During the NULab’s first annual conference, one consistent theme was how we relate to to the public sphere. The session on “Commons and Communities” had many interesting components, starting with a talk by NULab Co-director David Lazer, which presented a proposal for amending representative democracy in the US through the use of “virtual town halls.” This experiment connected voters in a district with their representatives for discussions on immigration, held through a web portal. The results were very promising, indicating that individuals felt more engaged as well as more informed on public affairs, and were more likely to take part in voting. Given the current political environment, this approach shows a lot of promise for bridging the representative deficit.

NULab Fellow alum Matt Simonson presented field research done in Uganda in order to understand how inter-communal ties affect the possibility of conflict. His hands-on approach fuses traditional methods of humanities with modern social network analysis, with a stated intention of also having the local community taking part in his experiment. Another alum, Jim McGrath presented his take on public humanities and digital resources that augment interactions with shared spaces. Especially interesting is the effect of interfaces in shaping community organization. Data can be understood as part of a public heritage.

Finally, Dietmar Offenhuber, Nathan Felde, and Alessandra Renzi presented their work on archiving ephemeral materials of protest, in this case, the signs used in the Boston Women’s March. These signs encode many different elements that constitute this political and social moment. They can be understood as a kind of dialogue that spans online and offline space. The presenters also pointed out the importance of developing archiving practices that are dynamic enough to work in non-optimal situations, a sort of guerrilla archiving.