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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.

9 August 2013

"Start from Arts and Humanities"

Mark Weiser was the Chief Technology Officer at the Rank Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) from 1996-1999. PARC had of course during the 1960s and 1970s been the place where many of the features we associate with personal computing were developed. Weiser had a vision of something which went further - a world where we are surrounded by technollogical devices which help shape our life silently and without complex interactions. Weiser called this 'ubiquitous computing' and described his vision in an article 'The Computer for the 21st Century' in the Scientific American in 1991. And of course Weiser's vision is very much the world we see taking shape today - of mobile phones which are powerful small computers, domestic devices controlled by chips, self-navigating cars, an internet of things.

Weiser's work is described in the enthralling book by Phil Dourish and Genevieve Bell, Divining a Digital Future: Mess of Mythology in Ubiquitous Computing. Weiser sadly died on cancer in 1999 but his website www.ubiq.com provides a record of his ideas and personality - itself an interesting example of the need to preserve websites as historical documents.

Among the documents archived on Weiser's site are a series of slides (35mm. slides - these were the days before data projectors were commonplace) from a talk called 'Building Invisible Interfaces' given by him in 1994. The whole lecture is compelling, but perhaps particularly intriguing for those working in the digital humanities is Slide No. 10:

'start from arts and humanities' is a wonderful message. Weiser's message was, as described by Dourish and Bell, a heady one: 'Weiser hoped that future research in ubicomp would be thoroughly grounded in postmodern analysis and feminist critical theory'. (p. 16) Maybe Weiser's vision of computer science research which is framed by a powerful engagement with cultural theory anticipates what Digital Humanties is becoming.    


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