The Excellence Department's Permanent Seminar takes off

In the next years it will disseminate and discuss the results of the Project of Excellence 2023-2027 "Educational and socio-cultural changes and potentials related to the digital transition", within an interdisciplinary and international context.
Aula Martini, edificio U6, inaugurazione del Seminario Permanente

"How do we live in this world? How is the human condition being transformed in a global context where spaces, relationships and perceptions are affected, in complex and often unpredictable ways, by digital technologies?" Cristina Palmieri, director of the Department of Human Sciences for Education "Riccardo Massa", opens with this question the inauguration of the Permanent Seminar that took place on April 9 in the Martini Lecture Hall of the U6 building of UniMiB. "A non-original question that is already addressed through a vast body of research in our department, but whose possible answers remain everchanging because they are updated in step with current events. In the age of untranquility, as the philosopher Miguel Benasayag called it in his eponymous letter to the new generations, technological changes are so rapid that we struggle to understand their impact before new ones come along. Delving into the chaotic digital revolution and its effects on existence from an educational and socio-cultural perspective requires adopting new research methods that are interdisciplinary and laboratory-based, include territories and have a positive impact on them. We have kept this in mind when conceiving the research proposal with which we won the call for Departments of Excellence 2023-2027".

The themes of the Project of Excellence

The Department has in fact been selected by the Ministry of University and Research (MUR) and Anvur as one of 180 Italian Departments of Excellence for the five-year period 2023-2027. On a national level, it is one of the 12 departments in the CUN 11 area - Historical, Philosophical, Pedagogical and Psychological Sciences - to have obtained this recognition, but it is not just a certificate of merit: winning the call for Departments of Excellence involves receiving an important grant from the MUR to launch a Project of Excellence, a five-year research project. The one formulated by the department is called "Educational and socio-cultural changes and potentials connected to the digital transition" and the Permanent Seminar is the cycle of events that the department will organize in order to dialogue and reflect on the results of the project until 2027, but also to collect and integrate the contributions of national and international experts.

Palmieri, who also reported the greetings and enthusiasm of UniMiB Rector Giovanna Iannantuoni, explained that the research project does not assume an aprioristic moral stance towards digital technologies. "We need to study the digital transition without connoting it as right or wrong. We instead recognize it as a lens through which to observe humanity from every point of view, given the widespread diffusion of these technologies in all spheres of our existences. Studying the consequences of the digital allows us to understand, collaterally, what the human is today and how humanity interacts with itself and the non-human." The search for the educational and socio-cultural potential of this transition is thus to be understood both as an analysis of new opportunities, conditions, and lifestyles, and as a study of the new forms of inequality that result from it.

From this approach derive the three lines of research in which the steering commission has organized the project throughout the five-year period: digital transition and the contrast to educational and socio-cultural inequalities; digital transition and the formation of individual and collective identities; digital transition and the strengthening of social ties. These issues are today defined as hypercomplex, because they hold together a multitude of complex mechanisms that in turn interact with each other. Consider, for example, how digital has multiplied the realities we access, in which we have created new bonds and new shared meanings, and how this multiplication has laid the foundations for conceptualizing the digital gap, as the inequality in access to digital infrastructures is called, which in turn is related to socioeconomic inequalities and influences many social phenomena, for example school dropout. Or consider how the dizzying evolution of generative artificial intelligence is redefining the meaning of concepts such as humanity and truth.

These are intricate but also urgent issues that must be tackled by abandoning the expectation of a one-sided interpretation from the outset. From this point of view, the Department has a traditional interdisciplinary vocation because it brings together researchers in pedagogy, psychology, anthropology, philosophy, socio-organizational studies, linguistic-literary studies, history, art and geography. All these different figures will be called upon to interact with each other but also to incorporate new technologies of investigation and to carry out experiments in the territories with the active participation of the stakeholders and citizenship.

"The laboratory approach of bringing together different thoughts and perspectives will inevitably evolve our department's way of doing research," added lecturers Franca Zuccoli, Chiara Bove and Alice Bellagamba, coordinators of the department's three doctoral schools. "We will involve master's and doctoral students in this process through their thesis work, because they are the people who will inherit the new investigative approaches activated by the project and we want them to take part in the conception and implementation of these techniques. The project has the collateral ambition of building a critical, synergetic, responsible scientific community, capable of contaminating itself with other disciplinary fields and remaining in the present day."

For the development of the Project of Excellence a departmental research center, the Centre for Educational Change and Potential in the Digital Transition (CAPTED), was established. In addition, a Cultural and Technological Cluster will bring together all the humanities and technology laboratories in the department to facilitate the exchange of data and results.

A human filter is always there

To emphasize the broad scope of the Project of Excellence's themes and the intention to integrate the many voices of international research already active in this regard, the inauguration day hosted three talks by as many people who study digital-related transformations from different angles but starting from a common assumption: digital ecosystems are programmed, mediated and populated by individuals and as such have the dual role of reflecting different subjectivities and at the same time influencing them.

The first speech was given by Graziano Lingua, professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Turin, who went over the themes of his latest book "Toward an Anthropology of Screens" (2023, written with Mauro Carbone and published by Palgrave Macmillan), warning us about the perception of transparent immediacy, theorized at the end of the 1990s by Bolter and Grusin, that interactions in digital networks may deceivingly suggest. "The idea that being online allows one to see reality unfiltered, as in a global-scale confessional, is a slippery illusion that should not prevent us from reflecting on who creates the narratives that pass through screens, how they spread such narratives and why." Digital infrastructures host stories that are anything but universal and transparent, because they are shaped from time to time by subjective points of view. In Lingua's words, “the screen has become an emotional channel through which we transmit our constructs of meaning and receive those of other individuals".

This is also well shown by the research of Ana Jorge, associate professor at the Department of Communication Sciences at Lisbon's Lusófona University, who gave the second lecture on the relationship between parenting in the digital world, introducing the terms of digital parenting, the integration of digital and social networks in parenting practices, and sharenting, the narrative of parenting built on social media. Jorge's research shows, for example, that a parent's social and media exposure affects what they show on social media about themselves or their children and correlates with their perceived responsibility for their children's exposure or with the role they choose to assume in relation to other parents.

The ability to discursively create a narrative relies on the possibilities of hybridizing different formats depending on the context, but the assertion of ideas and identities also depends on knowledge and control of the mechanisms that regulate online discourse, such as social network algorithms. In trying to understand the flow of information and its effects it is indeed necessary to abandon the idea of a disintermediated digital society, because while we cultivate the ambition to reach out to other individuals without spacetime barriers and to construct our own meanings, the filter to the information we exchange has not disappeared. On the contrary, it has changed shape, it has become verticalized along the power structures of digital services, producing numerous opacities that today should not be underestimated in political, economic, and social terms. Palestinian researcher Fayez Mahamid from An-Najah National University recounted, in the third meeting, a long series of systematic violations of the rights of the Palestinian people within the digital space, reporting mainly on episodes from 2020 to 2024 that concerned large digital companies and their practices of censorship and removal of Palestinian content, following pressure from the Israeli government. From Venmo, which blocked many donations to the besieged Palestinians, to Google Maps showing the Gaza Strip in low image resolution, preventing the destruction caused by the Israeli invasion from being documented, passing through YouTube and Twitter, which propagated hate speech against the Palestinian people without doing proper checks on Israeli-sourced content. The digital discrimination suffered by Palestinians shows how urgent it is to renegotiate plural mechanisms that protect fairness and freedom of expression in digital spaces as essential rights in our existences. On the other hand, we must not give in to a unilaterally skeptical view of digital drift. Academic research must also be able to grasp and address the transformative potential of these drifts, because digital spaces enable new and multisensory forms of expression with which it is possible to initiate unprecedented paths of awareness, of subjectivation of individuals and communities, destined to concretely improve the quality of life of those who participate in them.

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