Jon Voss: A Fresh and Inspiring Outlook on DH

The most recent speaker for the Sawyer Seminar definitely deviated from his predecessors. Jon Voss, the Strategic Partnership Director of Historypin and Shift, delivered an engaging and interactive talk that bridged together the best aspects of a TED Talk and a lecture. Exceptionally knowledgeable and unapologetically real, Voss started his talk off by saying he was probably the lease educated person to be invited to speak in this series citing his BA in Religion. Although he says he isn’t a lecturer, he does what any fantastic lecturer would—he made his talk relevant and applied in a world dominated by abstractions and intangible realities.

In my opinion, his lack of academic training elicited to a more appealing and easily-digestible presentation. He began by showing a compilation of scenes from the film V for Vendetta and coupled that with a relatable anecdote. He mentioned churches and transformers and all sorts of things that didn’t necessarily fit together, yet at the end of the story you kind of understood how he got to where he was going and appreciated the quirkiness of his delivery. The entire vibe in the room differed from those of previous talks in that his presentation was very open, charismatic, and lively—background music played and visuals flew all over the place!

In looking at the overall content of his talk it is rare, at least in my experience that this sort of talk ended where it did. Voss takes us back to the beginning of the Internet with people in basements coding away, to analyzing the ways in which the Internet has become a societal crutch; he discusses that people are becoming more and more lazy in creating their own music. But the truly fascinating part of his talk was where he Shift(ed)—pun intended—to how technology, the Web, and a desire to society to come together to affect social change. One of the coolest projects he mentioned was equipping teens with AV skills so that they could record the oral stories of the residents in their neighborhoods, which to me sounds like an absolutely brilliant idea: not only do teens who might otherwise have nothing else better to do gain valuable, transferable skills in technology, but they get to interact with members who have seen their communities grow, develop, and change before their eyes and record it.

Jon Voss’s talk was inarguably in a class of it’s own—not just in the way that it was presented, but also in the ways in which it inspired and prompted discussions about our environment and enacting social change. In answering that burning questions Humanists always face, “So what? Why does this matter?” Voss’s work shows AND tells us that the Digital Humanities can and do have a noteworthy impact.