In June 2020, Snapchat issued an apology for a facial filter that asked users to smile to break the chains of slavery in celebration of Juneteenth. Though the company stated that a diverse group of employees had been involved in the development of the lens, audiences were left scratching their heads about how such a tone deaf message implying an oversimplified solution to slavery could have made it past the concept stage. In today’s electronically-networked global society the ramifications of a misstep like this can be immediate and costly. 

Yvette Granata, assistant professor in the Department of Film, Television, and Media and the Digital Studies Institute, points out that the incident underscores why companies that rely on technology to engage with consumers are increasingly interested in hiring not only tech-savvy but also socially-informed individuals. She notes, “there is a strategic advantage in knowing what goes into designing technology that can responsibly and respectfully communicate with a variety of audiences.”

The Digital Studies Institute (DSI) was established in 2019 to serve as the College of LSA’s home for scholarship on digital technologies and culture, and to equip U-M students with the tools to become the transformative leaders that companies like Snapchat need. The institute applies humanities-centered scholarship to the power and the problems of the digital world, examining how common digital technology absorbs, interprets, and shapes the human experience, including our views of race, disability, gender, sexuality, class, power, and identity.

DSI’s position within LSA, the University of Michigan’s liberal arts college, sets it apart. The institute, which administers an undergraduate minor and a graduate concentration, draws on the expertise of faculty and perspectives of scholars from multiple LSA departments (among them American Culture; Film, Television, and Media; Communication and Media Studies; Philosophy; Computer Science; and Comparative Literature) as well as other U-M schools and colleges, including the STAMPS School of Art & Design, Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, and the School of Information. Digital studies courses appeal to students from a broad range of disciplines, and blend the exploration of deep and pressing social justice themes with hands-on projects that give students a chance to learn and experiment with the technology.

Joshua Ryan

U-M College of Engineering junior Joshua Ryan is one of sixty undergraduates currently pursuing a minor in digital studies.

“As a computer science engineering student, digital studies provides me with important insights into how digital media can influence our current and future culture. It helps engineers realize that their professional responsibilities involve providing meaningful and ethical technological innovations,” he said. “Understanding the control that digital media has over society will help engineers design technological innovations that will benefit society and science.”

Distorted reflections

"Digital Bodies," a course taught by Assistant Professor Granata, combines practice and theory to demonstrate how these humanities-centered insights can make a big difference. Students examine the multiple facets of human identity through art and literature, then design and produce their own digital facial filters to facilitate dialogue about how digital platforms can affect—and distort—cultural perceptions and the representation of people’s bodies.

“Throughout the course, we look at various contemporary artists whose works address themes including surveillance, and biometric and facial recognition systems,” said Granata. One example is artist Zach Blas’s 'Facial Weaponization Suite', which he says “protests against biometric facial recognition–and the inequalities [it] propagate[s].” Such systems have become commonplace in our surveillance culture, especially in the widespread use of smartphones. Facial scanning powers social media filters like Snapchat’s that rely on facial movement (smiles, blinks, mouth opening), or TikTok’s that “reveal” your celebrity twin or show you what you’d look like decades older or younger; it’s also behind the practical Face ID functions that unlock our phones or provide access to our mobile banking apps. But the technology, which includes iris scanning and fingerprinting, is also used by governments and security organizations to predict and verify identity, with more threatening possibilities like weaponization to monitor and control various populations. Built-in human biases around normative conceptions of identity can cloud accuracy and exacerbate discrimination.

Tess Eschebach

Tess Eschebach is pursuing dual degrees in Data Science Engineering and Film, Television, and Media (FTVM). Much of their previous coursework related to digital topics has focused mainly on the mechanics of implementation, but “digital studies helps provide the framework for understanding technology in a holistic manner. I have always been interested and concerned about the implications of digital media in society, and digital studies has provided me the space to explore these ideas deeper in an academic setting.”

Eschebach credits digital studies with setting them on a path towards graduate studies in human computer interaction, with a focus on the positive and negative consequences of technology usage.

A still shot of Eschebach's anti-surveillance mask for "Digital Bodies"

“'Digital Bodies' taught me how to think about identity and person in the online space. A portion I found particularly interesting was gaining an understanding of cyber feminism which situates the experience of gender in the virtual environment,” said Eschebach. “Learning about anti-surveillance art pieces also provided an interesting look into topics I had explored in my computer science coursework from a creative front.”

Projects in the course are meant to spark critical conversations about contemporary surveillance culture and perform critical artistic interventions into AR filter design. Examples of student projects for "Digital Bodies" can can be viewed in this compilation video from fall 2021.

Game night with a social conscience

Lecturer Tony Bushner’s "Modern Board Games and Crowdfunding" course takes a different approach. One day last semester, small groups clustered around tables in a Mason Hall classroom, each intently focused on a different game. Some game boards were decorated with bright and cheerful graphics. One game was played with a single deck of cards, while others featured a rainbow of tiny game pieces. Dice were plentiful. The class was playtesting the games that they had been developing over the course of the semester. In addition to whether the games were easy or enjoyable to play, they’d also considered the roles that accessibility, inclusivity, and sustainability play in board game design and production.

“Board games and digital media share many of the same design fundamentals,” said Bushner. “This course makes studying those concepts accessible to students who don’t have a background in computer science or programming.”

Students playtesting in "Modern Board Games and Crowdfunding"

The course is cross-listed by LSA’s Digital Studies Institute (DSI) and the Department of American Culture, where digital studies at U-M began as a pilot program in 2014. Like DSI’s courses on video games, some of which are taught by Bushner as well, "Modern Board Games and Crowdfunding" teaches students about the social, economic, and environmental impact of their favorite games and guides them through the process of making games that will have a positive impact.

Bushner noted that board games have enjoyed a huge renaissance over the last twenty years—just as usage of digital technology has exploded. Compared to classic twentieth century board games like Sorry!, The Game of Life, and Chutes and Ladders, modern board games, including Settlers of Catan, Wingspan, and Dominion, tend to be more complex and sophisticated with themes that often appeal to niche audiences. Studying the characteristics of these analog artifacts through a UX (User Experience) lens helps students understand how to identify and ultimately reduce some of the human bias that gets built into systems. For example, a game that requires players to match a color on a card to the same-colored space on the board in order to advance demonstrates a bias against individuals with color blindness; the fix for accessibility would be to instead require players to match a color and/or a symbol. Environmental impacts of a board game's design might include the materials used in its manufacture (plastic, cardboard, wood, etc.), where it is manufactured, and how it is delivered to retailers and/or consumers. The course also includes a fundraising component in which students create online crowdfunding campaigns to solicit funds for the manufacture and distribution of their games. It’s important knowledge that can be applied across all forms of networked interactions and the interactive media that powers our work and social lives.

Katie Kim (right) and a classmate playtest the game their team developed in the "Modern Board Games and Crowdfunding" course.

LSA junior Katie Kim is majoring in political science and minoring in museum studies and theatre design and production. She plans to pursue a career as a theatre properties (props) artisan and manager. A board game enthusiast, she saw the project-based course as an opportunity to broaden her design and fabrication skills as well as build proficiency in digital fundraising, which will be especially critical to her work in theatre and the arts.

The course delivered on her expectations—and offered so much more in the way of practical skills that she can apply to future professional situations. Kim was selected to serve as a team leader and noted the wide range of leadership experience she gained, including interviewing and building a well-rounded project team through a classroom ‘job fair’; raising ethical, moral, and environmental questions about game design and production; assessing real-world supply chain constraints; then playtesting and managing the team through development of a final game prototype.

“In the crowdfunding unit we learned how to navigate digital fundraising, from establishing a credible digital presence, to building rapport and trust with an audience. Then we went through the exercise of photographing our products and creating a Kickstarter page, just as you would in a real campaign.”

Courses like "Modern Board Games and Crowdfunding" bring the institute’s interdisciplinary approach to life, offering humanities students a unique entry point to tech-based material, and attracting greater diversity of thought to encourage collaborative innovation for better and more equitable tech in the future. 

“Students in my section had a wide range of academic backgrounds and skills, which resulted in an interesting microcosm of perspectives and made our team discussions and project work much more dynamic,” said Kim. “For example, one of my classmates, a computer science student, discovered a program that uses similar principles to coding for card deck creation. That helped me pick up some coding fundamentals.”

An eye-opening experience

Renu Dabak-Wakankar serves as the undergraduate student representative to the DSI advisory board.

LSA senior Renu Dabak-Wakankar is pursuing a double major in Program in the Environment and German. Her first digital studies course with Bushner, "Digital Culture," encouraged her to add a minor in digital studies. 

Then, "in my 'Critical Data Visualization' class, we explored various themes such as data feminism, decolonizing data, and the ethics of machine learning,” said Dabak-Wakankar. The course was taught by Catherine Griffiths, assistant professor of architecture, whose research focuses on how computational forces including artificial intelligence shape power and social dynamics.

“We also experimented with Unity, the game design software, to make our own immersive data visualization projects. As someone who didn't have any background with a software like this, it was a little difficult for me to pick it up, but learning how to be creative in a purely digital and immersive context was fascinating. I'm excited to bring this new knowledge into my academic career here at U-M and bring my new perspectives to future digital studies classes.

“As someone who has grown up interacting with digital technologies, I've found Digital Studies to be eye-opening into how these technologies have shaped my growth as a person, as well as shaped how I interact with the digital and physical world around me,” she said.

Advancing DSI's visionary moment

No matter how technologically-savvy a student might be, a digital studies course can be an “a-ha!” moment that helps to expose how, in Dabak-Wakanker's words, "values and structures in our society are translated into the digital world."

“We need human actors to solve the problems of human justice that continue to be amplified in our digital society,” said Digital Studies Institute Acting Director Irina Aristarkhova, a professor at the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design. “By providing our students with the best resources to identify and transform how digital inequality manifests in our lives, we will empower them to make a difference.”

Through support from LSA donors the institute hopes to soon establish the Digital Studies Open Lab, a fully-equipped central lab space with dedicated access to cutting-edge digital equipment and software for gaming, expressive arts, video editing, virtual reality, and digital tinkering, that will enable students to gather for group work and experimentation. Aristarkhova and Granata noted that, without such a space currently, students have been completing projects on personal laptops, in university computing centers, and with borrowed equipment. The lab is one of the institute’s highest fundraising priorities.

As DSI continues to expand in its mission and scope, it also seeks LSA donors to help establish internship and fellowship opportunities that will support current and future generations of University of Michigan students in their inquiries on technology and social justice. Two examples that would impact undergraduate students are the Michigan Digital Justice Project, which will offer internships with local tech firms to bring insights from ethnic, race, feminist and disability studies into digital practice, and the Games for Change Collective, which will provide scholarships and unlock access for students interested in creating so-called “serious games” on social justice, the environment, the public good, and racial and gender discrimination, as well as connect them with local and campus gaming organizations in esports (School of information), development (School of Engineering), and more general student game organizations (WolverineSoft).

Donor support is critical to the DSI's ability to pursue new opportunities and secure its place as the nation's leader in the study of digital culture. Learn more about the Digital Studies Institute's fundraising priorities and how you can support its innovative coursework for undergraduate and graduate students, cutting-edge research, annual summer institute, and diverse range of public programs.