Tiana Birrell, Spring 2019 Graduate Fellow, on Digital Matters Experience

Tiana Birrell comes to Digital Matters from the Environmental Humanities Graduate Program, where she is pursuing a master’s degree in Environmental Humanities.



Briefly describe your project and the challenges, lessons learned, and obstacles overcome in the execution of it. What were the professional, academic, and personal motivations underlying your project?

My project studies the correlation between information consumption and resource depletion by researching the numerous data servers located in Utah Valley and the massive amounts of water and energy used to maintain our digital lives. When we see the internet as material infrastructure consisting of wires, pipes, and fans and not an ethereal cloud in the sky, what can we gain? Does realizing that copious amounts of water are used to cool the servers that store our digital matter change habits?

From my background in art, anthropology and environmental humanities, I apply multi-disciplinary methods to the complicated environmental issues we are currently facing. My art installation addresses the materiality of the virtual world by making these inviable infrastructures visible, and in doing so, I hope to dispel the common misconception of the digital realm as ephemeral, immaterial, and unrelated to place.

How did the Digital Matters Fellowship dovetail with your academic pursuits? What interested you in applying for this fellowship?

I began attending the DM talks before I applied for the Fellowship and was interested in the various topics the speakers were addressing. Although they all centered around “digital,” they varied deeply in content, complexity, and engagement. Ultimately the multi-disciplinary collaboration that occurs in Digital Matters as well in their discussions around digital sustainability led me to apply for the Fellowship.


What insights have you gained regarding your specific field as a result of your project and fellowship experience?

My project has allowed me to explore several questions relevant to the environmental issues, among them: How does one articulate information about environmental degradation to the general public, especially to those who have differing opinions? Or work in another field of knowledge? Although these issues are incredibly convoluted, I argue that bridging silos of thought can slowly unveil the complicated nature of our environmental crisis and change policies, procedures, and perceptions.

Digital Matters has been integral in pushing me to rethink these issues and find more complicated solutions to complicated issues. Working in Digital Matters alongside people with backgrounds such as Dentistry, Architecture and Planning, Library Science, English, and Creative Writing has created rich ground for discussion with those who live, learn, and study in academic silos different from my own. The opportunity to work in an area where ideas are meant to be tossed around, shared, stretched, and morphed has been extremely beneficial to pushing the boundaries of my project in positive ways.


What would you tell potential fellowship applicants to help them shape their digital scholarship project?

I would encourage everyone to ask questions and share project ideas with as many people that come into Digital Matters. As important as it is to focus on one’s digital scholarship project, I think it is crucial to share one’s skill set, feedback, and thoughts with other people. By lending a listening ear and hearing what questions the other colleagues are working through, one can create lasting creative collaboration. I have also benefited tremendously by attending the DM workshops, talks, and classes and hearing about other projects on campus.



What do you see as the upcoming important issues surrounding digital scholarship in your field? What areas/issues could students and scholars investigate to extend knowledge in this area?

My academic scholarship and project in Digital Matters have left me with lingering questions:

How does one’s relationship to outdoor spaces and places change our ecological crisis?

What role can the digital realm have in preventing environmental loss or encouraging preservation?

Is there a role for virtual reality as an educational and resurrection tool?

What is the role of digital archives and databases in a world on the verge of a sixth mass extinction?

If digital tools are used to preserve information, where does one store this virtual archive? What role does a data center have when it holds such critical information?

How can data centers be more sustainable? What is our obsession with information, preservation, and storing?

Digital Matters has been integral in pushing me to rethink these issues and find more complicated solutions to complicated issues.

–Tiana Birrell