Critical Studies of a Tech Stack: A Technological Network Perspective

The growing interest in laboratory studies in Digital Humanities (Pawlicka-Deger and Thomson, Forthcoming) has a great potential to unlock the complex dimensions of digital research production entangled with infrastructure, management, and administration. There is still however a lack of discussion about a laboratory culture, i.e., an environment with its social and philosophical dimensions that shape the way research is produced with the design and implementation of technologies. So far, Digital Humanities (DH) scholars have attended to technologies in the context of their development (Peirson, Damerow and Laubichler 2016) and application (Bradley 2019). This instrumentally inclined perspective foregrounds some aspects of laboratory’s activities but at the same time conceives the technological layer as a crucial part of constructing a laboratory environment politically and economically engaged with university IT departments, the global IT industry, and open-source communities. Critical studies of a tech stack – technologies a lab uses to build and manage projects – can reveal how the range and selection of technologies inform a lab culture (Ciula and Smithies, Forthcoming).

The goal of my forthcoming work co-authored with members of King’s Digital Lab (KDL) is therefore to offer a contribution towards an understanding of the role of technologies in informing and shaping a lab culture. It aims to conceptualise and investigate a tech stack as a relational network of actors (universities, for-profit companies, non-profit organisations, communities, and individuals, e.g., research software engineers) engaged in mutual relationships and tensions – concerning open vs closed systems, the domination of corporate platforms, and local institutional policy. This in turn influences labs’ organisational decisions and socio-cultural settings. We intend to decode the complex relational assemblage of technologies, organisations, and cultures. In doing so, it aims to show how this network of associations configures the life and identity of digital humanities labs compromising across technological pragmatism – informed by stability and sustainability – and – ethos – driven by open and independent values.

The analysis will be empirically grounded in a case study of King’s Digital Lab,a lab comprising Research Software Engineers who work on technical research solutions for digital research in the humanities and social sciences. The lab extensively collaborates with internal and external partners across disciplines, institutions, and sectors to deliver solid and sustainable digital products seen as “moving targets” resulting from the coordination of “many moving parts, differing opinions and priorities” (Jakeman 2020). The lab, immersed in a technological environment and informed by the philosophy of transparency and sustainability (KDL 2021), serves as a relevant case study to propose a model of analysis of the conditions and consequences of the interconnections across infrastructures, organisational layers, and cultures, and showcase its findings on empirical data.

To this end, we propose to use the network visualisation method combined with a laboratory ethnography to represent the tech stack of KDL and discuss the complex global and local technological landscape through which DH institutions, the IT industry, and society are brought together. By referring to the social network methods (Venturini, Munk, and Jacomy 2019), the Science and Technology Studies’ category of co-production (Jasanoff 2004) and the organisational ethnography perspective (Gellner and Hirsch 2001), we aim to use a “visually structured argument” (Galison 2015) supported by an ethnographic insight to analyse how the lab’s technologies and cultural practices mutually shape each other. The technological network of KDL consists of more than 200 resources, including software for design (e.g., Photoshop), development (e.g., Django), and testing products (e.g., Pytest), standards (e.g., IIIF), project management software (e.g., ActiveCollab), collaboration platforms (e.g., Miro), cloud-based services for document sharing (e.g., Microsoft SharePoint), and virtualisation systems (e.g., VirtualBox).

A dynamic network visualisation has been created in the Observable tool by Miguel Vieira (KDL) and you can access the Observable notebook with this link: https://observablehq.com/@jmiguelv/dhlab-kdl-technology-network. We have also released dataset in the King’s Open Research Data System: https://kcl.figshare.com/articles/dataset/King_s_Digital_Lab_Technology_Network/17372021

King’s Digital Lab Technology Network: https://observablehq.com/@jmiguelv/dhlab-kdl-technology-network

The data represents the technology stack of King’s Digital Lab. The spreadsheet available in the repository includes a non-exhaustive list of technologies applied or considered by the KDL team in the production of digital research from its set up in 2015 to the time of data collection. For each technology, the data contains information about its developer (individual or institution), function, permission (Open-source, Proprietary), and sector (Community, For-profit company, University, Non-profit organisation). It also specifies, in the stack field, which technologies have been actively used by the lab (KDL) at the time of data collection, applied in the digital humanities legacy projects inherited from the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s College London or considered by the lab team at the stage of project conceptualisation and feasibility assessment.

The visualised tech stack, by no means exhaustive, will offer a critical reflection on the relations between a DH lab, university, and tech industry. It also aims to intellectually contribute to the ongoing critical debates about the platformisation of universities, the politics of EdTech, and open vs closed technologies by discussing software and hardware constrained by local institutional policy and solutions that go beyond a simple opposition between open and closed systems. Drawing on the categories of ethical production (Smithies 2017; Miya, Rossier and Rockwell 2021) and care (Mol, Moser, and Pols 2010; Jackson 2019) developed in DH and Science and Technology Studies, the last part of the essay will discuss the philosophy and culture of KDL informed by the Software Development Lifecycle and reflected in the tech stack. Openness, scalability, transparency, and sustainability constitute a set of principles that the lab cultivates in its operational work. As we will show, the study of care practices for technologies and people can generate valuable insight into a DH laboratory as an inseparable conflation of technical, operational, social, and cultural dimensions.

References:

Bradley, J. (2019) Digital tools in the humanities: Some fundamental provocations? Digital Scholarship in the Humanities 34(1): 13–20.

Ciula, A. and Smithies, J. (Forthcoming). Sustainability and Modelling at King’s Digital Lab: Between Tradition and Innovation. In: John Bradley Festschrift, Sinclair, S. and Nyhan, J. (eds) Rockwell: University College London Press.

Galison, P. (2015) Visual STS. In: Visualization in the Age of Computerization, Carusi, A., Hoel, A. S., Webmoor, T. et al. (eds). New York and London: Routledge.

Gellner, D. and Hirsch, E. (eds) (2001) Inside Organizations: Anthropologists at Work. Oxford and New York: Berg.

Jackson, S. J. (2019) Material Care. In: Debates in the Digital Humanities, Gold, M. K. and Klein, L. F. (eds).Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.

Jasanoff, S. (eds) (2004) States of Knowledge: The Co-Production of Science and the Social Order. London and New York: Routledge.

Jakeman, N. (2020) Software Development Lifecycle for Research Software Engineering. King’s Digital Lab blog, August 19, 2020. https://kdl.kcl.ac.uk/blog/sdlc-for-rse/

KDL (2021) Our philosophy, King’s Digital Lab. https://kdl.kcl.ac.uk/how-we-work/philosophy/ 

Miya, Ch., Rossier, O. and Rockwell, G. (2021) Right Research. Modelling Sustainable Research Practices in the Anthropocene. Open Book Publishers.

Mol, A., Moser, I., and Pols, J. (2010) Care in Practice. On Tinkering in Clinics, Homes and Farms. Bielefeld: Transcript.

Pawlicka-Deger, U. and Thomson Ch. (eds) (Forthcoming), Digital Humanities and Laboratories: Perspectives on Knowledge, Infrastructure and Culture. Routledge.

Peirson, B. R. E., Damerow, J., and Laubichler, M. (2016) Software development & trans-disciplinary training at the interface of digital humanities and computer science. Digital Studies/le Champ Numérique, 6(5). DOI: http://doi.org/10.16995/dscn.17

Smithies, J. (2017) The Digital Humanities and the Digital Modern. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Venturini, T., Munk, A. K., and Jacomy, M. (2019) Actor-Network versus Network Analysis versus Digital Networks: Are We Talking about the Same Networks? In: digitalSTS: A Field Guide for Science & Technology Studies, Vertesi J. and Ribes, D. (eds). Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.


Cite as: Urszula Pawlicka-Deger, “Critical Studies of a Tech Stack: A Technological Network Perspective”, DH Infra, January 05, 2022, dhinfra.org/336


One thought on “Critical Studies of a Tech Stack: A Technological Network Perspective

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.