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News about the Digital Humanities Innovation Lab

HIV and the Network Society

Published by Alison Moore

Title header HIV Network society
This blog post was contributed by Sophia Han, a former Digital Fellow in the Digital Humanities Innovation Lab. 

We continue our conversation with Professor McKinney, discussing their upcoming collaboration with DHIL on a searchable database tool to surface connections in the No More Silence data set.  

DHIL is supporting the creation of a database to enable part of your research for the project, “HIV and the network society.” What research questions are you hoping to address through this project?

This project is looking at two things: It’s looking at the ways that AIDS activists in the 1980s and 1990s thought about and took up computer technologies, especially early Internet technologies. It's also going to look at the ways that technologists thought about HIV. The research is a collaboration between myself, Dr. Dylan Mulvin, assisted by research assistants including Moni Wahid and Julia Werkman, communication studies students at SFU.

What we want to do is use the records that AIDS activist organizations left behind, and comb through them to find out how they related to computers and the Internet, when it was new. 

We’re working with the No More Silence data set. It’s a collaboration between three archives (the University of California, San Francisco Library, the San Francisco Public Library, and the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society), combining different collections from AIDS organizations who were active in the San Francisco Bay Area in the ‘80s and ‘90s. It’s about 127,000 pages of documents that have been scanned and OCR’d, so we’re able to use computer-based methods to comb through these records.

We’d like to search across all of these documents to get a bigger picture of how the concept of computing comes up across different organizations, to think about an issue like the transition to computing for activists, and to see the broader strokes of what this transition meant for AIDS activists in a particular geography. The collection is based in the San Francisco Bay Area, and the people involved in AIDS activism were also people potentially working in Silicon Valley. Being situated in this location, there's going to be this technological capacity that you might not otherwise see amongst AIDS activists in other geographies of that time period.  

No More Silence dataset"No More Silence extracts text from digitized archival materials related to HIV/AIDS—including documents from individuals, activist and community-support organizations, medical institutions and government agencies—for use in digital-humanities projects, with the aim of bridging the gap between the empirical, scientific study of the disease and the lived experience of people with AIDS." (From NO MORE SILENCE: DIGITAL COMMUNITY HISTORIES OF HIV/AIDS, GLBT Historical Society).



How do you see digital research methods being important to this project?
We're really excited about the histories that digital research methods can help surface in open access digital collections. At this point, we have pretty good mainstream histories of consumer computing. Increasingly, there's been a move in media history to examine the histories of marginalized groups to see how they took up computing in those communities. For example,
Black Software by Charlton McIlwain tells the story of how computing mattered in Black communities. We need these comparative media histories so that we can tell more precise and nuanced stories about how, when and for whom, technologies come to matter.

With the HIV Network Society project, we’re trying to tell an AIDS-centered history of computing. How did the ability to create databases and share information online graphically connect people in different places in real time? What did possibilities of computing mean to people who were trying to address the AIDS crisis by addressing problems like a lack of access to information, a lack of access to health care, or a lack of access to material resources?


We need these comparative media histories so that we can tell more precise and nuanced stories about how, when and for whom, technologies come to matter.


What outcomes are you hoping to explore through the process of working with a searchable database tool.
We want to surface connections between people, organizations, and events, and potentially even highlight shared ways of talking about or using new computing technologies. We also plan to write about the experience of working with this data set as researchers, and make that process more transparent to help other researchers of queer and disability-informed media history. 

Professor McKinney’s HIV Network Society project is currently in development with DHIL.