A blog about the Master Programme in Digital Humanities at Uppsala University

Tag: Tools and Methods

Critical Encounters with AI

How do large AI models like ChatGPT work? What is the difference between machine learning and AI? What can we say about the environmental and work ethical impacts of current large language models? These were some of the questions discussed at the seminar “AI and algorithms”, which is a part of the course “Tools and Methods in Digital Humanities: Critical Encounters”. This course is the second course in the Master’s programme in Digital Humanities, and it introduces the students to a selection of key tools and methods used in digital humanities. The course consists of seminars and practical workshops in which students learn to critically approach and examine tools used in various tasks in the scholarship. These include optical and handwritten character recognition, textual and visual analysis, programming, and AI-based tools.

At this particular seminar, students discussed the implications of algorithms and AI models and applications for digital humanities scholarship and contemporary societies more broadly. We investigated questions related to biases and limitations in AI, power relations embedded and sustained in the applications, but also more concrete questions about the role of natural resources or human labour behind AI solutions. As Kate Crawford writes in her Atlas of AI, “[e]very dataset used to train machine learning systems, whether in the context of supervised or unsupervised machine learning, whether seen to be technically biased or not, contains a worldview.“[1]

The seminar concluded with practical exercises, where the students examined how large language models, in this case ChatGPT, could be viewed as tools used in digital humanities scholarship. The student groups worked on different tasks that could be part of an actual digital humanities research workflow. Some students explored named-entity recognition and linking, while another group worked on OCR post-correction, and some focused on sentiment and stance analysis. The exercises concretely demonstrated some key challenges related to AI-assisted knowledge production, including limitations in the transparency of the training data, but also demonstrated the potential for incorporating AI and machine-assisted steps in research workflows.

This AI-themed week of the course continued the following day with a workshop on visual analysis with Amanda Wasielewski. At the workshop, the students took another critical perspective on AI by focusing on the theme of computer vision. This time, the students conducted analysis with images they had selected for the workshop, using the OpenCV library and example notebooks prepared for the workshop. The skills, knowledge, and critical perspectives on both text and visuals, and digital cultural heritage more broadly, are among the themes that we engage with and learn about in the DH MA programme.

[1] Crawford, Kate. Atlas of AI : Power, Politics, and the Planetary Costs of Artificial Intelligence. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021, p. 135.

In-depth: Tools and methods

Just before the christmas break, I got the opportunity to ask a few questions to Matts Lindström, the course coordinator for the course Tools and Methods: Critical Encounters.

What is your research background and how did you find Digital Humanities as an educational and research subject?

Matts Lindström is a media historian focusing on the cultural history of information

My background as a researcher and academic is in the History of Science and Ideas, and more precisely in Media history. So I’m not really a DH researcher per se. My interests are more geared towards using different theoretical and historical perspectives to better understand digital society and culture, including the recent formation of digital humanities as a new field of knowledge production (or even disciplinary field in its own right).

Also, I work as a coordinator for the Digital Humanities Uppsala network, so teaching on the Masters course was a natural fit in that role as well.

How do you use digital tools or digital methods in your own research?

I don’t, if by “digital methods” you mean quantitative methods, natural language processing algorithms, topic modelling etc. – i.e. various forms of statistical analysis or “distant reading”. I might in the future, however, as I am part of a few DH projects that are currently in development and looking for funding.

Also, I should add that I am what you could call “code literate”. So while working on my dissertation I sometimes used various home cooked scripts and open source tools to collect and occasionally curate digitised historical sources (the standard unix toolchain for text processing mostly, like wget, grep, regular expressions etc). This, however, had no theoretical or methodological implications for my research. It just made things easier, just like a word processor and the Internet makes certain research and writing operations much easier than for instance the historical combination of a typewriter and a library.

What was for you the most successful or meaningful part of the course?

Well we are still evaluating, but I hope that the most succesful part was the integration of historical, critical/theoretical themes with the practical workshops that we held.

Picture from a workshop by Anna Foka during the course

What would you say is the core of the course?

First, the course aims to make the students aware that there are various means — tools and methodologies — which can be leveraged in digital humanities research. And to give them some practical experience of using a few of these tools. 

Second, the course aims to make them aware that it is important that such tools and methods are framed and evaluated within the tradition of critical and historical perspectives that are the central area of expertise for humanists (digital or not).

The core then, I would say, is the integration of practice and theory through critical reflection.

As a historian of Science and Ideas and a media historian I believe it is always crucial to understand the conditions surrounding whatever knowledge production you engage in, be these technological or discursive. The historical conditions of possibility of knowledge – to put it in, I suppose, slightly foucauldian language (referring to the theories of philosopher Michel Foucault) .

For instance, if you are working with some sort of digital mapping tool it is important to understand that there is a long history (going as far back as the antiquity), both within science and the humanities of using various technologies and media for visualising and mapping space. Similarly the problem of managing huge amounts of data, which is integral to the whole Big Data theme, is a recurring phenomena in the history of knowledge.

So, I believe it is important to be aware of such things and to critically reflect on how digital tools, or any tool or media technology, affects and shapes your thinking, your writing – in the end, the actual knowledge that you produce as a student or researcher. 

This, I hope, is one of the main take aways of the course.

Collaborative Document Annotation

This week the students on the program had a workshop with Anna Foka, a teacher and researcher working at the Digital Humanities Lab at Uppsala University. The workshop was part of the course Tools and methods: critical encounters.

Anna Foka (middle ) showing students the software Recogito

Recogito provides a personal workspace where you can upload, collect and organize your source materials – texts, images and tabular data – and collaborate in their annotation and interpretation. The topic of the workshop was collaborative document annotation.

The students were introduced to and was instructed how to annotate and map texts and images in Recogito, connecting names in songs to actual geographical locations in the software.

Students annotating song texts from the 90s

Anna Foka used examples during the workshop from her own research on conflicted cartographies, which you can find more about through this link.

The second step of the first semester

The students of the DH-masterprogramme is now done with their first introductory course as they are settling in to the cosier Swedish autumn weather.

Today the second course on the program starts. It’s called Tools and Methods: Critical Encounters and is a practically oriented course coordinated by Matts Lindström. The course introduces and studies a selection of tools and methods used in the digital humanities.

Autumn is coming to Sweden

The course will be include both seminars and lab sessions, where the students will be able to develop a critical and historicising approach to new methods in the humanities.

During the coming weeks of this blog you will be able to get a sneak-peak at one of the Lab sessions and also hear Matts Linström himself speak about the course.