Covid and digital

This blog has been on hold for way too long. For personal reasons I have had to let go a few things, even important one, but It seems that it is time to get back in the game. I still think that the topics of this carnet de recherche – the future of reading, first of all – are relevant and I am willing to keep it alive.

In the past few months thinking about Viruses has been an occupational hazard for everyone in the planet. In fact, this is something that the real world has in common with the digital, provided that at present there is still a difference between the two.

During covid-induced lockdowns, we were all hooked up to our internet connections to breathe and survive. At least those of us that were lucky enough not to be attached to a ventilator and have the economical and technical means to be online 24/7 (digital divide is not a myth, is extremely real)

In the early days of the Covid, the new key role of the digital was immediately emphasised, sort of digital humanities with a vengeance (“oggi, in un momento in cui il materiale di ricerca deve essere reperito virtualmente, forse una seppur minima dose di scuse agli informatici umanisti spetterebbe pure” wrote Antonello Fabio Caterino on March 13) I am not sure I would endorse this request for an apology, but indeed digital humanists were the most qualified to help at a chaotic moment of emergency. And they did. A lot of people were in need for sound advice, and quickly, and thing such as Caterino’s Vademecum digitale d’emergenza or Ripartiamo dal crowdsourcing: un vaccino anti COVID-19 per la ricerca umanistica italiana, or the Open Science and DH tools that come handy at the time of corona, were indeed helpful, and a good starting point for a discussion. But ten months have passed now, and we should soften the rhetoric of emergency a bit, and start to make a more systemic and holistic approach about the future of research and teaching in the academy. As any chess player can tell you, it is normal to make mistakes and inaccuracies, even blunders, during a game, especially under pressure, but you always need to carefully analyze your games afterwards, no matter how good you are.

The experience of the Covid brought forward two things that digital humanists should discuss more and in public: the problem of the infrastructure and the problem of  education. Some discussions have already emerged, but there is a need to do more, in my opinion.  And this need is quite urgent, I might add. The window of opportunity that the Covid granted us is not going to last forever. Discussions and planning such as the one on Next Generation EU or UNESCO’s Global Learning Coalition, the most sustained attempt at a global outlook on education, as far as I can see, do not happen frequently.

Huge interests are at play here, of course, regarding the whole institutional frame of research and teaching, the whole world of the University as we know it. The main issue is, as usual, the question of data privacy, and the role of GAFAM, the “five sisters” of Big Tech (back in the 1970s, the oil multinational sisters were 7… hardly an improvement), and the field of battle at the moment is the use of platform of distant learning and video conference (such as Google Meet or Microsoft Team): open or proprietary?

The issue is complex, and one should not have an ideological and biased stance. However, I do believe that a public digital infrastructure for schools and universities* (originally in Italian, and also in French) is probably the best possible solution, if not at a national level, at least at the European one.


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