APC post-doctoral research fellow, Grant McNulty, recently attended a workshop about the humanities on the African continent in the era of machine learning. Held in early March at WISER (Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research), the workshop was co-organised by WISER, the LOST Network and the Media Studies and History departments at Wits and the University of Johannesburg respectively.
The first day of the workshop focused on philosophical and political aspects of machine learning as both a subject of enquiry and as the key set of skills and technologies that are shaping the global network society. While many extolled the democratising and emancipatory possibilities of the Internet and social media, there is increasing popular and scholarly disillusionment with the network society and recognition of the potential for digital technologies to renew and entrench established structures of inequality.
The second day of the workshop was devoted to the presentation of proposals for funding from the Programme of African Digital Humanities (Afridig). Sponsored by the Mellon Foundation, this programme has made available, on a competitive basis, financial support for existing and planned digitisation projects at participating institutions in South Africa. The programme aims to re-awaken the universities' digitisation capacity so that core skills and resources are available to others and to use standards-based cataloguing and discoverability tools that will facilitate cross-institutional collaboration. A key goal of the project is to increase the exposure of unavailable or scarce works produced by black writers by making them available online. McNulty presented on the Five Hundred Year Archive (FHYA) and, in line with the Afridg requirement of cross-institutional collaboration, discussed how the FHYA project team might work with other Afridig applicants, Pippa Skotnes (Centre for Curating the Archive, UCT) and Stefania Merlo (Wits). Both of these applicants have projects that deal with digital collections and tools and share with the FHYA a temporal focus on the past before European colonialism and a cross-border southern African geographic focus that precedes the nation state.
The proposals are currently being assessed but it was encouraging to see how many university departments are implementing, or in the early stages of developing, digital humanities projects.