[2012-07-11] We are constantly connected to computers, mobile phones or things around us. At the experiment lab and meeting place Humlab-X, in the middle of the Umeå Arts Campus, researchers meet in the borderland between the digital and the analogue.
A linguist, an art historian and an ethnologist are spread out, each with their own laptop. A pile of flickering, big tv sets are on the floor.
“It is an installation by a student at Umeå Academy of Fine Arts, Jonas Gazell, called 'Surplus of Obsolete Technology'.
Can it be used for anything else?” asks Carl-Erik Engqvist, artistic leader at Humlab-X.
Otherwise, advanced flat screens will dominate Humlab-X when everything is ready this spring: sixteen 46-inch screens on one wall, an interactive floor area of 20 square metres with eight projectors underneath and a studio with advance 3D potential.
“Reality is not so simple and one sided. This is a way to connect different perspectives. You should be able to interact, form, and showcase your work here,” explains Patrik Svensson, Director of Humlab-X.
In the heart of the Umeå Arts Campus
Located in the heart of the Umeå Arts Campus, Humlab-X is a kind of innovation hub where teachers and students from all institutions can meet, as well as the public. Humlab-X is a research lab, gallery, educational centre, stage and theatre – sometimes all at the same time.
“This is an experimental workshop, a place where people can meet. There doesn't need to be tons of technology – people can just as well sit around a table and talk. Its location in the middle of all the institutions here is important,” says Patrik Svensson.
Humlab-X (where the x may be interpreted
as extension) is a kind of extension of Humlab, located at the head campus for Umeå University. The environment in its current form started in 2000 and is a meeting place for people at the intersection between the humanities and digital information technology. Humlab-X builds upon this idea but uses the activities at the Umeå Arts Campus: design, architecture and art, as its basis.
“The starting point for our activities is that digital humanities are important. Digitalisation creates new tools for the humanities to work with – you can, for example, scan a couple a million words within a couple of seconds. But it is also about digital expressions themselves as objects for study. They affect us as people – and are therefore important to investigate,” says Patrik Svensson.
Internet of Things
In December 2011, Humlab held a conference about Internet of Things, the fact that we are connected more and more, through mobile phones, computers and all the stuff around us.
Humlab invited lecturers from around the world to shed light on the topic.
One of the Swedish lecturers was Jennie Olofsson, who is now sitting and making the final touches to a magazine article in Humlab-X.
“I investigate the phenomenon of hacked electronic road signs, i.e. that people break into computer systems and change the text on road signs. It is unusual in Sweden but there are many examples of this in the USA. You can, for example, write that a zombie attack is occurring. Look at YouTube and you'll see,” she says and plays a video on the computer showing a person changing text on a road sign just by a few clicks on his mobile phone.
“The point is that we encounter screens everywhere we go and are affected by them. And in certain instances, they may affect us physically. We are connected wherever we are and that is part of the way we live,” says Jennie Olofsson, who is an ethnologist by profession and wrote her doctoral thesis about the implementation of robots at LKAB (which tells you something about the interdisciplinary aims at Humlab).
Domestic violence and social media
A little further away sits her American research colleague Stephanie Hendrick. She is a linguist who wrote her doctorate about blogs and digital communities. Now she studies the connection between domestic violence and social media.
“There are special sites where victims of domestic violence can communicate, for example, through digital postcards. I am studying the sites and what kind of effect they have. My hypothesis is that social media can be a tool that can help vulnerable people,” says Stephanie Hendrick.
Interest in digital humanities is constantly growing and Patrik Svensson often gets to travel around the world and describe Humlab's activities. Since 2010, Humlab has carried out a joint research project with Stanford University in California, one of the world's foremost universities – where, among others, the founders of Google went to college.
Creative use of new technology
The project is called Media Places and will investigate how our everyday places – like offices, homes, and cafés – are changed through digital media and expressions.
“Humlab-X is unique thanks to its interactive group environment and its creative use of new technology that encourages scientific experiments among all disciplines. It is a source of inspiration for us when we build our own humanities lab here,” says Zephyr Frank, history professor at Stanford.
Zephyr Frank believes that the importance of digital humani ties will increase sharply in the future:
“New methods for data acquisition, network analyses and image technology will entail both possibilities and challenges for future classical scholars. But I believe that researchers within the field of humanities, with their advanced ability to interpret and analyse, will play an important role when future scientific questions are formulated.”
A window out to the general public
Humlab is not just designed for researchers, but also wants to be a window out to the general public. One of the projects Humlab supports is Geek Girl Meetup – where women of all ages can learn more about the Internet and digital progress. Emma Ewadotter teaches a course about developing indie games:
“After five sessions, participants can create simple computer games; it is pretty cool to see,” says Emma Ewadotter who is putting the final touches to her doctoral thesis about conceptual photographic portraits.
“I aim to be ready by the end of the year. That
is when a group that I belong to will have money from the Science Council for a project regarding medieval images of the Virgin Mary in a digital environment. Digital tools provide another kind of vision. What happens if you enlarge a chalk drawing 500 times – something new emerges from it,” states Emma Ewadotter.
Yes, in the interfaces there are always new things to discover. It seem that it's only your imagination that set limits in Humlab-X.
Text: Johan Wickström
Illustration: Carl-Erik Engqvist
Editor: Karin Wikman
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