In 2001, the Mellon Foundation held a workshop to help invigorate leadership at humanities centers. In the course of the meeting, it became clear that the group was ignoring new digital media, perhaps even seeing it as a threat to the humanities. By contrast, a small minority understood new media not as threat but as an affirmation and reinvigoration of the oldest traditions of the humanities. In particular, new digital media were seen to raise anew concerns with human life, human rights, human ideas, and human communication, with notions of property and privacy, identity and community, as exemplified in human history and as applicable to the present social and academic arrangements.

The repeated lament about the "crisis in the humanities" is a tiresome and outmoded approach. If the humanities themselves understood their full power, they would reassume a central place not only in the academy but in a society confused over these myriad new developments. In the wake of these developments, Davidson and Goldberg began consulting together, soon identifying like-minded humanists, artists, social scientists, scientists, and engineers with a similarly broad and complementary vision. A network of fellow practitioners quickly materialized. Thus began HASTAC.8

HASTAC is not traditional humanities computing.9 While supportive of traditional humanities computing (largely text-based digitization projects), we have been consistent that HASTAC's mission is in the co-development and analysis of new technologies, not least but not limited to visualization tools, and their implications for individuals and societies. We have also focused on novel and inventive ways of learning with, through, and about New Media.

HASTAC is not an organization in any traditional sense. We are a voluntary networked consortium of individuals and the institutions we represent--a mobilizing network or peer-to-peer institution. We are committed to a different, interdisciplinary, collaborative view of higher education and, by extension, of education more generally in the digital world. We are as committed to issues of social justice as we are to technological innovation, as committed to theory as we are to practice (and vice versa). At present, social credit (not capital) is the main cost of admission to HASTAC. Those who do the work, who produce, and who contribute effectively lead the network (Davidson and Goldberg, 2004).10

While HASTAC has completed many projects to date (such as a "toolkit" of softwares and other resources created collaboratively), one of the most dramatic public outcomes of our endeavors is the shared, distributed, coordinated In|Formation Year (2006-2007). This field-building year offers one public conference or mediated event per month, sponsored by several centers or institutes at one geographical location, then offered up to a global public via webcasts, podcasts, vodcasts, and even cellphone distribution. At the individual sites, whole courses, programs, seminars, and workshops are unfolding during the year, focusing on the site's particular In|Formation theme. In aggregate, the In|Formation Year is, quite precisely, a field-building year, a way of gathering together those scholars and students dedicated to rethinking what constitutes learning in a digital age.

We began the In|Formation year with a graduate conference, "Thinking Through New Media" (June 2006). The conference was co-sponsored by Duke University and the Renaissance Computing Institute (a high-performance supercomputing organization based at the University of North Carolina and serving the entire state). This graduate student conference had a limited registration of sixty-five (because of space restrictions) and we had to turn away many who would have liked to participate.

Our second event was a skills-building, hands-on workshop, "Cyberinfrastructure for the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences" (July 2006), conceived and co-organized by the University of California Humanities Research Institute (UCHRI) and the San Diego Supercomputing Center (SDSC). It introduced scholars to an array of learning technologies from GPS and various visualization technologies to semantic Web, data-base conception, construction, and searches, gaming, and other applications widely used in the sciences and beneficial to educators and learners across all domains as well.

This August we held the visionary and ambitious two-week long intensive workshop "technoSpheres: futureS of Thinking" (August 2006), developed, organized, and hosted by UCHRI and attended by approximately sixty-five people (and blogged daily on the HASTAC website as well as on an even more ambitious UCHRI gaming site that was finalized, collaboratively, and put to hard use by the tech-sophisticated SECT fellows during the two-week workshop). Most of the fellows were graduate students or very young professionals, although we were also delighted that several full professors also participated as "students." (Through the two weeks word got around and some notable names in the field--from John Seely Brown to Lev Manovich--stayed around or dropped in to feel the pulse of an extraordinary event.) As with the previous events, we found that nearly everyone considered themselves to be a loner within their home institutions, a scholar in search of a field. SECT provided a cohort for most of its multidisciplinary fellows. It was an exhilarating two weeks of ideas and interchange and plans for the future. Each day began at 10 with a panel of paired thinkers from different fields: technology leaders (beginning with John Seely Brown), media artists, game designers, electronic publishers, social scientists, and humanists, all dedicated to and with significant experience in practicing new ways of thinking. Afternoons were spent with hands-on project development and break-out groups. Evenings (usually lasting until late at night--invariably we had to send folks home at 11pm) were dedicated to demonstrations, media projects, screenings, and other multimedia events.11

Starting in September 2006 and ending in May 2007, HASTAC is hosting a full calendar of events, all of them collaborative productions of a face-to-face event at the host site and then webcast to a larger audience. For the hosting site, the events require new intellectual boundary-crossing, administrative buy-in to a new concept of what "technology" is and means, and an expansive sense of the arts, humanities, and social sciences assuming a leadership role in the production of novel kinds of content and innovative technologies for both the larger community and for an international virtual audience.

All of the events center on In|Formation themes. Our point is that "information" is not just about hardware and software, nor just about data in a narrow reductive sense. In|Formation indicates the complex ways in which information is produced at the interface of conceptual ordering and technological production, between data, its conceptual layering, instrumentation and effective use. Information, in short, is always and always complexly in formation. Learning is in good part coming to an understanding of the intricate and interactive processes by which information is always in formation, today not least as a result of the overdetermining applications of new information technologies, of new media. With this comprehensive understanding of "information" in mind, our themes for the year are: In|Common, Interplay, In|Community, Interaction, Integration, Injustice, Invitation, Interface, and Innovation. The In|Formation Year is designed as a field-building enterprise that demonstrates the power of peer-to-peer institution-building on local and global levels.

The first of these ("InCommon"), a four-day conference on "Katrina, After the Storm," exemplifies our expansive idea of what the "information age" means. This conference included sessions on disaster prediction (and the way individual citizens "geomashed" their own data onto government sites for more accurate prediction and reporting), on impacts on Black, Native American, and poor white communities, and on social networks created by community centers to keep people together virtually after the diaspora.

"InCommon" also included a distributed hip hop event for young people, with dj'ing in an interactive sensor space in North Carolina and vj'ing in Illinois, and kids dancing (and learning about new technologies and "information activism") in Illinois, North Carolina, and Louisiana. Music was partly generated by kids interacting with plastic censors that had been purchased at Home Depot and assembled with the help of the kids themselves as a way to underscore, first, that technology does not have to be wildly expensive and, second, that kids can also help to shape the technologies they enjoy. A rapper (J-Bully) wrote a song about making lemonade from lemons that underscored kids' potential and creativity. The event was aimed explicitly at middle-school kids from disadvantaged areas of the cities contiguous with vast institutions of higher learning, as a way of underscoring to these kids that they, too, could have access and entrance to the universities which (for many of them) are simply job sites for their families, not possibilities for their own futures.

"Interaction," the theme of our fourth month, included an interactive event hosted by two sites, UC Berkeley and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Campaign. Dancers at the two remote (physical) sites performed with each other in virtual space. Each dancer performed in real-time physical space with a screen projection of the other dancing remotely simultaneously in a pre-choreographed piece that nevertheless allowed for improvisation. The astonishingly beautiful and even poignant result underscored the essence of dance (the tension of distance and intimacy, separation and touch) while also premiering a new distributed sensor-space technology. At each site, audiences watched the real and projected dancers. Off site, the public watched the project in exquisite webstreamed synchronicity--presence without being present. Even audiences present in either physical space were at times unable to tell which dancer was "real" and which "virtual" in their space. The stunning performance also evoked intellectual questions of embodiment, corporeality, interaction, improvisation, and simultaneity, in short, of space and time, as much for philosophy and engineering as for performance theory and for art itself.

These two events, taken together, illustrate the possibilities for e-enabled interactive collaborative learning. At once structured and improvisational, fueled by sustained knowledge of deep structures and by innovative experimentation, networked learning requires trust and risk-taking, individual and interactive effort, shared knowledge and resources, recourse to the tried and tested and openness to the new, no matter the source. It requires the recognition that theory without embodiment can be alienating, but that data or content or embodiment without the structuring of theoretical principle can be simplistic, ungrounded, confusing. It involves the drive to succeed and a willingness to learn from failure, knowing when to push and when the game is up. And it means being open to the fact that no matter how tough the going gets, learning and teaching should be fun all round.

Unlike most organizations, HASTAC has no committees, only action items. Loyalty is based on a shared mission, passion for the play of ideas and practices, and on clear, observable follow-through and deliverables (Finholt and Olson, 1997). As many commentators have noted, "developing a high-trust virtual community is no easy task" (Masum and Zhang 16). HASTAC has succeeded where many more formal organizations have failed, at least partly through what Masum and Zhang call the "interconnected ecology of socially beneficial reputation systems" (1). And yet we are a tiny network in a vast system of higher learning which, in too many instances, is characterized by lock-box knowledge, competitive IP interests, disciplinary silos, and other subtle and explicit ways of keeping learning local. Sadly, this is as true of public institutions as it is of private institutions, in any case a distinction increasingly breaking down today (many large public institutions, such as the University of California and the University of Michigan, receive less than 25 percent of their annual budgets from local state treasuries). How to move to a more "open" idea of learning is the challenge. So is it a challenge to move to a new definition of "institution" that both recognizes the constituencies that every single university needs to address and offers its constituencies the best possibilities for collaborative learning suitable to the Net Age.


8Some of the fundamental features of HASTAC were presaged in a small but entirely original program created by faculty at Duke University in 1999. Information Science + Information Studies (ISIS) is a certificate program designed to teach those who will be creating the next generation of technology to think creatively, critically, and in a socially responsible manner about its use and application. It is a program where students both analyze and create collaboratively and across disciplines. A recent introductory seminar consisted of fifteen students with fourteen different majors, with as many arts, humanities, and social science majors as engineers and computational science majors. We see programs such as ISIS as a key to the future.

9For a survey of digital humanities that includes a focus of all of the foundational programs in that field, see "Our Cultural Commonwealth: The Final Report of the ACLS Commission on Cyberinfrastructure for the Humanities and Social Sciences," released December 13, 2006. [PDF]

10While it is not the province of this brief proposal to address the legal rights and responsibilities of virtual institutions, we are increasingly interested in the legal theories being developed for online multiplayer games and their applicability to other forms of distribution and adjudication of virtual real estate, including peer-to-peer institutions (cf. Lastowka and Hunter, 2003).

11Many of the days at SECT were blogged on the HASTAC website. Webcasts of the events are also available at

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