Welcome to Parameters, an online forum from the Council’s Digital Culture program meant to address a complex, persistent question at the heart of social science research: how does (and, ultimately, should) the production and distribution of knowledge change under digital conditions? Parameters is intended to showcase wide-ranging, even conflicting perspectives on this issue, amplifying voices of scholars and researchers, teachers and publishers, librarians and archivists, as they reflect on how their work changes—and doesn’t change—even as the modes through which knowledge is collected, shared, analyzed, and interpreted continue to be informed and influenced by computational methods, platforms, and tools. At the same time, this space is meant to offer opportunities to reflect on, appreciate, and—perhaps most importantly—critique the digital conditions under which scholarship now operates.
In addition to open contributions from scholars and professionals involved with social science research, Parameters will also feature ongoing work from the Council’s Digital Culture program. The program, with generous support from Carnegie Corporation of New York, is in the process of organizing a series of meetings exploring three aligned areas. The first area, under the rubric of “Curating Knowledge”, explores transformations to the scholarly ecosystem of universities, book and journal publishers, libraries, and archives brought about by new modes for access, distribution, and preservation. At launch, Parameters features an essay written by Mary Lee Kennedy framing the work of this group and contributions from two participants—Carol Padden and Christine Borgman—from a recent meeting hosted at the New York Public Library. A second area of emphasis for the Digital Culture program involves studying the development and impact of new methods for computational social science, and the third addresses questions surrounding research reliability and transparency. Work from these meetings will appear in Parameters in the coming months. Finally, the work of the Digital Culture program benefits from the insights of Nicholas Lemann and Henry Farrell, the two cochairs of the program’s excellent advisory committee. For the opening of Parameters, Lemann analyses and questions the nature of disruption in two industries dedicated to sharing knowledge: the American newspaper industry and the US research university. Farrell engages an ongoing conversation about the use of private data and argues for rules that govern such use across research communities.
While the impact of technology on social science research—from online archives to advanced tools for analysis—is undeniable, there remains an imperative for scholarship to, in turn, reflect on and influence the development of new tools, methods, and innovations. In an age of data collection and surveillance, increased inequality as well as racial and ethnic tension, such rapidly shifting social dynamics and their attendant ethical dilemmas require the keen insights from social science to better understand the impact of such challenges as one means of strengthening democratic agency. Contextualizing technical developments with historical perspective, ensuring access to data, and challenging accepted representations of culture (such as those embedded, often without challenge, in algorithms that increasingly govern our lives) are all the functions of social science research in the twenty-first century.
Importantly, the very title of this forum—Parameters—is meant to reflect the contingent, variable nature of these discussions. Contributions reflect the perspectives of their individual authors rather than any singular view of the Council or its programs, and thus will, with hope, reveal the full range of reactions to shifts brought on by digital conditions: from anticipation to anxiety, enthusiasm to skepticism. We invite your contributions and your conversation across social media platforms, and we thank you for reading.