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I am Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Glasgow and Theme Leader Fellow for the 'Digital Transformations' strategic theme of the Arts and Humanities Research Council. I tweet as @ajprescott.

This blog is a riff on digital humanities. A riff is a repeated phrase in music, used by analogy to describe a improvisation or commentary. In the 16th century, the word 'riff' meant a rift; Speed describes riffs in the earth shooting out flames. The poet Jeffrey Robinson points out that riff perhaps derives from riffle, to make rough.

Maybe we need to explore these other meanings of riff in thinking about digital humanities, and seek out rough and broken ground in the digital terrain.

5 July 2012

Making the Digital Human: Anxieties, Possibilities, Challenges

This lecture was given to the Digital Humanities Summer School, Oxford University, 6 July 2012.


During my time in charge of the stunning Founders’ Library at St David’s College Lampeter in Wales, one volume which particularly fascinated me was this early thirteenth century theological manuscript, the oldest in the library. When George Borrow visited Lampeter in 1854, he was told that the leaves of this manuscript were stained with the blood of monks slaughtered at the time of the Reformation. The story of the monks’ blood is apocryphal, but this manuscript is remarkable in other ways, because it is an early manuscript of Peter of Capua’s Distinctiones Theologicae. The collections of biblical extracts known as distinctiones compiled by Peter Chanter, Peter of Capua and others represent a key moment in human history, because they are among the earliest experiments in alphabetization. Collections of biblical extracts in alphabetical form enabled preachers more readily to locate relevant texts. Contemporaries expressed amazement at the richness of innovative references in the sermons of preachers who made use of this remarkable new tool. These manuscripts of the distinctiones were, as Richard and Mary Rouse have pointed out, the direct ancestor of all later alphabetical and searchable tools.

The idea that texts could be arbitrarily arranged according to an abstract system such as the letters of the alphabet was a startling one in the middle ages, which had previously sought in arranging texts to illustrate their relationship to the natural order. But the distinctiones showed the advantages of more abstract methods, and they paved the way for the first concordance to the scriptures, which was compiled under the supervision of the Dominican Hugh of St Cher between 1235 and 1249 at the Dominican monastery of St Jacques in Paris. This is a manuscript of the first verbal concordance from St Jacques. The creation of this concordance, which organized every word in the bible alphabetically, was one of the greatest-ever feats of information engineering. It is said that about 500 Dominicans worked on compiling the concordance. The organization of the project was almost industrial in its scale and conception, with each Dominican assigned blocks of letters for indexing. The idea that a sacred text like the Bible could be approached in such an abstract and arbitrary fashion was revolutionary. Not only was the creation of the concordance a great technical and intellectual advance, but it implied a change in the relationship between man, text and God. The development of alphabetical tools changed the way people behaved and thought. Previously, memory had been the key attribute used in engaging with and making accessible the Bible. With these new alphabetical tools, the cultivation of memory became less important and it was the ability to manipulate these new knowledge systems which counted. The distinctiones and concordances altered the way in which man explored his relationship with God changed; they changed conceptions of what it meant to be human.

In 1875, the librarians at the British Museum were sorting through duplicate books prior to disposing of them. To their surprise, they found among the refuse a manuscript which had been acquired by Sir Hans Sloane, the founder of the British Museum, and was among his greatest treasures. This volume contained William Harvey’s notes for the course of public lectures in 1616 in which he first described the circulation of the blood. Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of the blood was another moment when understanding of what it meant to be human was radically changed. Harvey portrayed a world in which the human heart seemed no more than a pump, so that the body started to sound like a machine. As Allison Muri has discussed in her fascinating study, The Enlightenment Cyborg, Harvey’s discovery was to usher in from the end of the seventeenth century a vigorous debate about the extent to which the human is a machine and whether machines could become human.

It is possible to interpret the history of much science and technology as one of constant renegotiation of our understanding of the nature of being human and of the place of the human in the wider universe. When Edmond Halley calculated the dates of astronomical events which he knew he would never see, this raised many issues about the wider place of the human in the universe and changed human self-perception. The ferocious objections to Jenner’s use of vaccination against smallpox were largely due to his introduction of animal matter into the human bloodstream. Likewise, industrialization fundamentally reshaped many aspects of human life and behaviour: Wordsworth portrays factory workers as having been fundamentally dehumanized and turned into machines.

In 1948, Claude Shannon’s landmark paper The Mathematical Theory of Communication established many of the fundamentals of digital theories of communication and introduced the concept of the bit as a unit of measurement of information. Shannon calculated that a wheel used in an adding machine comprised three bits. Single spaced typing represented 103 bits. Shannon considered that the genetic constitution of man represented 105 bits. With the decoding of the human genome, the reduction of humanity to bits and bytes implicit in Shannon’s calculation seems complete. It seems that this reengineering of our understanding of the human is daily assuming greater speed and depth. In her celebrated cyborg manifesto of 1985, Donna Harraway declared that ‘we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs’. This ushered in the idea that we are post-human – that is to say, that the Enlightenment understanding of the relationship between body and mind has ceased to be relevant as a result of technological advances. Exactly what our post-human condition might be is of course not clear, but it is clearly very different to the understanding that say Halley might have had of his position in the universe.

I don’t hear want to venture into a complex area of critical theory which I am ill equipped to discuss. In considering the implications of the post-human, it is better to refer to the works of much larger intellects than mine, such as particularly Katherine Hayles. The formulation post-human (first recorded in 1888) is a deliberately provocative one. It does not merely mean that humans will somehow be pushed aside by machines – this is an oversimplistic and perhaps philosophically impossible notion. The term post-human rather suggests that our sense of what it is to be human has changed – as Katherine Hayles puts it, the post-human is a state of mind, a realization that mankind has finally understood that it is definitely not the centre of the universe. My concern here is to consider the implications of this post-human state of mind for our understanding and practice of the digital humanities. Although the debates about what the digital humanities are have ranged far and wide, the focus of the discussion has mainly been on the digital side of the equation. There has been little discussion of what we mean by the humanities. The orthodox view of the humanities which prevailed when I was a young man was best summarized by the American literary critic Ronald Crane in his 1967 book The Idea of the Humanities. For Crane, the humanities was first and foremost the study of human achievement. Crane described how human beings (of course, chiefly men in his view) developed languages, produced works of literature and art, and created philosophical, scientific and historical system. Such human achievements were for Crane at the heart of the study of the humanities.

Since Crane wrote, the idea that the humanities should explore and celebrate mankind’s achievements has been progressively challenged. The human has ceased to be the exclusive focus of the humanities. This partly reflects the impact of technology, which has become so pervasive and so deeply integrated into everyday life that influential theorists such as McLuhan and Kittler portray technology as displacing the human. But the dethroning of the human also reflects wider shifts in understanding. Historians such as Ferdinand Braudel have shown how human society may be shaped by deep underlying geographical factors. Cary Wolfe and others have forcefully reminded us that the relationship between human society and the animal and plant worlds is complex and symbiotic, and by no means a one-way traffic. All these trends have helped displace the human from the centre of debate.

Another assumption central to Crane’s view of the humanities was that there is a neatly packaged cultural canon defining the heights of human achievement. This view has been been subject to sustained and justifiable attack. In a British context, for example, Raymond Williams charged that the concept of a cultivated minority which helped preserve civilised standards from the threat of a ‘decreated’ mass was both arrogant and socially damaging. For Williams, ‘culture is ordinary in every society and in every mind’. In response to these developments it has been argued that we need to develop a post-humanities which overturns any vestiges of an elitist of view of the humanities, while also seeing the human in a more interactive sense. Thus, Geoffrey Winthorp Young has proposed that post-humanities should be characterized by a focus on technology accompanied by a critical engagement with biological matters – a post-humanities which looks at the interaction of climates and computers, mammals and machines, media and microbes. 

In a compelling series of recent talks and lectures, Tim Hitchcock has discussed the implications for humanities scholars of tools like Google’s n-Gram viewer or the use of visualisations to analyse data from corpora like the Old Bailey Proceedings. Tim forcefully argues that the interests of humanities scholars need to shift towards interrogating and manipulating in new ways the vast quantities of data which have now become available. Hitchcock says that he dreams of ‘a bonfire of the disciplines’ which would release scholars from the constraints of their existing methodologies and allow them to develop new approaches to the large datasets now becoming available. Tim’s position is a recognizably post-human one. Tim’s call for a bonfire of the humanities echoes the frustration expressed by Neil Badmington in his outline of ‘Cultural Studies and the Posthumanities’. Badmington describes how he was writing in the Humanities Building in Cardiff University and declares ‘I wish for the destruction of this cold, grey building. I wish for the dissolution of the departments that lie within its walls. I wish, finally, that from the rubble would arise the Posthumanities’.

Discussion of the digital humanities frequently gives vent to impatience with disciplinary boundaries and expresses a desire to reshape the humanities. This has been pithily put by Mark Sample: ‘It’s all about innovation and disruption. The digital humanities is really an insurgent humanities’. Comments such as this have excited the ire of the eminent critic Stanley Fish who noted that little is said of the ‘humanities’ part of the digital humanities, and asked ‘Does the digital humanities offer new and better ways to realize traditional humanities goals? Or does the digital humanities completely change our understanding of what a humanities goal (and work in the humanities) might be?’ Fish’s questions are fair ones, and are not asked often enough. Is the digital humanities aligned with a conventional Ronald Crane view of the humanities, or do they seek to help move us towards – as both Hitchcock’s and Sample’s comments seem to suggest – a post-humanities?

In Britain, digital humanities centres have recently been very active in creating directories of projects which provide us with an overview of the current intellectual agenda of the digital humanities in the UK. A comprehensive listing of projects is available on arts-humanities.net, but this includes a number of commercial and other packages not produced by digital humanities centres. In order to get a clearer idea of what the digital humanities as formally constituted in Britain represents, it is best to look at the directories of projects created by the major digital humanities centres. Let’s start with my own centre at King’s College London. The type of humanities represented by the directory of projects undertaken by the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s College is one which would have gladdened the heart of Ronald Crane. Of the 88 content creation projects listed, only 8 are concerned in any way with anything that happened after 1850. The overwhelming majority – some 57 projects – deal with subjects from before 1600, and indeed most of them are concerned with the earliest periods, before 1100. The geographical focus of most of the projects are on the classical world and western Europe. The figures that loom largest are standard cultural icons: Ovid, Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Jane Austen, Chopin. This is an old-style humanities, dressed out in bright new clothes for the digital age.

Oxford University has recently launched a very impressive directory digitalhumanities@Oxford, which lists around 190 content creation projects in the humanities at the University. While Oxford seems a little more willing to countenance modernity than King’s College, the figures are still not impressive: about 30 of the 190 projects at Oxford are concerned with the period after 1850. While these include some projects on major modern themes such as the First World War archive and the Around 1968 project, the connection of other projects with the modern world is more tangential, such as Translations of Classical Scholarship, which just happens to extend to 1907. At Oxford, the centre of gravity of the digital humanities is also firmly rooted in earlier periods, with about half of the projects being concerned with the period before 1600. And again we are presented with an extremely conservative view of the humanities, in which the classical world has an elevated position, and names like Chaucer, Leonardo, Holinshed, John Foxe and Jonathan Swift dominate. The smaller range of projects produced by the Humanities Research Institute at Sheffield reflect a similar bias, with just over half dealing with the period before 1700. Glasgow, I am pleased to say, has by far the highest proportion of more modern projects, with almost a half of its forty projects covering the period since 1850. However, this stronger emphasis on more modern subjects at Glasgow doesn’t seem generally to reflect a difference in intellectual approach – the projects are dominated by such old-style male cultural icons as Burns, Mackintosh and Whistler.

For all the rhetoric about digital technologies changing the humanities, the overwhelming picture presented by the activities of digital humanities centres in Great Britain is that they are busily engaged in turning back the intellectual clock and reinstating a view of the humanities appropriate to the 1950s which would have gladdened the heart of Ronald Crane. One of the great achievements of humanities scholarship in the past fifty years is to have widened our view of culture and to have expanded the subject matter of scholarship beyond conventional cultural icons. There is virtually no sense of this in digital humanities as it is practiced in Britain. If recent scholarship in the humanities has managed (in the words of Raymond Williams) to wrest culture away from the Cambridge teashop, the digital humanities seems intent on trying to entice culture back to the Earl Grey and scones. This use of digital technologies to inscribe very conservative views of culture is not restricted to digital humanities centres. Libraries and museums have frequently seen digital technologies as a means of giving access to their so-called ‘treasures’, so that it is the elite objects rather than the everyday to which we get access. The sort of priorities evident in the British Library are very similar to those of digital humanities centres: the Codex Sinaiticus, Caxton editions of Chaucer, illuminated manuscripts from the old library of the English Royal Family, early Byzantine manuscripts, and Renaissance Festival Books.

There are some more intellectually and culturally imaginative projects at the British Library, such as the excellent UK Soundmap, but significantly they do not come from the mainstream library areas. Digital technologies have generally not enabled libraries and archives to enhance access to concealed and hidden material in their collections, and does not offer those outside the library fresh perspectives on their collections. Here’s one example. As a legal deposit library, the British Library has historically received vast quantities of printed material which it does not have the resources to catalogue. Thousands of such items lurk under one line ‘dump entries’ which can be located in the printed catalogue but are paradoxically very difficult to find in the new online ‘Explore the British Library’. This unknown and unrecorded material in the British Library includes for example thousands of estate agents prospectuses for new suburban developments in the 1930s. This material is of potentially very great cultural, historical and local importance, but at present it is completely inaccessible. Shouldn’t the British Library be giving a higher priority to making available documents like these, recording an everyday culture, rather than making its so-called ‘treasures’ available in an ever-increasing range of technological forms?

I am conscious that my remarks are based very much on Britain and of course in painting such a general picture there are always bound to be major exceptions (I would for example suggest that the Old Bailey Proceedings has developed a very different cultural and intellectual agenda to the majority of British digital humanities projects). But nevertheless I feel confident in my general charge: to judge from the projects it produces, the digital humanities as formally constituted has been party to a concerted attempt to reinstate an outmoded and conservative view of the humanities. The reasons for this are complicated, and again the American situation is different to the British one in some important respects, but in Britain the problem is I think that the digital humanities has failed to develop its own distinctive intellectual agendas and is still to all intents and purposes a support service. The digital humanities in Britain has generally emerged from information service units and has never fully escaped these origins. Even in units which are defined as academic departments, such as my own in King’s, the assumption generally is that the leading light in the project will be an academic in a conventional academic department. The role of the digital humanities specialists in constructing this project is always at root a support one. We try and suggest that we are collaborating in new ways, but at the end of the day a unit like that at King’s is simply an XML factory for projects led by other researchers. We are interdisciplinary, in that we work with different departments, but so do other professional services. Departments like ours can only keep people in work if we constantly secure funding for new research projects. So we are sitting ducks – if a good academic has a bright idea for a project, it is difficult to say no, because otherwise someone might be out of a job. But this means that intellectually, the digital humanities is always reactive. Above all, it means that it is vulnerable to those subjects, like classics or medieval studies, who are anxious about their continued relevance and funding, who are desperate to demonstrate that their subjects can be switched on, up to date and digital. The digital humanities has become caught up in a form of project dependency which will eventually kill it unless it can be weaned off the collaborative drug.

Now I am a medievalist by training, and, recovering recently from my broken leg, I realized that there is nothing I would like now to do as much as spend my time using the remarkable online archive of medieval legal records created by Richard Palmer in Texas. But I also subscribe strongly to a point of view which sees Super Mario or Coronation Street or Shrek as just as culturally interesting and significant as Ovid and Chaucer. It is an article of faith for me that You Tube is just as worthy of scholarly examination as an illuminated manuscript. One of the stimulating things about working somewhere like the British Library is that it brings home just how many amazing forms culture takes. On the shelves of the British Library, you regularly encounter an ancient potsherd with writing by Ethiopian merchant next to a regency laundry list underneath an Aztec picture manuscript and just across the corridor from a Fats Waller LP. One of the exciting things about digital cultures is that they give us access to such an eclectic, boundary-crossing view of culture, and if our digital humanities fails to embrace such an inclusive and all-embracing view of culture and of the humanities, then there will always be a disjunction between the digital humanities and the digital world it professes to inhabit. But our academic collaborators in classics or history or even literature will want to keep us close to hand and prevent us wandering away down such paths. Until we seize control of our own intellectual agendas, the digital humanities are doomed to be – at best – no more than an ancillary discipline (the term frequently applied in the past to paleography and bibliography).

Our stress on collaboration and interdisciplinarity are our worst enemies. I take pride in having been returned for three different panels for research assessment exercises, so I feel that I have really committed personally to interdisciplinarity. However, as far as the digital humanities are concerned, interdisciplinarity is just a cover for the lack of a distinctive intellectual agenda. We rarely assemble truly interdisciplinary teams – Tim Hitchcock’s current collaboration with social scientists and mathematicians is an exception which proves the rule. Similarly, team working has become routine with the establishment of research council funding in the humanities. We are not unusual because we work in teams – it is the lone scholar which is more of a rarity nowadays. Everyone claims to be interdisciplinary today, so the digital humanities to claim this as one of its distinctive characteristics is to claim nothing.

Another major obstacle preventing the digital humanities developing its own scholarly identity is our interest in method. If we focus on modelling methods used by other scholars, we will simply never develop new methods of our own. The idea – at the heart of a lot of thinking about methods, models and scholarly primitives - that a synthesis could be developed from these methods to produce a sort of alchemical essence of scholarship is absurd. If we truly believe that digital technologies can be potentially transformative, the only way of achieving that is by forgetting the aging rhetoric about interdisciplinarity and collaboration, and starting to do our own scholarship, digitally. A lot of this will be ad hoc, will pay little attention to standards, won’t be seeking to produce a service, and won’t worry about sustainability. It will be experimental.

The starting point is to start to saying no to other people’s projects if they don’t enthuse us. Everyone now accepts that digital technology is changing scholarship. We don’t need to convince them and don’t need to embrace as a convert every humanities academic who thinks that a computer might help. What we need more urgently to do is to develop our own projects that are innovative, inspiring, and different, rather than endlessly cranking up what Torsten Reimer has called the digital photocopier. We might start by seeking closer contact with our colleagues in Cultural and Media Studies. There is a huge body of scholarship on digital cultures with which we engage only patchily and which offers us powerful critical frameworks in articulating our own scholarly programme.  One lesson which immediately emerges from dipping a toe into this burgeoning scholarship is that those of us in the digital humanities need to engage more with the born digital.  Humanities scholars are increasingly studying the digital, yet the digital humanities (paradoxically) does not got much involved in this discussion – the huge preponderance of projects concerned with the period before 1600 is an eloquent declaration that British digital humanities is mostly not very interested in what is currently happening on the internet. Again, we might link this to the way in which the digital humanities has become annexed by a very conservative view of the nature of humanities scholarship – digital humanities practitioners have too often seen their role as being responsible for shaping on-line culture and for ensuring the provision of suitably high-brow material. But this is a futile enterprise as the culture of the web has exploded. The internet has become a supreme expression of how culture is ordinary and everywhere, and there is a great deal for us to explore.

I’m sure you will have seen the videos of very young children instinctively using an iPad or iPhone, which are used to illustrate how children can instinctively accept the digital (or at least a tablet). But watching a child playing with an iPad raises a host of other issues about text, record and memory. My former colleague at Glasgow, Chris Philo, has produced some very thought-provoking papers about the methodological issues posed by recording childhood activities such as writing and drawing. Since researchers have their own memories of childhood and frequently parenthood as well, in attempting to record conversations with children or encouraging children to write and draw, researchers often impose their own memories of childhood. Correspondingly the children themselves are eager to please and this will shape their drawing and writing for adult researchers. Philo raises the question of whether, given such complex feedback loops, archives of childhood are ever feasible. He asks how we can ever accurately document childhood. He also suggests that maybe new technology provides an answer.  Can we gain a more direct insight into childhood by recording and analyzing how a three-year old uses an iPad? Maybe this is the sort of new digital humanities, analyzing the human intersection with the machine, which we might pursue.

There are also increasing quantities of born digital materials more recognizable as the conventional stuff of humanities research. For major disruptive events such as terrorist attacks, our information has in the past often been largely textual or produced by professional media, so that the information is often restricted to the immediate incident.  The July 2005 bombings in London were among the first events that were recorded in a variety of ways: apart from conventional media, there were blog reports, mobile phone images uploaded on Flickr, SMS traffic, CCTV coverage. What is fascinating in the reportage of July 7th is the way in which these different media affect the way in which we can explore the nature and structure of the event. While there are a few dramatic mobile phone images from the bombed tube trains, the vast majority of the pictures of the July 7th bombings on Flickr show the disruption in the streets: people trying to find their way home, gathering anxiously to get news. The emergency services nervously try to control the situation; normally busy streets are eerily deserted. This is a curiously de-centered view of the event. For many people, the memory of 7th July  was one of confusion, waiting and uncertainty. This is an aspect of such major events which often is not recorded in conventional media, but one that we can explore here.

The chief issue which emerges from this material on 7th July is that of memorialization, as a recent special issue of Memory Studies has discussed. The engagement of people with the events of that day was heavily mediated in many different ways throughout technology and they also sought to use technology to memorialize and record their experiences on that day. Different forms of technology created different forms of memorialisation – the mobile phone interaction (as itself memorialized through Flickr) was very different to that in blogs or in conventional media. Moreover, the new media also enabled older informal methods of communication and memorialization to be recorded. Presumably on other occasions in the past, poignant handwritten notices and posters had appeared, but generally they are not recorded. However, the availability and cheapness of mobile phones and digital cameras means that this distinctive type of textuality from such disruptive events has been recorded.

While the digital and textual traces of the July bombings provide rich material for investigating the memorialization of major events, this does not mean that our focus needs to be restricted to the contemporary and recent. One feature of the digital humanities should be that we provide the historical and critical range and depth to help provide new contexts for contemporary technologies – we understand that the internet in some ways is the heir of the thirteenth-century concordance. We might compare the digital and media traces of July 7th to the way in which earlier major events such as the Fire of London or the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 appear in the media of the period. Major events such as these appear differently when viewed through the lens of broadside ballads or medieval chronicles. This kind of historical media studies is one rich area for a future digital humanities.
  
One major theme which would emerge from such a study is the intersection between technology and the different types of human memory and understanding to which we give the overall label of textuality. The blog is used in a different way to the mobile phone which in turn is used in a different way to the handwritten poster. These differ from printed ballads or manuscript chronicles. A fundamental aspect of our engagement with textuality is a materiality which should be at the heart of the digital humanities, and which should enable us to bridge the gap between the born digital and the medieval. Although much cultural commentary on the digital portrays it as disembodied, flickering, volatile and elusive, digital technology is as material (maybe more so) than writing and printing. As Matt Kirschenbaum has reminded us in the ‘Grammatology of the Hard Drive’ in his book Mechanisms, the computer in the end comes down to a funny whirring thing that works much like a gramophone. The internet is not magic; it depends on vast cables protected by one of the great Victorian discoveries, gutta percha. At Porthcurno Beach in Cornwall, fourteen cables linked Britain to the rest of the British Empire, and the internet still comes ashore through cables at Porthcurno.

Katherine Hayles has described how one of the fundamental issues in the emergence of the post-human derived from Claude Shannon’s work on improving the quality of telegraph communication over cables like those at Porthcurno.  Shannon found that on-off signals – bits – could be retrieved more efficiently and accurately over cables. Shannon proposed that the information should be separate from the medium carrying it. Shannon declared that the ‘fundamental problem of communication is that of reproducing at one point either exactly or approximately a message selected at another point’ – in other words, communication science should strip a message down to those essentials which could be fixed in such a way that it could be reproduced at a distance. In short, information is about fixing and attempting to stabilize what are construed as the essential elements. Even at the time, there were complaints that Shannon’s approach was over formalistic and by ignoring issues like meaning was inadequate as the basis for a theory of communication. But the practical need to improve the quality of the cable traffic at Porthcurno prevailed. Shannon’s discoveries form the basis of modern computing, but it by no means follows that in thinking about the way in which textuality works we should be bound by this model. For large parts of the humanities, our understanding of the nature of textuality (in its broadest sense as construing images, video, sound and all other forms of communication as well as verbal information) is deeply bound up with its materiality. The interaction between carver and stone is important in understanding the conventions and structure of different types of inscription. The craft of the scribe affected the structure and content of the manuscript. The film director is shaped by the equipment at his disposal. I write differently when I tweet to when I send an e-mail. Text technologies have a complex interaction with textuality and thus with the whole of human understanding.

Texts are always unstable, chaotic, messy and deceptive for a simple reason – because they are human. The only way in which we can recover and explore this human aspect of the text is by exploring its materiality. It will never become wholly disembodied data. We can display information from ship’s logs in geographical form and manipulate it in a variety of ways, but at the end of the day if the captain had bad writing, was careless in keeping his log or got drunk for days on hand, then the data will be deceptive. We can get a much better idea of the nature of that log and the human being behind it by exploring its material nature – were there a lot of ink blots? Were pages ripped out? Were sections corrected? And it is by exploring this materiality that we can start to reintegrate the human and the digital, and develop a view which transcends the post-humanities and, while accepting that technology changes the experience of being human, it can also enable us to explore in new ways the way in which different textual objects, from manuscripts to films, from papyri to tweets, engage with humans and humanity. It is impossible to come here to Oxford and not mention the name of Dom Mackenzie, who taught us how historical bibliography is a means of exploring the cultural and social context of text. The mission of the digital humanities should be to bring the vision that Mackenzie brought to historical bibliography to bear on the whole range of textual technologies.

And in pursuing such a new vision of the study of digital cultures and text technologies, we need to create new scholarly alliances and new conjunctions. I tried to suggest earlier that our claim to be distinguished by a commitment to interdisciplinarity is a rather empty one, and that such claims carry increasingly less weight as interdisciplinarity becomes more widespread. But I nevertheless believe that digital humanities is uniquely well placed to create new conjunctions between the humanities scholar, the curator, the scientist, the librarian and the artist. A focus on the materiality of text enhances such alliances. After the notebook of William Harvey was rediscovered, it was noticed how badly faded it was. The infant science of photography was used to try and enhance the damaged pages of Harvey’s notes. Likewise, we can use new imaging and scanning techniques to explore Harvey’s manuscript – we can do much much more than simply digitizing it, and we should be developing such projects. Similarly, much of our evidence for understanding how those Dominican  monks compiled the first concordance to the scriptures in the thirteenth century comes from discarded manuscript fragments they used in listing the words. We could imagine a project which imaged those fragments and reintegrated them to understand the working methods of the compilers of the concordance. But, in doing so, our aims should not simply be to help breath new life into medieval studies. We should be seeking to develop new technologies and new science as a result of this work. We should be seeking to provide new perspectives on the way in which technology interacts with text. And in so doing we provide new perspectives on what it means to be human.         

I thought I had finished writing this lecture, when I read a tweet from the Science Museum, which described a new brainscanner which uses magnetic resonance imaging to detect different blood flows in the brain when a different letter of the alphabet is read. The practical application of this is that it potentially allows complete paralysed people to communicate by spelling out words, which could be read by the scanner. But it potentially represents a huge shift in our ability to explore and investigate the relationship between the human and text. How does the brain react to the same letter forms in different types? How do different people react to, say, a medieval manuscript? What does this tell us about the nature of reading? An invention like this poses questions for the humanities while also offering the humanities huge new opportunities. It is the exploration of these new opportunities which is the business of the digital humanities, and not preserving antiquated and desiccated forms of scholarship.    

6 comments:

  • Ernesto says:
    11 July 2012 at 06:13

    Bravo!.

  • Gabriel Bodard says:
    13 July 2012 at 07:29

    I think you set up a false dichotomy between the traditional humanities study of historical, literary and other works, and the study of contemporary culture, media and digital practice. There is as you say room for both in a school of humanities, faculty of liberal arts, or department of digital humanities. But the implication that more modern subject matter is by definition less conservative is fallacious; it's possible to study late twentieth century literature or cinema and be just as theoretically conservative and obsessed with the dead-white-male canon as Ronald Crane. The study of classical inscriptions and papyri enables us to pay attention to women, non-elites, foreigners, slaves and other groups that are under-studied and under-represented in the classical canon. Date of subject is a poor indicator of level of conservatism/innovation. Or to put it another way: the humanities is defined by more than just its subject matter—we are a network of approaches, methods, ideologies and theories, as well as texts (images, multimedia experiences and collations/concordances).

    Within humanities is a lot of conservative scholarship; areas like palaeography, philology, prosopography, art restoration/conservation, architectural archaeology, historical linguistics are core to our disciplines. They are the foundations on which more experimental and risky and sexy work is built, but if we stop doing the conservative work the foundations will crumble. The fact that some (maybe most) digital humanities is concerned with these conservative subject areas is not a sign of ill-health at all.

    A digital humanities scholar (like myself) whose background discipline is one of the historical humanities subjects, and whose focus may be on using digital methods and standards to improve the study and/or dissemination of traditional subject matter, may also have a methodological interest in how digital tools and technologies affect our academic and pedagogical thinking, culture as a whole, and current political events such as protest movements. They may (and often do) write papers and propose funded projects in these areas; they may engage in outreach through various media on these subjects (as I strongly believe all academics should); or their interest may be restrained to conversations over lunch. None of these things get away from the fact that a rigorous humanities training and career has equipped them with the skills and sensibilities to engage with these subjects; they do not cease to be historians and become culture/media studies scholars as soon as they write one paper on reader response to iPad apps. (For one thing, studying media studies for many years and gaining a PhD and teaching experience in the area equips one with a whole other range of skills, overlapping but not identical to those of the historian or philologist.)

    I don't disagree with your point that the humanities (and with them the digital humanities) could do with more diversity and variety in our areas as well as our methods of study. The apparent denigration of pre-21st century history and equating it with neo-Victorian canon-worship is simplistic, and I believe inaccurate. Collaboration with colleagues in the humanities is not an unhealthy dependency or addiction, it is what makes us a humanities discipline. Yes, we should be bringing our own research agendas to the projects we work on (many of us already do), and we should be building and running our own projects, and in an ideal world you should never ever work on anything that you are not enthused by. Many computer scientists and informaticians, who do not call themselves "digital humanists" or "interdisciplinary", recognize quite openly that the complex and messy research questions brought by humanities projects contribute in significant ways to both design and implementation of tools and software that are also used for quite different ends, including well-funded areas like medicine and security. I don't think that collaboration weakens them as scholars, and nor does it us.

  • Paul Caton says:
    16 July 2012 at 07:50

    Stymied by the character limit I have posted a response to this on the DDH blog

  • Clai says:
    18 July 2012 at 21:43

    The argument that the Digital Humanities reinstates a conservative view of the humanities relies for its own on a curiously narrow definition of humanistic inquiry. The field of linguistics has played a crucial role in the development of DH, and it is hard to imagine any of Prescott's critiques applying to 'digital' research in linguistics. Linguistics always seems to have been an 'insurgent humanities,' whether it was Saussure's structural linguistics being appropriated to anthropology and literary theory or Chomsky's wrestling with the application of Shannon's information theory to human language and the consequent refining of the notion of 'human creativity.' The current 'insurgent' form of linguistics is corpus/computational linguistics, a distinctly digital form of research that built itself up as a self-conscious form of 'humanities computing'. It is impossible to say that the procedure for either developing the Brown corpus or tagging it for parts of speech was a case of "modelling methods used by other scholars." Current research built on that foundation includes that of Ian Lancashire (with the computer scientist Graeme Hirst), whose studies of dementia in novelists are situated at the intersection of clinical and corpus linguistics and literary and textual studies. How should we tell him that he needs to "forget the aging rhetoric about interdisciplinarity and collaboration, and start to do [his] own scholarship, digitally"? Prescott speaks approvingly of Tim Hitchcock's work, which itself also depends partly on decades of research in corpus linguistics.

    Beyond linguistics, though, perhaps the best rebuttal for Prescott's argument is Kenneth Goldsmith's "About" page for Ubuweb. Every one of Prescott's points is addressed by Goldsmith--Ubuweb is (to quote Prescott) "ad hoc, pay[s] little attention to standards, [doesn't] seek to produce a service, and [doesn't] worry about sustainability. It [is] experimental." It clearly provides a "focus on the materiality of text." As an archive it has struggled with the technologies of restaging works in the digital domain. The periodical Aspen (http://www.ubu.com/aspen/), for example, was already a multimedia experiment issued from 1965-71; its presentation over the web becomes a thought-provoking extension of its original impetus. More important, though, is its determination to operate without the usual kinds of support--grants, advertisements, institutional budgets--that work to circumscribe DH intellectual work as Prescott sees it. Working constantly to stay outside of the usual economy, Ubuweb attains the status of pure DH project that Prescott calls for.

  • Paul Spence says:
    24 July 2012 at 07:44

    I will start by saying that I take this presentation in the spirit of Manfred Thaller's recent reminder that "research is not driven by harmony, but by controversial discussion" in 'Controversies around the Digital Humanities' (http://hsozkult.geschichte.hu-berlin.de/zeitschriften/ausgabe=6950). Andrew Prescott has, in my view, set out some very important challenges here for the field in the UK, which have wider implications for digital humanities at an international level, but like others, I am concerned at the over-simplistic connection made between the period of the subject matter and the perceived modernity of digital humanities research.

    There are many reasons why we are having this debate about the digital humanities now, many of them driven by outside factors (the economy; funding; wider concerns about the role of the humanities) and some by the recent attention given to the field, which has led to a modest growth in academic positions (although not to the degree one might expect), but they have little, if anything, to do with the historical period under focus.

    I share concerns expressed here about the perceived 'service' aspect of *some* digital humanities research, but over-polarising the debate does us no favours. Statements like "King's is simply an XML factory for projects led by other researchers" are not only unfortunate for colleagues at King's, but also those whose research involves text modelling more generally (which is not to say that all work involving XML constitutes interesting research of course). While it is true to say that issues of credit on collaborative projects in the humanities are problematic - something the Digital Humanities has been active in exploring in recent years - it is simply not true to imply that XML-related work (whether at the conceptual or development level) does not constitute independent research in its own right, or that DH researchers cannot get respect for their work from other colleagues in the humanities, as I'm sure many colleagues at King's would attest. It is clear that we need to avoid dependency on project funding and to develop distinct intellectual agendas, but all of this is not incompatible with collaboration, or indeed project work per se. There need to be more projects led by DH researchers (in addition to, rather than instead, of collaborative acts), but other humanities disciplines provide a fertile terrain without which our experimentation will struggle to germinate.

    Similarly, I do not see a contradiction between carrying out our own research and using standards or considering sustainability. While I agree that much research will need to be experimental and surpass the limits of current frameworks for modelling humanities data, we lose an important advantage of digital technologies if we ignore the advances of the last few years, which have taken digital research away from the kind of black-box mentality (a different form of elitism) which I thought we were trying to avoid. And you cannot manipulate vast quantities of data, as mentioned in the article, if you do not have some common frameworks for doing so.

    In summary, we need to strike off in new directions, and to ensure that we protect our intellectual identities, but we do not need to destroy all that we have built as we strive to navigate the digital humanities through fast- moving waters.

  • Paul Spence says:
    24 July 2012 at 07:45

    I will start by saying that I take this presentation in the spirit of Manfred Thaller's recent reminder that "research is not driven by harmony, but by controversial discussion" in 'Controversies around the Digital Humanities' (http://hsozkult.geschichte.hu-berlin.de/zeitschriften/ausgabe=6950). Andrew Prescott has, in my view, set out some very important challenges here for the field in the UK, which have wider implications for digital humanities at an international level, but like others, I am concerned at the over-simplistic connection made between the period of the subject matter and the perceived modernity of digital humanities research.

    There are many reasons why we are having this debate about the digital humanities now, many of them driven by outside factors (the economy; funding; wider concerns about the role of the humanities) and some by the recent attention given to the field, which has led to a modest growth in academic positions (although not to the degree one might expect), but they have little, if anything, to do with the historical period under focus.

    I share concerns expressed here about the perceived 'service' aspect of *some* digital humanities research, but over-polarising the debate does us no favours. Statements like "King's is simply an XML factory for projects led by other researchers" are not only unfortunate for colleagues at King's, but also those whose research involves text modelling more generally (which is not to say that all work involving XML constitutes interesting research of course). While it is true to say that issues of credit on collaborative projects in the humanities are problematic - something the Digital Humanities has been active in exploring in recent years - it is simply not true to imply that XML-related work (whether at the conceptual or development level) does not constitute independent research in its own right, or that DH researchers cannot get respect for their work from other colleagues in the humanities, as I'm sure many colleagues at King's would attest. It is clear that we need to avoid dependency on project funding and to develop distinct intellectual agendas, but all of this is not incompatible with collaboration, or indeed project work per se. There need to be more projects led by DH researchers (in addition to, rather than instead, of collaborative acts), but other humanities disciplines provide a fertile terrain without which our experimentation will struggle to germinate.

    Similarly, I do not see a contradiction between carrying out our own research and using standards or considering sustainability. While I agree that much research will need to be experimental and surpass the limits of current frameworks for modelling humanities data, we lose an important advantage of digital technologies if we ignore the advances of the last few years, which have taken digital research away from the kind of black-box mentality (a different form of elitism) which I thought we were trying to avoid. And you cannot manipulate vast quantities of data, as mentioned in the article, if you do not have some common frameworks for doing so.

    In summary, we need to strike off in new directions, and to ensure that we protect our intellectual identities, but we do not need to destroy all that we have built as we strive to navigate the digital humanities through fast- moving waters.

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