Interloping at a history conference The Digital Panopticon: Penal history in a digital age

Research Brief 24


As the Prosecution Project’s resident statistician, I recently infiltrated my first history conference – the Digital Panopticon held at the University of Tasmania. I must admit that this conference was one of the most fascinating I have attended. Interesting not only for the variety of projects we heard about, but for the innovative methods and scope of historical data on display.

One of the most appealing aspects of the conference was the diversity of research topics touched upon across the three days. The overriding theme was the use of digital technology to reconstruct and understand the past. In this vein, presentations covered a range of digital undertakings on subjects as diverse as convict transportation, penal punishment, prosecution practices, prisoners of war, military history, and family genealogy research.

The conference opened with a great illustration of how digitisation can help us Black-eyed_Sue_and_Sweet_Poll_of_Plymouth_taking_leave_of_their_lovers_who_are_going_to_Botany_Bayunderstand both local and global history. Clare Anderson’s opening keynote address outlined an ambitious digital project undertaken to track the movement of convicts around the world. Such data revealed transportation as more than a means of punishment, as driven by economic and political imperatives, where convicts themselves became drivers of global change.

We were also taken on a digital journey through the Digital Panopticon website – the ongoing project reconstructing lives in the United Kingdom and Australia by linking historical genealogical, biometric, and criminal justice datasets. Lucy Williams, a researcher on the project, gave us an interesting example linking English census data to the Old Bailey records in order to explore the wider social context of female offending.  

In the keynote address opening the second day, Deborah Oxley used the height measurements of transported convicts compared against modern and contemporaneous peers to explore the ‘antipodean advantage’ in Australia. Not only was the substance of the talk engaging, but the presentation itself highlighted the advantages of digital technology to academic presentations. Animated paintings and responsive graphs gave us all something to work towards in our next conference presentations.

Meanwhile, the Prosecution Project panel reminded us that Australia has a history after convict transportation. Exemplifying the meticulous record keeping practices replicated in the colony, the Prosecution Project team walked us through the trial process from beginning to end. The panel included an exploration of the plea process, the work of lawyers and judges, how juries functioned, the impact of witnesses, and, of course, sentencing outcomes.

Three Prosecution Project team members expanded on their research in separate presentations on the final day. PhD candidate Lisa Durnian examined how the decision to plead guilty was influenced by a family relationship with the victim in sex offence cases. In the following session Research Fellow Alana Piper and Project Leader Mark Finnane explored the evolution of legal criminal defence and the impact of defence lawyers on the criminal trial.

In addition to the potential of digitised data, the use of digital technology in reimagining research and education was exemplified in a session on the second day entitled Digital Geographies. Colleagues Martin Gibbs, David Roe, Richard Tuffin, and John Stephenson showcased the use of LiDAR surveillance in reconstructing an accurate 3D digital representation of Port Puer in Tasmania. Imogen Wegman used GIS and historical maps to visually explore the evolution of land grants in colonial Van Diemen’s Land. Finally, Zoe Alker and Nick Webb demonstrated the use of gaming technology in the digital construction of the never-built panopticon designed by Bentham.

Being a numbers and methods person, I was particularly captivated by the variety and quality of historical data highlighted across all the conference papers – from government and judicial records to media reports, maps, and architectural plans. This was exemplified in Robert Shoemaker’s keynote address opening the final day. This presentation was a fascinating journey through the evolution of record keeping as a grassroots means of understanding criminality. Other papers explicitly addressed aspects of quantitative research, for example Matt Allen explored the historical use of numbers to support ideological notions of criminology, while Lydia Nicholson introduced us to the potential of performing quantitative history.

In general, the quantity and variety of detail available in the historical record showcased across the presentations was both eye opening and exciting – even with the caution embodied in Jennie Jeppesen’s entertaining presentation regarding the practical difficulties encountered in using digital newspapers to find Virginian convicts, from websites regularly crashing to exorbitant fees to access records.

Overall, the conference highlighted the enormous advantages that can be gained by digitising and linking historical records – something we see in our daily work on the Prosecution Project. The Digital Panopticon conference showcased the innovation and development in historical research as well as the potential that our new digital age offers to how research is conducted, who can conduct research, and what we can learn from the historical record.  


Author: Dr Lauren Vogel, Postdoctoral Research Fellow

To cite this research brief: Lauren Vogel, ‘Interloping at a history conference The Digital Panopticon: Penal history in a digital age’, The Prosecution Project, Research Brief 24, (12 July 2016, viewed 19 July 2016).