-mining tools. The resulting digital catalogue will allow historians, scholars and the general public - with their own memories of the BBC - to search for the first time ever this archive for a myriad of links between people, places and events, spanning decades of broadcast history.

The BBC Connected Histories project will run for nearly five years in the lead-up to the Corporation’s centenary in 2022, and is being funded by a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) totalling nearly £790,000, a record sum for the Sussex Humanities Lab since our programme of research began in 2015. 

The project is supported by key partners in the field: the BBC itself, the Science Museum Group (which includes the National Media Museum in Bradford), the Mass Observation Archive based in Brighton, and the British Entertainment History Project. All will be providing vital access to additional archive materials and resources, as well as collaborating on technological design and helping to develop the potential for further research activities.

Joining David Hendy on the Connected Histories project are Professor Tim Hitchcock, Dr Margaretta Jolly and Dr Alban Webb.

More information at http://www.sussex.ac.uk/staff/newsandevents/?id=39459

Humanising Algorithmic Listening

From oral history to media archaeology, sensory ethnography to ecology, researchers are increasingly interested in what can be learned from the acoustic environment and from sonic, as well as textual resources; at the same time, computational methods afford opportunities to engage with sonic materials in new ways. This network brings together diverse disciplinary perspectives to consider the technical, epistemological and creative possibilities, as well as culture and ethical implications, of listening with and through algorithms.

Existing machine listening algorithms are capable of tasks such as recognising melodies, identifying instruments or musical genres. Their capacity is evidenced by commercial products which are becoming at once more powerful, more complex and their inner workings more opaque. Advances in computational power must be accompanied by critical consideration: what does it to means to listen through / with algorithms? What new ways of listening are afforded? What kinds of relationships do we want to have? and how does this inform the way we design algorithms for future cultural, epistemological and creative applications?

This network brings together experts with an interest in the applications and implications of machine listening from diverse disciplines including oral history, sensory ethnography, archive services, computer science, philosophy and music technology. The principle aim is to develop an interdisciplinary research agenda for the future design and application of listening algorithms in research and everyday life.

Project website: http://www.algorithmiclistening.org/

  • PI: Alice Eldridge – Research Fellow in Digital Technologies, Sussex Humanities Lab, University of Sussex
  • Co-I: Paul Stapleton Senior Lecturer in Music, Queen’s University Belfast
Mass Observation and the Digital Archive

Rebecca Wright
Research Fellow in Mass Observation Studies

Mass Observation and the Digital Archive is a project examining how digital humanities methods can transform how the Mass Observation archive is approached and utilised.

The project is experimenting with digital methods, including topic modelling, sentiment analysis, and method 52, to re-assess a well-defined object of study within Mass Observation – the home.

Demonstrating how digital methods allow us to reconceptualise the parameters and influence of home, the project asks how the materiality of digital opens up new historical imaginaries and representations of the past within the archive.

100 Voices that made the BBC: The Birth of Television

Marking the 80th anniversary of television in the UK – and the first public service television broadcasts in the world – the BBC, in collaboration with the Sussex Humanities Lab, have launched a new online archive of programme footage and oral history interviews.

100 Voices that made the BBC: The Birth of Television recalls the development of (and early experimentation with) television, its official launch on 2 November 1936 and subsequent role, before and after the Second World War, in the life of the nation.

 Previously unseen and unheard interviews with the pioneers of television from the BBC’s internal Oral History Collection have been made available for the first time as part of the Sussex Humanities Lab BBC Connected Histories project. 

Automation Anxiety

Automation Anxiety network logoAutomation Anxiety AHRC Network

The principle objective of the network is to bring specialists in different disciplines together to foster novel interdisciplinary methods, tools and future projects around the theme of automation anxiety in computational culture. In each workshop researchers studying a particular type of automation anxiety will explore different methods for analysing it. The workshops will be organised around three themes:

1. Human obsolescence: ​This workshop will focus on the forms of cognitive automation that inspire contemporary concern about a ‘rise of the robots’, anxiety concerning the replacement of human labour by computational processes, algorithms and machine learning. Methods and resources to be evaluated here include mass observation and data-led analysis of big data and automation anxiety as an historical topos.

2. Human (in)security: ​This workshop will address the theme of human (in)security in relation to automated defence, security and surveillance technologies such as drones, crime prediction algorithms and computerised monitoring. Methods to be explored include controversy analysis, media archaeology and digital ethnography.

3. Human (in)attention: ​This workshop will explore anxiety about the atrophy of human skills through the automation of complex cognitive skills such as navigation, control of aircraft or vehicles. It will also examine cases where the delegation of human tasks to machines directly become a source of anxiety, instability or concern. Examples include high-frequency trading and the so-called ‘creepy line’ (Google) where algorithms or machine learning may display an uncanny or disturbing level of personal surveillance or insight. The second day of this workshop will look at the extension of this problem into academic analysis itself, that is, the automation of research methods through digital humanities.

All the workshops will make use of resources within the Sussex Humanities Lab, specifically members of the Text Analysis Group, to create example datasets and analytic tools which can be explored and evaluated by workshop participants.


Timetable of activities

Fri 20 Jan 2017 Workshop 1: Human obsolescence (one day, Sussex) 

Automation and Obsolescence, the first workshop of the AHRC-funded Automation Anxiety network, was held at SHL on 20 January 2017. The workshop focused on the forms of cognitive automation that inspire contemporary concern about a ‘rise of the robots’, anxiety concerning the replacement of human labour by computational processes, algorithms and machine learning. Topics discussed included automation and healthcare, universal basic income, automation anxiety as a recurring historical 'topos'. The workshop included an experimental performance piece 'Job Vacancy: ECHOBORG'.

 Tue 11 April 2017 Workshop 2: Human (in)security (one day, UWE Bristol)

Thu 8- Fri 9 June 2017 Workshop 3: Human (in)attention (two days, Sussex)

w/c 10 July 2017 Public event (half a day, Sussex)

Key speakers or participants

Participants in the network include academic specialists in history of computing, philosophy of computation and automation, sociology of predictive policing, economics, feminism and labour theory, digital methods; and cultural geography. The network also includes representatives with a commercial interest in artificial intelligence and big data and not-for-profits that promote socially useful innovation.

The project will be led jointly by the Principal Investigator ​Ben Roberts (Sussex Humanities Lab, University of Sussex)​ and the Co-Investigator ​Patrick Crogan (Digital Cultures Research Centre, UWE​). A network administrator will aid with the organisation of the project on a weekly basis. 

An advisory board composed of representatives of the different disciplines involved in the network will provide advice to the PI and CI meeting twice before and after the workshops. The composition of the board has been chosen to reflect the topical, methodological and impact aspects of the bid. Advisory board members: ​PI​, ​Co-I​, ​Andrew Prescott (University of Glasgow), Celia Lury (Warwick), Jessica Bland (Nesta)

Designing Interfaces for Creativity

Chris Kiefer was awarded a grant through the British Academy Rising Star Engagement (BARSEA) scheme for his project Designing Interfaces for Creativity which explores the design of creative tools, instruments and interfaces. After a successful launch event in May 2016, a two-day, practice-led, international research symposium on 3 and 4 November 2016 brought together leading designers from fields outside creative technologies (such as industrial design), experts on historical design practice (e.g. analogue technologies or vintage computing) with designers of contemporary creative tools and instruments, including academics, makers/hackers, artists, and members of the creative industries.

Sonic Writing

SHL Associate Thor Magnusson has an AHRC Leadership Fellow award, which started in February 2016. The Sonic Writing research project explores work and practices using new technologies for musical expression. Through tracing the historical conditions of material and symbolic design in three interconnected strands of inscription - instruments, notation, and phonography - the project studies how established techniques are translated into new methods of musical composition and performance in digital musical media.

Sussex Surveillance Group

The Sussex Surveillance Group (SSG) – a cross-university network established in 2016 – runs a programme of interdisciplinary workshops and seminars that will bring together academics from journalism, history, philosophy, geography, law, sociology, criminology, informatics, psychology, politics, international development and digital humanities and Mass Observation. We explore critical approaches to understanding the role and impact of surveillance techniques, their legislative oversight and systems of accountability in the countries that make up what are known as the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence alliance (United Kingdom, America, Canada, New Zealand, Australia), and identify lessons to be learnt by developing countries in the process of building surveillance capabilities. In this, we are motivated by three interrelated concerns. In what ways are surveillance practices changing public, corporate and governmental behaviour and what are the implications for democratic society? How are digital technologies and computational cultures reconceptualising the role and purpose of surveillance in the Twenty-First Century? What effective mechanisms of accountability are available to scrutinize and monitor surveillance activities?

The SSG emerged from two ‘masterclass’ seminars supported by the Sussex Humanities Lab and organised by Dr Paul Lashmar (MFM) and Dr Alban Webb (SHL) in 2016. The first, featuring investigative journalist Duncan Campbell and former NSA Technical Director and whistle-blower William Binney, examined bulk data collection in the context of the UK Investigatory Powers Bill, now Act (http://y2u.be/5bcN7u1bbwk). At the second, Dr Lina Dencik (Cardiff University) reported on the impact of the Snowden intelligence leaks, three years on. In addition: the moral implications of personal bulk data collection were explored at a seminar convened by the Sussex Centre for Social and Political Thought; Dr Paul Lashmar is Co-Investigator on the ESRC-funded Data Psst! Network (http://data-psst.bangor.ac.uk); and Dr Judith Townend (LPS) leads, with Guardian Media Group, research involving an expert group of journalists, NGOs and policy-makers and lawyers, which has led to a report on surveillance and journalistic source protection that was launched in Parliament in February 2017.

Current members of the Sussex Surveillance Group are (alphabetically): Dr Duncan Edwards (IDS); Dr Gordon Finlayson (HAHP); Dr Paul Lashmar (MFM); Professor Chris Marsden (LPS); Professor Erik Millstone (SPRU); Ioann Maria Stacewicz (SHL); Dr Judith Townend (LPS); Dr Alban Webb (SHL); Professor Dean Wilson (LPS).

Networking technology and the experience of ensemble music-making

Networking technology and the experience of ensemble music-making was funded by the AHRC Digital Transformations theme and is led by SHL Associate Ed Hughes with SHL members Alice Eldridge and Chris Kiefer. The initial project ran from 1 Sept 2015 to 31 March 2016 and explored whether networking technology can help more people access the benefits of ensemble music-making in schools and community settings, and was featured in the Brighton Science Festival in February 2016.

The project has recently been awarded follow-on funding from the AHRC to develop and release their dynamic, networked notation software as a series of iOS and android apps. See http://www.syncphonia.co.uk/

See also: