Portraits in DH: DISCO Network

Creating Equitable and Just Futures in the Digital

About the interviewer, Dr. Kevin C. Winstead: As a Council of Library and Information Research (CLIR) Postdoctoral Fellow for African American and African Studies Data Curation with the Center for Black Digital Research at Penn State University, my work has closely followed the evolution of Black Digital Studies as it has solidified in the era of networked media. My own research agenda examines online activism and its resistance to networked disinformation. Much of the theoretical background and professional affordances are due to the scholars who have come together to form the DISCO Network.  

About the DISCO Network: In 2021 the Andrew Mellon Foundation funded a nearly $4.8 million grant to start the Digital Inquiry, Speculation, Collaboration, & Optimism (DISCO) Network, a collective made up of six scholars located across the nation focused on digital inequality, race, and ability. “The DISCO Network integrates critical humanistic, social science, and artistic approaches to digital studies and foregrounds questions about the cultural implications of technology to envision a new anti-racist and anti-ableist digital future.” While the network’s administrative home is housed at the University of Michigan with Lisa Nakamura, the Gwendolyn Calvert Baker Collegiate Professor of American Culture and professor of Asian and Pacific Islander studies, and director of the Digital Studies Institute, there are 5 labs at several host institutions including the Humanities and Technoscience (HAT) Lab at Purdue University; Black Communication & Technology Lab (BCaT) Lab at The University of Maryland; Digital Accessible Futures (Digital AF) Lab at the University of Michigan; Project on Rhetorics of Equity, Access, Computation, and Humanities (PREACH) Lab at Georgia Tech; and the Future Histories Studio at Stony Brook. We have the privilege of interviewing two of the DISCO Network lab directors: Catherine Knight Steele of the University of Maryland and André L. Brock of Georgia Tech.

Future Histories Studio at Stony Brook

How was DISCO Networked initiated? What part of the journey did you enter the program?

Steele: “Yeah, so thanks for having me.The first way that this started for us was the Mellon Foundation put out a call in 2021 as the pandemic was kind of raging on and there was such a turn toward digital in terms of thinking about what our future would look like in ways that could be more just and equitable. And they put out a call, called “Just Futures,” where folks were invited from across the nation to submit proposals to the Mellon Foundation for this program. Lisa Nakamura reached out to myself, to Ray Fouchet, to André Brock, and Stephanie Dinkins asking us if we would like to collaborate with her on this “Just Futures” project and we were really happy to do. Unfortunately, we were not selected for the “Just Futures” program, but the Mellon Foundation was so impressed with the proposal that we put together that they reached out to us after the announcement and asked if we’d be interested in submitting a separate grant package. A larger one, in fact, that would actually get to the heart of all the things that we proposed to do in that initial “Just Futures” material. What was exciting about that is submitting in that way really opened up possibilities outside of that specified project proposal where we could really think creatively and inventively about how to best make this network a reality, and to draw in as many participants as possible to kind of think toward what it would mean to think about the digital in ways that were creative that were equity-focused and that really didn’t have any limitations on our possibilities. So I got pulled in, that way.”

Director, Catherine Knight Steele of the University of Maryland

Brock: “It was an opportunity to do a couple of things: 1) was to build out a cohort of junior scholars and early career researchers who are doing the kind of work that we wanted to see, critical digital studies that has an attention to both the technology and the meeting making strategies and the people that use them: and 2) to build out Critical Technocultural Discourse Analysis (CTDA) workshops to introduce people to it as a methodology technique of looking at technologies practices, users/communities, and to understand what’s going on behind the scenes and in the interfaces of these technologies that we use everyday.”

How does DISCO work situate itself with the digital studies/media studies community?

Brock: “So the digital studies community is a really interesting space as of the last few years what with spaces jumping up between digital sociology of VCU, C2I2 at UCLA, Sarah Jackson is doing something at Penn as well… so all of these institutes are popping up where people are intentionally focusing on digital studies as an expansion of what media studies was originally – that is we’re paying much more attention to the media technological and computational artifacts, as opposed to what I believe that media studies really was more worried about the content. We are also seeing these spaces which don’t necessarily have audiences, like algorithms and big data. We are also interested in doing that kind of work. This particular configuration of researchers draws upon multiple strengths so Ray Fouche as an STS scholar, Stephanie Dinkins is an artist doing AI art and Black womanhood, Catherine Knight Steele’s strengths of communication researcher; Lisa, as you know, one of the canonical figures in this movement; and then there’s little me to tag along in the back like, Hey I wanna play too! So yeah, I think we have a unique perspective in part because of the bodies we were able to pull together —  oh can’t forget Remi (Yergeau) who’s doing disability studies … right … and so it’s a unique perspective on what the future of digital studies could be because of all of our varied perspectives.”

Director, André L. Brock of Georgia Institute of Technology

Steele: “I think all — and both and you know we are scholars that come from very different disciplinary backgrounds: Information studies, communication, media studies, art design,  justice and disability studies, you know and English and rhetoric. So there’s all of these kinds of different approaches to thinking about digital tools, digital technology and it’s an interpolation between people and digital tools, and I think that’s what really makes the network stronger, is that we’re not coming out of one specific tradition, disciplinary home, or even out of behavioral science versus humanities. There’s not that kind of either/or to the work that we’re trying to accomplish. I think this can best be seen in the inclusion of Stony Brook University’s Stephanie Dinkins, and her design work. Having an artist as a part of our core principal investigators team really challenges us to think about our projects in broader ways that are not always about even just writing… the natural kind of thing that may come out of a collaboration like this is a book project, or set a set of journal articles — but making sure that we are incorporating thoughts and ideas from folks in the humanities and the social sciences and the arts all at the same time.”

What groups of audiences and communities do DISCO target?

Black Communication & Technology Lab (BCaT) at the University of Maryland

Steele: “My lab, the BCAT lab at the University of Maryland (the Black Communication and Technology Lab), is really looking inside the academy in a lot of ways. We’re talking to undergraduates and graduate students. We’re going to be working with high school students as well, ensuring that folks have access to supports to kind of make it through the traditional mechanisms for getting through their studies, but also moving on to the next stage of their academic career. You also have folks who will work on white paper documents in order to present to legislatures to think about how digital tools impact the day-to-day lives of marginalized communities; and what ways we can really think and reimagine equity at the center of those places. Then you have people who are writing in creative ways, who are doing more “public-facing,” writing for audiences who are just casual users of social media tools and how might we make sure that the kind of work we’re doing really speaks and resonates. So there’s really this multifaceted approach that we’re able to take on because the network is so expansive. 

I think one of the beauties of this lab and of Lisa Nakamura’s vision here is to really let folks work within their capacities. All the lab leaders are really, you know, passionate about different kinds of things that are related to each other, and we’re really giving each other the space and the freedom to explore those things and to see where there are connections and overlaps and where there are divergences.” 

What does an “alternative and inclusive digital future” look like for you? How does your initiative work towards that?

Steele: “So what I’ve enjoyed about working on with this go so far — and I’ll mention one of our collaborators, Remi Yergeau, who’s at the University of Michigan and her Digital Futures Lab, where she’s thinking about equity and justice as it relates to disability. It really challenges each of us to think about design and access in all of the settings where we usually are doing our research. So when DISCO talks about accessible futures, we are thinking about how everyone comes to these spaces that we take for granted as being accessible already. The ways that that design already exists, but also the way that we can remix and change and challenge what exists already, to use Ray Fouche’s kind of notion here. To create the different types of futures that I’m imagining at BCAT is one, where the kinds of supports that are built in for some folks within our field are actually accessible to the Black students that are interested in these areas as well… that we might see from the high school level and interest. From students to understand that they can do critical essential work in technology that isn’t necessarily in the STEM fields that might allow them to still do a kind of critical studies in the humanities or social sciences. In areas where they already have strengths, they don’t necessarily have to go and get a computer science degree in order to be really impactful in changing technology for the better in their own communities. In order to study things like activism online, that’s the kind of accessible future that I imagine is where people have access. And people have the supports necessary to actually make their way through and navigate their academic careers and beyond putting folks in touch with industry leaders with nonprofits with governmental leaders when they leave their undergraduate education.”

Digital Accessible Futures (Digital AF) Lab at the University of Michigan

Brock: “It’s a really awkward question. I’m not really concerned with inclusivity in part, and this is something I recently said in an interview — I want us as Black folk to be able to talk about what we do in a space that’s not necessarily centered on resistance and oppression. So that’s not necessarily inclusive if you think about the work that Catherine Squires has done with counterpublics. We’re talking about counterpublics that only occasionally engage with the wider mainstream or political goals because we have our own stuff to deal with. I’m writing about Black respectability which the wider mainstream could care less about but which deserves that same kind of care, nuanced, and detailed inquiry that should be targeted towards something that deeply affects how Black people get along in this country. I try to expand upon the work that canonical respectability scholars have done like Kevin Gaines, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Darlene Clark Hine, and even Patricia Hill Collins and Kimberlé Crenshaw with intersectionality. That’s not an inclusive future, it’s not even an alternative one but what it is is a Black focus and Black centered one. I think for many of my colleagues in this initiative we’re all doing similar things. Maybe it is an alternative, but it’s not necessarily an alternative that we want white folk to engage in. It’s an alternative by saying these histories – these agencies are just as worthy of scholastic inquiry and investment as any random misinformation campaign – or yet another corpus of Shakespeare work to determine who authored those particular plays: Francis Bacon or William Shakespeare. So in that regard I think our initiative is kind of unique because we have this focus on what does it mean to do work for us by us.” 

Other than the DISCO project, what are some other things you both are working on?

Humanities and Technoscience (HAT) Lab at Purdue University

Steele: “One is a book project, Black Digital Studies; A Practical Guide under contract with Routledge that I’m really excited about with some of my collaborators from the AADHUm initiative, and you’re one of them, Kevin. We’re really excited and hoping to have that out for folks to read by the end of the year, which is about doing Black Digital Humanities in ethical and intentional ways. I think as the digital humanities expands, and specifically as Black, digital humanities becomes even more expansive, it’s important that we have a certain intentionality. Without the ability to historicize and to think about ways that we can be successful here and the kind of structures that are in place that actually work as an impediment to that success, then getting access to all that money doesn’t really push us forward in the ways that we hope that it will.” 

Brock: “I am really taking a step back to reflect on my book Distributed Blackness and working through how CTDA has been taken up so far.” 

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