Over the last month or so a bunch of university development, marketing, and external relation types have asked me to describe what the Working Group in Digital and New Media is. I go through my usual boilerplate on the importance of digital and new media in our world and how the convergent space carved out by digital technologies is not only making it easier for academic to collaborate, but it is making it absolutely necessary. I usually go into detail about how the new currency is information and access to information provides certain important structures for new community oriented most obviously around social media applications, but implicit in many of the basic interaction that we have in digital space (for a brief and nice meditation on this same idea see here). In response to my impassioned plea for our new digital utopia, I usually get a response like "so, this is really about building better webpages." This is not a good sign that my university is prepared to embrace its digital future. Or, alternately and perhaps more optimistically, this response reflects my inability to articulate that digital future in a compelling way!
So, out of frustration I volunteered to write up for "the public" an overview of the Digital and New Media Working Group.
Here it is:
The Working Group
in Digital and New Media
We live in a world saturated with digital media. It forms a medium through which we engage in all sorts of basic interactions. We communicate with friends and family via email, text-messaging, and social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter. At the same time, we find common cause with strangers by following blogs, listening to podcasts, and celebrating the bizarre world created by user-generated YouTube video. The digital and new media has arrived and is shaping our world daily and producing new kinds of communities that transcend traditional barriers of space and social identity. Web pioneers have become cult heroes and digital entrepreneurs have become a new kind of intellectual and economic elite.
As recently as 10 years ago, most of would rank as mere consumers of the web content, and the communities organized around content on the web were mainly passive consumers of pre-packaged commodities. Today, however, things have changed. More and more people have become producers of digital and new media by writing their own blogs, uploading YouTube videos, recording podcasts, and producing new works of fiction, music, and art. The most ambitious and creative members of so-called Generation X and Y have found ways to “mash-up” or combine date, text, music, and video from different sources to create unique experiences. This ability to create art, literature, music, scholarship, or any other of the myriad of novel and bizarre experiences on the web has enabled a new generation of digital natives to crash through the barriers that traditionally separated the consumers and producers of media content. In the process, this expanding group has created new communities whose identities and space for interaction extends across a whole range of new digital devices that have become common in our everyday life. Over the past decade, digital media has gone from being the basis for a whole range of new information, to the foundation for new forms of community, social and intellectual interaction, and, of course, economic life.
Academia has not been spared from this digital media revolution. The flexibility, dynamism, and ever-changing capabilities of our digital world has made it a potent platform for cross disciplinary collaboration and communication. At the University of North Dakota, the Working Group in Digital and New Media is at the forefront of using digital technologies to break down the traditional barriers that have separated art from science, the humanities from the social sciences, and research from teaching. In this effort, they deploy many of the same tools that the high-tech industry, new media moguls, and internet entrepreneurs use to create new and digital media experiences that regularly influence our everyday experiences. Drawing on the power of cloud and cluster computing, powerful multi-media desktops machines, social networking, a wide range of digital and new media theory, and rapidly developing software infrastructure, the Working Group is committed to the production of innovative digital media which both produces and stands at the core of new forms of community and social space. The media truly becomes the message as the group collaborates and shares technological expertise, digital aesthetics, and high-tech infrastructure on campus. This groups efforts, in turn, hope to produce a space for collaboration for other scholars, students, and colleagues both on campus and around the world.
The overall goal of this Working Group is to capture the entrepreneurial spirit of the dot.com generation and funnel these creative energies to a new integrative, transmedia scholarship. The Working group laboratory is the place where disciplinary walls collapse and digital and new media becomes the space for innovation and collaboration. This is not just the kind of collaborative efforts that results in scholarly articles or learned conference papers, but a kind of public collaboration where the results of faculty and student discussions become visible, almost instantly, in the internet to the entire world.
Anyone who has watched a movie in the past five years has noticed the amazing development of digital animation both to enhance live action films as special effects as well as to carry the entire visual experience and plot. When filmmakers first introduced these effects they took hours and hours to produce and render on high-powered mainframe type computers. At the intersection of science, technological expertise, and art, Prof. Joel Jonientz, of the Department of Art and Design is using the high power desktop computers in the Digital and New Media lab to create the basic imagery for the next generation of animate films.
These images are converted into moving images using the computer power of the high performance computing cluster here on campus in a technical alliance with the Digital and New Media lab. The high performance cluster is one of the newest generation of super computers that marshals the power of a series of linked processors working together to execute complex functions at remarkable speed. The alliance between arts, science and technology at the lab allows faculty and students to produce new creative projects and refine the processes that allow these projects to become reality. What was once the realm of multi-million dollar studios is now within reach of students and scholars here at UND.
Whenever we search the web, we are familiar with the all too common experience of bringing up masses of irrelevant information for even the simplest and most straightforward search. Even as search engines become better able to sort the wheat from the chaff, researchers have become increasingly determined to make the text themselves more easy to search not only by standard search engines like Google, but by the next generation of faceted search engines that will allow you to conduct more focused searches directed toward specific bodies of text. Faceted search engines depend upon various kind of mark-up languages, like XML (Extensible Mark-up Language) which are largely invisible to the general public, but organize information behind the scenes. Prof. Crystal Alberts of the English Department, another scholar in the Working Group, is working to encode historical texts with XML mark-up. This time consuming and technical task opens important texts are searchable by researchers and students. For example, Crystal is working with a team who is encoding the both video and transcriptions of the famous University of North Dakota’s Writers Conference. She is also encoding the “Norwegian Transcript Collection” which documents the Nazi occupation of Norway. Alberts is opening the remarkable archival collections here at UND to a wider world of scholars and students and playing an even more important role in a wide rang of global conversations on topics from fascism to literature.
For the past decade Prof. Bill Caraher, a professor in the Department of History, has been collecting digital data from his archaeological work in Greece and Cyprus. This data comes in many forms ranging from databases to digital photos and maps in Geographic Information Systems databases. The Working Group lab has become the place where a team of undergraduate and graduate interns work to publish this wide range of archaeological media both on the web and in print form.
The real novelty, however, is their efforts to combine the science and art of archaeology by integrating digital descriptions of stratigraphy, artifact typology, and surface densities to an array of video, audio, and fine art photographs collected from his site in Cyprus. This combinations provides creates an archaeological experience that has something to offer empirical scholars, artists, beginning students, and the general public without compromising the rigor of the field research. A web interface introduces students and scholars to the experience of Mediterranean archaeological without specialized knowledge, expensive airfares, and costly stays away from home.
Digital Music has become a mainstay in American culture. As digital music has become more sophisticated and complex, it has required additional levels of technical expertise and computing power. Composition of music in a digital environment goes far beyond drum machines and keyboards to involve complex software suites and high-powered computers. UND’s Award Winning Composer, Prof. Michael Wittgraf participates in the Working group and uses the laboratories facilities as a base for his research and teaching in music composition. By combining the art of music composition with his background in mathematics and the technologies available at the lab, Wittgraf’s work is the embodiment of the shared space made available by digital media.
The Future of Digital and New Media
The Working Group in Digital and New Media leverages digital media to break down barriers and form new communities across campus, across the state, and around the world. A strong commitment to cultivating both the intellectual and technological infrastructure ensures a place for the University of North Dakota to the forefront of ongoing and rapidly expanding digital revolution.