Wendy F. Hsu
Traditionally, public humanities has meant either widening the readership of humanities scholarship or working in cultural heritage institutions like museums, archives, galleries, and libraries. My own adventure in the public sector, working with the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) as an ACLS Public Fellow, has broadened my understanding of the evolving value of humanities participation in the public sphere. I view my role within the department as fluctuating between technologist—someone who designs and prototypes emergent forms of technology with a public purpose in mind—and interpreter—someone who explains the meanings of technology adoption in the context of democratic participation, civic awareness, government transparency, and public-sector labor. Professional experience with civic technology offers opportunities to rethink the digital public work in the humanities. By evoking lessons on public inclusion, community-driven inquiry, and public-benefit design, I hope that we as humanists can be inspired to contribute to the public while participating as partners with the public.
Early and In-process Inclusion
The first lesson from my work in public-sector technology is the importance of early and in-process inclusion. Allowing for the public to participate in the design and development of a project from its very beginning demonstrates the principle of building with and not for. “Community-driven technologies,” as civic technology advocate Laurenellen McCann explains, should be “built at the speed of inclusion—the pace necessary not just to create a tool but to do so with in-depth communal input and stewardship—and directly respond to the needs, ideas, and wants of those they’re intended to benefit.”1 At DCA, I have learned that developing digital projects at the speed of inclusion entails an in-process involvement of the public. Getting community input throughout the project lifecycle can help inform decision making related to content organization, interaction paths, and information design.
Soon after I came on board at DCA, I was charged with developing an agency-wide social media plan. City officials had lifted the ban on social media at the department level only a few months before my arrival. Navigating public expectations for government responsiveness and informational transparency, the department saw opportunities to reorient itself to the new domain of communications afforded by social media. Within this new terrain, I forged ahead with a social media pilot program, experimenting with interactions with the public over social media while learning from the public how social media could augment access to and understanding of DCA’s programming, services, and process. With this purpose, I live-tweeted a grant workshop and received public feedback on obscure content areas related to our grants program. Based on this feedback, I organized an internal meeting with the grants division to discuss our definitions of geographical equity. This interaction inspired the idea of a webinar as a means to deliver workshop content and, more broadly, challenged the program to rethink its analog, paper-based operation. Here, the inclusion of the public early in the development process allowed my colleagues to gain insights into how we could restructure our content and delivery platforms.
Humanities scholars do not do very well in bringing the public into our design and development processes. The assumption that scholarship is inherently a form of “public good” is not a productive place to start a conversation with those outside of the academy (Stommel). In a Twitter post from the #uwdh conference on April 17, 2015, Jesse Stommel noted that Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s emphatic remark over “the importance of thinking about scholarship and academic work as a public good.” My experience at the DCA has shown that we should think of public work in the humanities as a process, not a product, and that we should do more to include the public at earlier phases of our work. Content and design considerations should be informed by conversations with the public, whether over social media or in civic contexts like town hall meetings. Using the digital to learn from the public is a listening practice, one that yields more efficacious and engaged public humanities work.
Problem Scoping and Inquiries with the Community
Another key lesson from the civic tech world is that problem solving begins and ends with community building. Problem solving, in the civic and public sector, takes place on teams with various stakeholders, including citizens, residents, community organizers, and policy and advocacy specialists. In this context, civic technologists organize events such as hackathons and datathons not only to solve problems, but also to determine problems based on the participants’ concerns, needs, and interests. Defining community problems that can feasibly be solved is an important goal of such events.2
At a datathon about neighborhood change and gentrification in northeast Los Angeles that I helped organize with Occidental College’s Center for Digital Liberal Arts, I learned how to build consensus around problem identification and scoping requirements from a group consisting of citizens, residents, organizers, activists, parents, local government workers, and city officials. Driven by pragmatic needs, these problems—related to shelter, transportation, finance, healthcare, and education—can be challenging in terms of feasibility. At the first workshop, we asked participants to brainstorm questions and write them down on Post-it notes. Participants recorded inquiries about the correlation between displacement and redlining practices by local banks; business ventures recently established in the area; the aesthetic and cultural signs of gentrification; and the relationship between bicycle infrastructure and the vibrancy of local business. The academic historians, sociologists, art historians, and urban planners in the room then collaborated with members of the community to explore these problems, each stakeholder providing respective expertise so that together the group could transform their collective insights into feasible solutions.
Humanities scholars do not often venture into the public as we do our work. As stewards of culture, we seem to feel more comfortable when analyzing culture from a distance than when rolling up our sleeves and participating in civic and community actions. Our vision for problem solving often requires a much longer time scale, one characterized by what Rita Felski has described as “painstaking inquiry” (“Critique and the Hermeneutics of Suspicion”). Humanities scholars often shy away from a fixed solution either because they are more interested in problematizing solutions than solving problems, or because they prefer to defer solutions for others to figure out. Occasionally, they make gestures toward solutions as a form of speculation, as in a short remark in a concluding paragraph. Because they rarely offer specific recommendations for immediate progress, the contributions of humanities scholars seem less relevant to conversations about pressing community problems. Instead of analyzing social and cultural patterns from a distance or in solitude, however, we humanities scholars could stand to set aside our roles as subject specialists and learn to scope problems and explore possible solutions contributed by community workers, working with those who have frontline experiences with solution proposition and implementation. Collective ideation, or the co-interpretation of a shared problem, is among the first steps to realizing the public purpose of humanities work.
Design and Making as Civic Actions
At a lecture at the Columbia Global Center in Amman, Jordan, Gayatri Spivak argues that “the task of the humanities is to teach literature and philosophy in such a way that people will be able to imagine what a socially just world should be.”3 Spivak’s evocation places humanistic thinking in the realm of social justice and imagination. Imagination is in essence an interpretive act, and interpretation provides the foundation for the humanistic practices of visioning, speculating, and reflecting. But interpretation can also lead to creative modes of humanist expression, such as making and design. By transforming critical thought into action, design can provide an exercise for imagining a different reality (Dunn and Raby). This form of speculative design can animate thoughts and evoke questions about what and how related to mobilizing imagined ideas for social justice.
At the core of my work at DCA is an attempt to reimagine how the department as a public agency can participate in the current information- and technology-driven economy. While researching best practices, I must interpret the affordances of certain technologies and their impact on society in order to design interactions that embody public values and the humanist ideals of equity and justice. My goal is to contribute to an instance of digital governance that demonstrates democracy through public participation, education, and information transparency. While leading the department’s website redesign, I challenged myself to think about how to create an accessible and meaningful platform, one that offers services and facilitated interactions for our constituency across cultural, ethnic, linguistic, generational, and socioeconomic boundaries. Public-benefit design means lowering the barrier of entry and maintaining the integrity of public participation, while not making assumptions about the public(s) you are serving.
Making and prototyping constitute another method for staging critical intentions. At the DCA, I created prototypes that can serve as rhetorical vehicles for setting new standards of practice in the field of civic technology. While developing the DCA social media plan, for example, I learned that private interests such as product awareness and customer service tend to drive the design and practice of social media in government.4 As a critical response, I produced the DCA Social Report5 (Hsu and Moreau), an information kit that promotes public-benefit social media practices and tools including metrics and other methods of evaluation. Furthermore, this document also demonstrates digital and short-form information curation as a platform of public information service. I experimented with the form of a report, publishing the document as a microsite and licensing it with Creative Commons standards. This openness is intended to further the public mission of engagement and transparency through design.
Process can also be an object of design, especially for institutional or organizational change. My most prominent design project so far is Lab at DCA, a digital literacy and innovation incubator for city staff. At its core, Lab at DCA is a design intervention of staff training at the City of Los Angeles. Taking cues from digital humanities training initiatives such as the Praxis Program at the University of Virginia and the Digital Summer Institute at Occidental College, I designed a lab curriculum based on a digital literacy model.6 The creation of Lab is a response to the lack of resources for digital workforce development and the city’s outdated technological tools and infrastructures. The Lab’s co-learning structure also mitigates institutional hierarchy, as expressed by its top-down management and siloed reporting system, and empowers lower-level staffers who are otherwise at the mercy of the efficiency-driven managerial practices.
Digital humanists are good at expressing our cultural critiques by making things: a database, a website, or a hypertext edition of an analog book. We have also figured out ways to stage interventions within the institutions in which we work, reconfiguring legacy research paradigms as librarians and Alt-Ac-ers and establishing new learning standards by redesigning curricula. As Lab at DCA demonstrates, these skills can translate to the public sphere. I urge digital humanists, especially those with digital making or design skills, to apply their experience to projects with a public purpose.
Designing with (and not for) the public could mean the participation in the following domains of action: (1) organizing public projects with a civic cause through the design of a web interface, a database, or hashtag campaign, and setting a common agenda at community tech events such as hackathons and datathons; (2) prototyping a community-driven digital object such as an oral history archive, a multimedia document, a digital library, or public information products such as web maps or data visualizations; (3) intervening in a civic or public process in a way that furthers a humanist agenda—for example, civic pedagogy, public cultural stewardship, or critical race/gender/sexuality/class/labor/immigrant politics. I offer these suggestions with the hope that humanities scholars will participate in design work and interventions that benefit the community and activate social justice.
Coworking across Lines of Power
Communities can emerge across lines of power, but communications that lead to opinion formation can further divide strong and weak publics. According to Nancy Fraser, a strong public encompasses decision-making power that a weak public doesn’t have.7 Even within a weak public without the power of governance, the differentiation of power can be reinforced by intellectual politics upheld by institutions of knowledge production. Whether justified or not, those with positions within or in proximity to academic institutions are closer to this power center.8 Public participation begins from a place of humility. Civic actions stem from dialogues across lines of power. Community events like datathons and hackathons are valuable not because they advance technology for the sole purpose of solving problems, but because they use data and technology as a context of organizing and coworking toward community solutions. Humanists, I urge you to leverage your knowledge of the digital as a tool of community building. Working, listening, and making in proximity with communities will bring us closer to the co-imagination of a socially just world.
1. The “Build With, Not For” conversation is currently prominent among civic designers and technologists. For more, read McCann. At the 2015 Personal Democracy Forum meeting in New York in June 2015, two consecutive breakout sessions explored this topic in the format of interactive workshops with documentation.
2. There have been critiques about how the eagerness for technology solutions could end up driving civic technologists’ search for a problem to be solved. This impulse toward solution has ramifications when tech solutions are often framed as products available on the market, thus reinforcing the market logic of technology in the private sector. For more on this subject, see Shaw.
3. For more on this conception of humanities education, read Spivak, “Can There Be a Feminist World?”
4. DCA Social Report is meant to be an interrogation of the utility of the existing social media primers for government. I describe how governments can critically adapt private-sector tools, approaches, and values for a public interest in an essay-length introduction to the report. See Hsu, “Introductions: Why This Report?”
6. Similar to its literary counterpart, digital literacy as a civic framework calls for a baseline understanding of the building blocks, like grammar and vocabulary, of what make up the current media landscape. In this new landscape, formal and content qualities of information are radically recontextualized by the Internet. For the civic workforce, it is no longer sufficient to be able to generate and critique work materials in print-based or other analog formats. For more on digital literacy for government work, see Hsu, “Digital Literacy for Civic Staff.” On digital literacy and political affordances of the Web, see Maier, “Digital Literacy, Part 1: Cadence.”
7. Nancy Fraser’s formulation of strong and weak public is a critical response to Habermas’s bourgeois public sphere. Fraser notes that Habermas’s theoretical formation does not consider the empirical reality of social inequality and overlooks existing power stratifications. Fraser’s work serves as a good reminder for how humanities scholars may position their work and its political implications vis-à-vis the public (“Rethinking the Public Sphere”).
8. Similarly, Emily Shaw advocates for civic technologists to consider the power relations within the public in their work. Locating government as a center of power, Shaw evokes that those who are the most distant from government are the least empowered in the world of civic technology. She advises civic technologists to consider the voice and the needs of the power-distant individuals in their work (Shaw, “Civic Wants, Civic Needs, Civic Tech”).
Birchall, Clare. “‘Data.gov-in-a-box’: Delimiting Transparency.” European Journal of Social Theory, March 1, 2015. doi: 10.1177/1368431014555259.
Dunn, Anthony, and Fiona Raby. Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2013.
Fraser, Nancy. “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy.” Social Text, no. 25/26 (1990): 56–80.
Felski, Rita. “Critique and the Hermeneutics of Suspicion.” M/C Journal 15, no. 1 (2012). http://journal.media-culture.org.au/index.php/mcjournal/article/viewArticle/431.
Hsu, Wendy. “Digital Literacy for Civic Staff, Why Lab at DCA, Part 1.” Lab at DCA (blog), August 1, 2015. http://dcaredesign.org/lab/digital-literacy-for-civic-staff-why-lab-at-dca-part-1/.
—.“Introductions: Why This Report?” DCA Social Report, August 2, 2015. http://dcaredesign.org/socialreport/about-dca-report/.
Hsu, Wendy, and Jack Moreau. DCA Social Report, July 5, 2015. http://dcaredesign.org/socialreport.
Lab at DCA. http://dcaredesign.org/lab.
Latour, Bruno. Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999.
Luff, Paul, Jon Hindmarsh, and Christian Heath. Workplace Studies: Recovering Work Practice and Informing System Design. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Maier, Andrew. “Digital Literacy, Part 1: Cadence.” UX Booth, October 3, 2013. http://www.uxbooth.com/articles/digital-literacy-part-1-cadence/.
McCann, Laurenellen. “Building Technology With, Not For Communities: An Engagement Guide for Civic Tech.” Medium.com, March 30, 2015. https://medium.com/@elle_mccann/building-technology-with-not-for-communities-an-engagement-guide-for-civic-tech-b8880982e65a.
Neff, Gina. Venture Labor: Work and the Burden of Risk in Innovative Industries. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2013.
Schrock, Andrew. Forthcoming. “Civic Hacking as Data Activism and Advocacy: A History from Publicity to Open Government Data.” In New Media and Society.
Shaw, Emily. “Civic Wants, Civic Needs, Civic Tech.” Sunlight Foundation (blog), September 29, 2014. http://sunlightfoundation.com/blog/2014/09/29/civic-wants-civic-needs-civic-tech/.
Spivak, Gayatri. “Can There Be a Feminist World?” Public Books, May 15, 2015. http://www.publicbooks.org/nonfiction/can-there-be-a-feminist-world.
Stommel, Jesse (@Jessifer). “#uwdh @kfitz has emphasized several times today the importance of thinking about scholarship and academic work as a public good,’” Twitter post, April 17, 2015. https://twitter.com/jessifer/status/589078243074039809.