About Me

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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.

18 September 2012


I was delighted to be among the speakers at an excellent day organised by Melissa Terras at UCL on 18 September 2012, calling 'Showing the Arts and Humanities Matter'. The redoubtable Ernesto Priego was assiduous in live tweeting the day and has storified it here:


Copies of the slides from my presentation are available at:


Read more »

6 September 2012

Made In Sheffield: Industrial Perspectives on the Digital Humanities

This is the text of my keynote for the Digital Humanities Congress at the University of Sheffield, 6 September 2012.

Made in Sheffield: Industrial Perspectives on the Digital Humanities

It is a great honour to be asked to inaugurate this first Digital Humanities Congress at the University of Sheffield. My connections with digital humanities at Sheffield go back to 1995 when the remarkable portfolio of projects in the Humanities Research Institute at Sheffield caught the attention of the British Library, and I was asked as one of the library’s curators to foster links with the pioneering work at Sheffield. Since that time, it has been both a pleasure and an education to watch how Sheffield has produced a stream of imaginative and forward-looking work in the digital humanities. I’m going to suggest that the ‘little mesters’ of the Humanities Research Institute form part of a tradition of innovation in Sheffield which reaches deep into the history of the town, but I’ll start a long way from Sheffield, with the recent uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa known as the Arab Spring.

An aspect of the Arab Spring which has caused particular comment in the West has been the use by protestors of social media. One protestor tweeted ‘We use Facebook to schedule the protests, Twitter to coordinate, and YouTube to tell the world!’ A prominent Egyptian blogger, Wael Ghonim, named his book on the Egyptian uprising Revolution 2.0, and declared that ‘Our revolution is like Wikipedia … Everyone is contributing content, [but] you don’t know the names of the people contributing the content’. Western media quickly labelled the risings in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere the ‘Twitter Revolutions’. It was even claimed that an Egyptian couple named their baby ‘Facebook’. For some commentators, these events proved that new communication technologies were a force for democracy. Phillip Howard and Muzammil Hussain of the University of Washington have argued that whereas in the past protest movements in this region had been suppressed,
The Internet, mobile phones, and social media made the difference this time. Using these technologies, people interested in democracy could build extensive networks, create social capital, and organize political action with a speed and on a scale not seen before. Thanks to these technologies, virtual networks materialized in the streets. Digital media became the tool that allowed social movements to reach once-unachievable goals…

However, it seems that such a cyber-utopian reading of these events is misplaced. It has been pointed that there does not appear to be a correlation between internet penetration and the extent of Arab protests. Thus, there were widespread protests in the Yemen, where rate of internet penetration is low, but few protests in the Gulf States where there was greater access to the internet. An analysis of clicks on links in tweets relating to the protests indicates that much of the internet traffic generated by the risings came from outside the countries affected, suggesting that the chief role of social media was not to coordinate protests but rather to alert the outside world to what was happening. When the internet was switched off in Egypt, the protests actually grew in size, suggesting that social media was not essential to the co-ordination of protests. New media did not simply supplant traditional sources of news. Indeed, it seems that much of the impact of new media was a result of its use as a source of information by traditional news outlets. For example, it has been suggested that much of the mainstream media’s coverage of events in Tunisia was derived from Tunisian Facebook pages which had been repackaged for a blog maintained for Tunisian exiles and then passed onto journalists via Twitter (Cottle p. 652). There appears to have been a realignment in which old and new media remediated each other in a complex interplay.

Anne Alexander and Miriyam Aouragh in an important recent study have used interviews with Egyptian activists to contextualize the role of new media in the Egyptian uprising. They describe how activists including representatives of youth movements, workers’ groups and the Muslim Brotherhood, met for weeks beforehand to plan the protests. Alexander and Aouragh emphasise that ‘the Egyptian activists we interviewed rightly reject simplistic claims that technology somehow caused the 2011 uprisings, and they say it undermines the agency of the millions of people who participated in the movement that brought down Hosni Mubarak’. But Alexander and Aouragh remind us that there is also a risk of falling into the opposite trap by assuming that, if social media did not cause the Arab Spring, then they were of no significance. A million and half tweets from Egypt at the time of the rising suggest this is wrong, and Alexander and Aouragh insist that we need to move away from false polarisations and place the internet activism of the Arab Spring in the context of wider developments in media and the public sphere. The Arab Spring saw a profound realignment of the relationship between new and old media, in which new media emerged as an important additional space for dissent and protest. In past revolutions, it has often been difficult to recapture the voices of the insurgents; social media now gives us unparalleled opportunities to explore these textualities of revolt.

However, what I am interested in here is the cyber-myth, the idea that Facebook and Twitter allowed the Arab protests to succeed when previously they had easily been suppressed. This is a myth that has gained a firm hold in the popular imagination, and it reflects a deeply held belief that the digital revolution will not simply alter our working life and give us new forms of leisure but will also lead to major political and social upheaval, on a par with such great historical movements of the past as the Reformation. This widespread belief in inexorable technological progress has been well expressed by Michael Brodie, the Chief Scientist of Network Technologies for Verizon, the American telecommunications company, who suggests that we are about to see a digital revolution which will make the Reformation or the Industrial Revolution seem low-key. Brodie declared that:

the Gutenberg Bible led to religious reformation while the Web appears to be leading towards social and economic reformation. But the Digital Industrial revolution, because of the issues and phenomena surrounding the Web and its interactions with society, is occurring at lightning speed with profound impacts on society, the economy, politics, and more.

There is a common assumption in the West that changes in digital technologies will inexorably generate major transformations in social, political and economic structures. The American business guru Clayton Christiansen introduced in 1995 the idea that business success was associated with the development and adoption of ‘disruptive technologies’. Christiansen subsequently adopted the wider term ‘disruptive innovations’ to reflect the idea that business models could also be disruptive. In coining the term Web 2.0, Tim O’Reilly picked up on the disruptive zeitgeist and disruption has consistently been seen as a feature of Web 2.0. The strapline for one of the first Web 2.0 conferences in 2008 was ‘Design, Develop, Disrupt’.

New technologies of communication have been seen as particularly disruptive and likely to produce major social and political upheaval. Among the most influential media theorists have been the Toronto school of Harold Innes, Marshall McLuhan and Walter Ong, who suggested that major epochs in human history were marked by the appearance of new communication media. They proposed that the shift from an oral to a literate society was one such shift. The appearance of printing in the West is seen as another major transformation precipitating great upheaval. In this analysis, the impact of the printing press is a pointer towards the type of social and cultural disruptions which will be produced by the emergence of electronic and digital forms of communication. The idea that the printing press was a major agent of social, religious and political change has become widely accepted as a result of the work of Elizabeth Eisenstein. In a monumental study, Eisenstein suggested that the role of printing had not been given sufficient weight in accounts of the Renaissance, Reformation or Scientific Revolution and that printing was ‘the unacknowledged revolution’. Eisenstein argued that there were two major means by which printing acted as an agent of change. First, she suggested that print standardized texts which had been fluid during periods of oral and manuscript circulation. This enabled knowledge to become more settled and easily transmitted. Second, Eisenstein argued that, by making large numbers of texts available, their contradictions and mistakes became more evident, so that readers became more critical and sceptical of authority.

The circulation of digital information alters once again these two key characteristics of information. Texts have perhaps ceased to become fixed, so that it could be suggested we have reverted to the fluidity of oral and manuscript culture. In a recent presentation at MIT, the folklorist Tom Pettit proposed the Gutenberg thesis, ‘the idea that oral culture was in a way interrupted by Gutenberg's invention of the printing press and the roughly 500 years of print dominance; a dominance now being challenged in many ways by digital culture and the orality it embraces’.  If Eisenstein was right, then it seems reasonable to expect that we will shortly see new historical movements comparable to the Renaissance and Reformation, disruptions and transformations on a cataclysmic scale. Yet a growing number of historical bibliographers are expressing doubts about Eisenstein’s thesis. There were states which were to resist the printing press. The church and state ensured that the printing press was kept out of Russia and when a press was set up in Moscow in 1564 it was soon destroyed by a mob. The Ottoman Empire was likewise able to keep printing at bay, with the first Turkish press only being established in the eighteenth century. Moreover, the printing press did not kill off the manuscript. David McKitterick has described how a manuscript of a treatise by Walter Hilton was copied at Sheen in 1499, despite the fact that the owner of the manuscript had a copy of the printed version of the same treatise produced by Wynkyn de Worde five years previously. Although the production of printed gazettes flourished in seventeenth-century England, manuscript newsletters were equally important in the dissemination of news. Indeed, many regarded manuscript news as more reliable than the printed version and the Duke of Newcastle warned Charles II that the pen was actually far more dangerous than the press, since opponents might be bolder in a letter than in print. John Donne and Andrew Marvell were suspicious of print and believed that manuscripts might prove to be more durable.

The survival of a mixed media economy after Gutenberg is perhaps not surprising, but a more substantial objection to Eisenstein’s work is that there is substantial evidence that printing did not standardise texts. Printing was a craft activity and just like manuscript copying there were many points in the processing of printing in which accidents, errors and mistakes could be introduced. As David McKitterick has pointed out:

From the 42-line Bible onwards, thousands of books [printed in the fifteenth century] exist with different type settings for reasons that are not always clear but that always emanate from some adjustment found necessary in the printing house or the binder’s bench …  Of three dozen copies surviving of Fust and Schoeffer’s Durandus (1459), no two copies are exactly alike.

Examples of printed books which differ as much as manuscripts can be multiplied endlessly. Famously, no two copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio are exactly the same. William Aldus Wright compared ten copies of the 1625 edition of Bacon’s Essays, and found that none were the same. Wright observed that:

The cause of these differences is not difficult to conjecture. Corrections were made while the sheets were being printed off, and the corrected and uncorrected sheets were afterwards bound up indiscriminately. In this way the number of different copies might be multiplied to any extent.

In other words, it is likely that no two copies of this edition of Bacon’s work are the same. The implications of this for online presentation of early printed books are fundamental and have not I believe been sufficiently discussed. Early English Books Online presents us with images of just one copy of the 1625 edition of Bacon’s work from Cambridge University Library, so we have no way online of investigating the other variant copies. Far from making the text of Bacon’s work more fluid, the online presentation destroys our awareness of the fluidity and variation of the printed text.

The picture which emerges from historical bibliographers such as David McKitterick, Adrian Johns and Sabrina Baron is that Gutenberg’s introduction of the press marked one stage in the long process of the evolution of printing. As Raymond Williams pointed out, the rise in literacy and access to information was a long revolution in which the appearance of the steam-driven printing press in the nineteenth century was just as important as the work of Gutenberg. Moreover, this process was not technologically driven. Political struggles over issues such as censorship and taxes were just as important as technological innovation in opening up access to printed information. As David McKitterick has pointed out: ‘the printing revolution itself, a phrase which has been taken to heart by some historians, was no revolution in the sense that it wrought instant change. The revolution was part technological, and part bibliographical and social. It was prolonged, and like many revolutions its process was irregular, and its effects were variable, even erratic.’

The picture painted by McKitterick and other historical bibliographers of the impact of printing recalls the description of the Arab Spring by Anne Alexander and Miriyam Aouragh. The process was a complex and extended one, involving the realignment and repurposing of media rather than a simple disruptive transformation. In the light of these types of analysis, it becomes very difficult to accept the technologically-led disruptive model of media history proposed by the Toronto school of Innes, McLuhan and Ong. Moreover, the Toronto school privileges technologies of communication, which make it sound as if technologies like the printing press dropped from the sky. The history of media reflects a much broader technological base. Printing presses only became capable of mass production when they began to be powered by steam engines in the early nineteenth century. To feed the new steam-powered presses, it was necessary to devise new methods of making paper. Even then, the new machine-made books would not have been widely distributed without canals and railways. All these technologies were necessary to make printed books everyday objects.

In recent discussion of disruptive innovations, the focus is frequently on the history of the media, and comparatively little attention is paid to one of the most disruptive moments in Western history, the profound economic changes which began in the late eighteenth century and are known as the Industrial and Agricultural Revolutions. This period is conventionally taken as marking the rise of modernity, and in a wide range of scholarly literature across many disciplines is seen as a major watershed in human history. In contemplating the digital revolution, it may seem as if there is little to learn from looking back to the Industrial Revolution. The clean, hi-tech electronic world of the digital seems utterly opposed to the smoky, muscle-driven factories of early industrialization. The digital is frequently represented as a means of escape from the industrial. Yet our digital world is largely a creation of many of the key technologies of that industrial world. The development of the telegraph was closely linked to the growth of railways, and the concept of the digital was the creation of engineers seeking to improve the performance of telegraph wires. One of the great icons of the Industrial Revolution, Brunel’s steamship the Great Eastern, was used to lay the first transatlantic cable, thereby effectively laying the foundations of the internet. Some of the fundamental concepts behind the computer programme as a sequence of logical instructions were developed in the 1820s from punch card mechanisms used to control mechanical looms. Moreover, it was the machines created by the Industrial Revolution which provided the technological infrastructure to create computers – to create the turbines, valves, transistors, silicon, cathode ray tubes which makes the computer one of the most sophisticated products of Western industrialisation.

The industrialization of the late eighteenth century was a process which first gained momentum in various regions of Great Britain, such as South Yorkshire. There can be no better place than Sheffield, one of the great centres of the industrial revolution, to consider the industrial dimensions of the digital and contemplate the Industrial Revolution as a disruptive moment. Does the Industrial Revolution, and the associated developments of the Agricultural Revolution, have anything to teach us in considering potential digital transformations? This was clearly a period when technological innovation was important. It felt like a period of transformation. Tourists travelled from Europe to admire such wonders as the Ironbridge at Coalbrookdale and artists such as Joseph Wright and Phillip Loutherbourg celebrated these new technologies. In works of literature such as Thomas Love Peacock’s Headlong Hall, the rights and wrongs of the manufacturing system were earnestly debated, with one character praising the profound researches, scientific inventions and complicated mechanisms which had given employment and multiplied comfort, while another denounced the innovations: ‘Wherever this boasted machinery is established, the children of the poor are death-doomed from their cradles. Look for one moment into a cotton mill, amidst the smell of oil, the smoke of lamps, the rattling of wheels, the dizzy and complicated motions of diabolical mechanisms’. Wide-ranging cultural and social transformations have been attributed to these technological changes, such as regular working hours and standardized timekeeping.

Sheffield has an industrial tradition as a centre of cutlery manufacture which goes back to the middle ages. It was partly the specialized skills available in Sheffield which prompted Benjamin Huntsman to establish himself in Sheffield to undertake his experiments in the production of crucible steel which laid the basis of Sheffield’s steel industry. Sheffield’s light trades remained important even after Thomas Bessemer’s inventions allowed the production of steel in bulk from the middle of the nineteenth century.  As, thanks to Bessemer, huge steel plants appeared in the city, making rails, steel plates and armaments, the transformative effect of the new technologies was evident in the physical fabric of the city itself. As early as 1768, a visitor commented that ‘Sheffield is very large and populous, but exceedingly dirty and ill paved. What makes it more disagreeable is the excessive smoke from the great multitude of forges which the town is crowded with’. By 1842, the social reformer Edwin Chadwick declared that ‘Sheffield is one of the dirtiest and smokiest towns I ever saw. One cannot be long in the town without experiencing the necessary inhalation of soot…There are however numbers of persons in Sheffield who think the smoke healthy’.  The importance of industry in the history of Sheffield in the Victorian town hall, which is surmounted by a statue of Vulcan and incorporates statues of figures representing electricity and steam who hold scrolls with the names of such great technological pioneers as Watt, Stephenson, Faraday and Davy.

In this Victorian view, the Industrial Revolution was the achievement of technological genius and enterprise. If this was indeed the case, then perhaps the digital world does have something to learn from its industrial great-grandparents. This view still holds sway, as is suggested by a recent comment of the Sheffield MP Nick Clegg that it was the likes of Brunel not the bankers who made Britain great. However, since the Great Western Railway cost 6,500,000 million pounds (over 300 million pounds in modern value, and twice the original estimate), presumably the bankers were of assistance in facilitating this technological revolution at some point. For politicians, it is convenient to hope that genius and inventiveness can quickly bring prosperity and wealth. But the history of industrialization suggests that this process of change can be amorphous, patchy in impact and above all subject to long timescales. Just like the printing revolution of Gutenberg, the industrial revolution dissolves under closer examination and become very difficult to pin down.

The term industrial revolution was not used as a shorthand for the changes which began in Britain until the late nineteenth century. It expressed the idea that Britain had gone through changes at this time which comparable in scale and importance to the political revolutions in France and Germany. Clearly something of profound importance had happened in Britain towards the end of the eighteenth century, but economic historians have struggled to get a clear view of the nature and structure of the process. The period from 1760 to 1830 was characterized by a wealth of disruptive innovation, yet most recent research suggests that economic growth during this period was not particularly marked. It appears that productivity growth and technological progress were confined to a few small sectors such as cotton, wool, iron and machinery in remote regions such as south Yorkshire, whereas much of the rest of manufacturing remained stagnant until after 1830. For some historians, the important features of early industrialization were not so much economic developments or technological changes as the social and cultural changes introduced by the growth of factory working and changes in farming. Just like the printing revolution or the Arab Spring, the Industrial Revolution proves to closer examination to be a much more complex and amorphous process than is suggested by the use of the word revolution.

This is vividly illustrated by the story of industrial development in Sheffield, which has been described by such distinguished historians from Sheffield University as Sidney Pollard and David Hey. Like other major industrial cities such as Birmingham and Glasgow, industrialization did not take place in Sheffield by accident. The availability of water power had made Sheffield a centre of craft production of cutlery since the middle ages. It was partly the availability of skill and expertise in metal working which encouraged the scientific instrument maker Benjamin Huntsman to move from Doncaster to Sheffield to undertake his experiments in creating crucible steel. However, despite Huntsman’s innovation in steelmaking, the initial industrial growth in Sheffield was in its historic light trades such as the making of tools, cutlery and silver plate. The techniques in Sheffield’s light trades changed very slowly. Before 1850, the only major change was the use of steam instead of water to drive the wheels used by grinders. The light trades remained dominated by the ‘small mesters’ who hired rooms in works with steam-powered wheels. It was only in the 1850s that factory production and mechanization began to be introduced in the light trades. Similarly, steel production and heavy industry only began to dominate Sheffield from 1850, chiefly as a result of the establishment by Henry Bessemer in 1859 of a steelworks using his new method of bulk steel production. The creation of heavy industry in Sheffield was a product of the third quarter of the nineteenth century. Between 1851 and 1891, employment increased over 300% in the heavy trades, compared with 50% in the light trades. In 1851, less than a quarter of the workers in the city were employed in heavy industry; by 1891, two thirds of the city’s workers worked in heavy industry.

We assume that new digital technologies will very rapidly bring major cultural and social transformations in their wake, but the lessons of industrialization suggest that the process may be longer and more complex than we generally imagine. Huntsman first produced crucible steel in the 1740s and steam power arrived in the city in 1786, yet it took nearly a hundred years for Sheffield to become a steel city. The history of industrialization suggests that the process of digital transformation may be both more extended and more complex than is often assumed. The model of disruptive innovation is not a helpful way of imaging the process of industrialization. It was actually the ability of industrialization not to disrupt but instead to support sustained change which was important. In Joel Mokyr’s words, ‘The Industrial Revolution was “revolutionary” because the technological progress it witnessed and the subsequent transformation of the economy were not ephemeral events and moved society to a permanent different economic trajectory’. (p. 3) If industrialization is seen in this way, as a sustained trajectory of economic change, it is a process which still continues, and the digital world can simply be seen as an extension of a process which began in the eighteenth century. Indeed, this continuity can be seen as stretching further back. As we have noted, Sheffield’s growth reflected skills developed since the Middle Ages, and such long-standing commercial traditions fed into the early development of industrialisation.

The Industrial Revolution suggests that the model of disruption and transformation we use in thinking about the digital world may be over-simplistic. Are there other ways in which thinking about industrialization can help us in understanding the digital world? I would like to suggest that there are. In thinking about the digital humanities, we tend to focus our attention on tools and methods, but it is striking that in cities like Sheffield and Birmingham at the time of industrialization, tools and working methods often did not greatly change, but environment did. Sidney Pollard has pointed out how ‘a visitor to the metalworking areas of Birmingham or Sheffield in the mid nineteenth-century would have found little to distinguish them superficially from the same industries a hundred years earlier. The men worked as independent sub-contractors in their own or rented workshops using their own or hired equipment … These industries .. were still waiting for their Industrial Revolution’. Yet, as Pollard emphasized, the environment in which these workmen operated had been completely transformed. Their wheels were now powered by steam and there were other gadgets which speeded up minor operations such as stamping and cutting. The workshop might be lit by gas and have a water supply. Railways made distribution easier and cheaper and gave access to a larger labour market. Cheap printing would assist in advertising products. While the ‘small mester’ may have been working in an old-fashioned way, his environment had been completed transformed. Likewise, it may be that the most important changes in the digital humanities will be in the environment in which researchers into the humanities operate, and we should perhaps be giving more attention to this.

The fascination of the digital lies in its immense variety: 3D printing, multispectral imaging, mobile technologies, RFID: these all have their part to play in humanities scholarship as well as more familiar methods as linked data, geo-spatial visualisations, text encoding and many others. This need for a pluralistic outlook in dealing with the digital is one that is reinforced by the history of industrialization. While developments such as steam, telegraph and steelmaking were important, they only formed a part of an enormous spectrum of technological developments. It is striking how the interests of such celebrated figures of the Industrial Revolution as James Watt were very wide. Watt was as preoccupied with the making of musical instruments or the copying of sculpture as he was in the application of steam power. Likewise, among Thomas Bessemer’s inventions were an early type-composing machine, new methods of making pencils, machines for making plate glass and an (unsuccessful) ship to avoid seasickness, as well as his new method of steel manufacture.  The examples of men like Watt and Bessemer remind us of the importance of an eclectic approach to the digital humanities, of embracing an approach that affirms that there is no single answer, no single piece of kit or method which will unlock the digital humanities. Digital transformations will involve a variety of approaches, embracing both risky short-term experimentation and support for sustainability, embracing both mash-ups made in bedrooms and experiments with synchrotrons, as well as digital art works and huge quantitative visualisations. The digital humanities will not only be a critical and theoretical debate but will also code. It encompasses both data and materiality.

While we tend to associate the Industrial Revolution with such major inventions as the steam engine, a key driver of industrialization was the small improvement or adjustment – tinkering with and progressively improving technology. The first steam engine was built by Thomas Newcomen at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Watt’s invention of the separate steam condenser was a microinvention which made steam power economically viable. Watt’s low pressure steam engine was not suitable for locomotives, and it was further refinements by many others which eventually made a high pressure steam engine practicable. It is tempting to assume that economic transformation is associated with the paradigm shifting macroinvention, but this is not necessarily the case. Two of the great macroinventions of the eighteenth century, the hot air balloon and the smallpox vaccine, had limited economic impact, whereas Henry Cort’s invention of puddling and rolling was technically modest, but by allowing the production of wrought iron had enormous economic impact. We are regularly urged by research councils and others to deliver the macro-invention, to demonstrate the paradigm shift. Yet the history of industrialization suggests that the small improvement, the micro-invention, can be more important. Moreover, it is perhaps precisely this kind of micro-improvement that the digital humanities is particularly well placed to deliver.

Some of the technical developments of the Industrial Revolution were linked to new scientific theories. Watt’s separate condenser was influenced by the theory of latent heat proposed by Watt’s mentor at the University of Glasgow, Joseph Black. However, for the most part, as Joel Mokyr has observed, ‘The inventions that set the British changes in motion were largely the result of mechanical intuition and dexterity, the product of technically brilliant but basically empirical tinkerers, or ‘technical designers’’ (p. 75). The late eighteenth century was a period of scientific and technological ferment, but this took place outside any formal academic structure. This is illustrated again by James Watt in Glasgow. James Watt is one of the outstanding names associated with the University of Glasgow, but he was never a member of the University’s academic staff. He was employed to repair scientific instruments. It was in the process of repairing a model of a steam engine owned by the University that Watt hit on the idea of a separate condenser. Although Watt wasn’t a lecturer but a mere craftsman, his workshop became the intellectual hub of the University.  His friend John Robison, who afterwards became Professor of Chemistry at Glasgow, recalled how: ‘All the young lads of our little place that were any way remarkable for scientific predilection were acquaintances of Mr Watt; and his parlour was a rendezvous for all of his description. Whenever any puzzle came in the way of any of us, we went to Mr Watt. He needed only to be prompted; everything became to him the beginning of a new and serious study; and we knew that he would not quit it till he had either discovered its insignificance, or had made something of it’.    
Watt was not exceptional. In Sheffield, Benjamin Huntsman was also a scientific instrument maker. Sheffield plating was accidentally discovered in 1743 by a Sheffield cutler Thomas Boulsover while repairing a customer’s knife. Henry Bessemer received only elementary schooling, preferring to gain practical experience in his father’s type foundry. When Bessemer was invited to describe his steel process to the British Association, he protested that he had ‘never written or read a paper to a learned society’. Stainless steel was developed in Sheffield in 1913 not in the University but in the research laboratory of the steel firms Firth and Brown by Harry Brearley, a self-taught metallurgist who had never received any formal education. One of the great challenges which digital technologies present us is the need also to develop spaces which allow theory, making and tinkering to collide – a digital equivalent of Watt’s workshop at Glasgow. Ideally, this would be precisely what a digital humanities centre should be like, but sadly we have rarely achieved this. The pressure of university funding structures means that most digital humanities centres are soft-funded and are on a treadmill of project funding which restricts the ability to act as centres for innovative thinking. Moreover, in Britain at least, universities are increasingly making a stronger distinction between academic and professional staff. This is without doubt a retrograde development, but the political and administrative drivers behind it are formidable. In this context, it is difficult to see how digital humanities centres can become more like Watt’s workshop or Harry Brearley’s laboratory at Firth and Brown, yet I think we must try.

Such new spaces of making and collaboration of course need not necessarily be physical spaces, but they must embrace different skills, outlooks and conversations. We need to create spaces which would embrace the digital equivalent of a James Watt or a Harry Brearley. The creation of such spaces was a fundamental feature of early industrialization. Economic historians are increasingly emphasizing the role of social capital as fundamental to understanding early British industrialization. Historians have frequently been puzzled as to why the first industrialization occurred in Britain. There were other more technologically advanced countries such as France. It seems that an important part of the reason for Britain’s early lead was that it had social structures which facilitated the spread of ideas and the making of contacts and partnerships. The multitude of clubs and societies in eighteenth-century Britain helped spread expertise and encourage new enterprises. A celebrated example is the Lunar Society, based in the West Midlands, which include many of the mos famous names of the period such as Matthew Boulton, James Watt, Josiah Wedgwood and Erasmus Darwin. Such friendships were vital to the new enterprises. Watt had struggled to develop his team engine in Glasgow, but Boulton in Birmingham had access to the necessary precision craftsmanship which allowed the successful manufacture of steam engines. Moreover, while the specializations of the Lunar Society were distinct, their fascinations overlapped tremendously--so they were able to support each other's ideas and endeavors well outside their own field proper in a kind of early inter-disciplinarity. The Lunar Society was not exceptional. Britain contained hundreds of philosophical clubs, masonic lodges and statistical societies which were essential in encouraging that hands-on, tinkering culture which encouraged early industrialization.

We may feel that in learned societies like ALLC or ADHO we have the equivalent of a Lunar Society in digital humanities. But the model of something like ALLC is that of a nineteenth-century learned society, and the Lunar Society was more flexible and informal than that. Bodies like the ALLC or ADHO are designed to affirm the respectability and seriousness of their members, to show that they are worthy professional people. But the informal, drunken societies of the eighteenth century show the value of using much looser and informal arrangements to generate social capital. We need to think about how we can recreate that kind of eighteenth century social excitement in the digital sphere. What is particularly important about these eighteenth century clubs is that they operated a particularly big tent. There was not set view in the eighteenth century as to whether the engineer or the money man should take the lead. It has been suggested that the key skill was ‘to identify a need or opportunity, then cooperate with others who possessed a different skill to take advantage of it’. This  description of the skills necessary for success in the eighteenth century is, I would suggest, equally applicable to the digital world. However, in the eighteenth century this also involved an appetite for risk. Watt was constantly terrified by what he saw as Boulton’s imprudence. Two of the greatest engineers and entrepreneurs of the Industrial Revolution, Richard  Trevithick and Richard Roberts, died penniless. I wonder whether, in the dot.com age, we have the same appetite for risk.

But what is particularly striking about industrialization is the passion for making. John Robison described how for James Watt, ‘everything became to him the beginning of a new and serious study; and we knew that he would not quit it till he had either discovered its insignificance, or had made something of it. No matter in what line – languages, antiquity, natural history, - nay, poetry, criticism, and works of taste; as to anything in the line of engineering, whether civil or military, he was at home, and a ready instructor’. According to Robison when Watt was asked to repair the University of Glasgow’s model steam engine, it was ‘at first a fine plaything to Mr Watt…But like everything which came into his hands, it soon became an object of most serious study’. The mixture of play, tinkering, science and hands-on experimentation is the most powerful legacy of the Industrial Revolution and it is in that art of making, that materiality, that perhaps the most potent legacy of industrialization lies.

For Watt and the others, this making was an aspect of data. One of Watt’s earliest inventions was a perspective machine to assist artists. One great contribution of the Soho Manufactory was the production of the first precise slide rules, essential to calculate boiler pressures. Watt envisaged the production of a mechanical calculating machine, but felt that the engineering techniques of the time could not produce sufficiently precise parts – a problem that Babbage was later to encounter.  Towards the end of his life, Watt became preoccupied with developing a sculpture copying machine and his workshop was littered with busts and casts associated with this project. The creation of this machine required both accurate data and methods to make the sculpture – as a mixture of issues of data and making, it was very characteristic of the Industrial Revolution. When the contents of Watt’s workshop were recently moved into a new display at the Science Museum, a mould of an unknown bust was found there. It was realized that the mould could be imaged and the resulting 3d model could be used to print out the bust. The work was done by a team from Geomatic Engineering at UCL, and when the bust was printed, it was found to be a previously unknown bust of James Watt (For more on this, see: www.thehistoryblog.com/archives/9892)
This exercise seems to me to bring the story full circle, and the way in which new methods of fabrication are giving use new approaches to data seems to me to bring the story full circle. Industrialisation and making will, it seems to me, become more pertinent than ever as digital fabrication becomes increasingly important. I’d like to conclude my lecture by quickly sharing with you some video clips that seem to me to make this point very well. The first is a news report on an exhibition last year at the V&A called, appropriately enough, Industrial Revolution 2.0:

Industrial Revolution  2.0: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JUo6EqAix-o 

From this it is a short step to using fabrication machines to replicate objects in museums, and this clip shows the Makerbot, an affordable 3d fabricator, used to replicate objects in the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. I hardly need to point out the parallekls with James Watts’s sculpture copying machine:

The Makerbot was recently used for a hackathon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in which artists used fabrications of objects in the Museum’s collection to create new works of art. Here’s a short glimpse of the evenr in Bew York in June:

It is striking how in these clips there are frequent references to revolutions and disruptions. What I think we have seen is that in fact these new methods echo deeper continuities. The Arab Spring, the arrival of printing and the Industrial Revolution all show us how change is not necessarily revolutionary or disruptive. The processes we think of as revolutionary can be lengthy, patchy in character, amorphous, difficult to measure and unpredictable, and there is no reason to think that the digital will be any different. It’s the continuities and the parallels that are often as striking as the disruptions. Let me end with one last quick clip which shows the Fab Lab in Manchester which to my mind inescapably recalls James Watts’s workshop in Glasgow, and points us towards one digital space of the future which is deeply rooted in the past:





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25 August 2012

Making Universities More Open

Sometime I will write a fuller paper on pedagogy in the digital humanities. When I was at Lampeter, I became quite closely involved in a number of e-learning initiatives which seemed to me imaginative and forward-looking, and I was sad that there appeared to be so little contact between the e-learning and digital humanities communities. My colleague Willard McCarty recently made a provocative post to the Humanist online seminar:

Our colleague Jascha Kessler has sent me a letter he wrote to the Editor
of the Financial Times, for Saturday, 18 August 2012, "Brave new world
without teachers, or learning, or thinkers". It concerns dire
predictions of what will happen to higher education as a result of
prominent efforts to teach very large classes by online means. (I send
it along as my first attachment, below.) Perhaps this effort will be as
successful as various tsunamis have been in wiping out costal
settlements. (The metaphor is columnist Christopher Caldwell's, for
which see my second attachment.) But I recall prominent efforts at the
University of California at Berkeley in the early 1960s to promote
teaching by television, accompanied at registration by enthusiastic
posters declaring e.g. "See Professor Helson on television!" One can
still find the large, now empty, brackets for the televisions in some

I spit nails, but not here. I think of all my years in classrooms, with
people, face to face. "Now we see through a glass darkly, then face to
face" reversed? I know, Paul's words are more accurately for us
translated "by means of a mirror in an enigma", but the point remains,
does it not?



Here's my response which attempted to indicate some of the ways in which better links between these areas of activity could be built up:

Dear Willard,

It is interesting how this issue which, as you observe has been around in
different forms for many years, is suddenly causing such anxiety in the
United States - concerns about readiness for on-line activities underpinned a
lot of the recent controversy about the unsuccessful attempt to dismiss
the President at the University of Virginia. I assume that the reason this
is causing such concern is what one might call the i-Tunes effect - the
way in which the success of music downloading has heightened awareness of
senior managers in all types of activities of the potential for new
digitally-based business models to cause radical transformation quite
rapidly. It is by no means certain that disruptions (that favourite
neo-liberal idea) evident in one area of activity will necessarily be
replicated in another - indeed, part of the nature of disruptive
tendencies must be their unpredictability, which must include the
possibility that they do not occur. However, in terms of this American
discussion (and it is very much as framed here about the relative
inflexibility of the structures developed by North American Higher
Education over the past fifty years), the following considerations from
the UK might be relevant:

- The first and most important point is I think that there has been a
lamentable rift between much digital humanities work and new developments
in pedagogy over the past ten-fifteen years. In the early 1990s, we
believed that not only would new digital and networked technologies would
transform research and our access to research materials, we also believed
that equally important was the transformation that would occur in
pedagogy. However, much of our effort since then has gone into creating
and financing digital humanities centres which were supported by soft
funding and therefore necessarily concentrated on a series of short-term
research projects. Teaching activity has tended to be rather an
after-thought for most digital humanities centres. However, in the
meantime, e-learning and technology-enhanced learning have made enormous
strides and for many universities in Britain have been a major focus of
activity and funding. The rift is illustrated by the separate professional
organisations that have been established. I am not aware that bodies like
ADHO or ACH have any significant contact with the parallel bodies for
learning technologists, such as the Association for Learning Technology
(http://www.alt.ac.uk/). The ALT conference is at the University of
Manchester from 11-13 September 2013, and looks very interesting. It might
be a good way of starting to explore these links in a better way. Another
organisation which has of course championed the importance of pedagogy in
the digital humanities is HASTAC, and I think this is one reason why
HASTAC is the most exciting and interesting organisational activity in the
digital humanities work at present. There is a great deal of the HASTAC
website which bears closely on the themes you have raised.

- While you shudder at the thought of American experiments in lectures by
television, we should also remember that we have one enormously successful
institution in the UK which sprang from precisely such activities, namely
the Open University. To my mind, the Open University is, after the NHS,
the most important piece of social innovation in Britain in modern times,
and deserved a place in the opening ceremony of the Olympics. The Open
University has of course long ago moved on from the late night television
lectures on BBC2 which we remember from the 1970s, and Open University is
pioneering new types of online approaches, including a major development
in enhancement of Moodle. A hint of some of the Open University's
initiatives in this field can be gleaned from the Open Learn section of
their website: http://www.open.edu/openlearn/. OU have also been
pioneering work on mobile access, particularly mobile libraries. The OU of
course famously links its distance provision to residential courses, but I
suspect its structures are one that provide a good guide to future
developments. I think it is sad that the antiquated insistence of UK
higher education on educational autonomy prevents a more co-ordinated and
strategic development around the Open University. Given that is quite
probably that new online methods will cause changes, it would make great
sense if in the UK we scrapped absurd anachronisms like Oxford and
Cambridge Universities, and created a more integrated and strategic
service based around the OU.

- Finally, it is worth noting that concerns about the mechanisation of
learning are not new. The use of numerical grades for assessment began in
Cambridge in the 1790s in direct response to an increase in the number of
students, and may be considered at a number of levels a response to the
increasingly industrialisation of society. When marked examinations for
school children were introduced in the 1850s, there were many concerns
that it privileged repetitive learning, short term memory and the
retention of conventional knowledge. As a schoolchild myself in the 1960s,
I was always struck and enthused by the willingness at that time of many
educational bodies to try and break down the obsession with exams and
measurement and try new methods of learning. And of course our excitement
about digital technologies is that they open up precisely such
possibilities. Maybe our aim should be to try and bring that kind of
pedagogic liberalism to the new learning environments which are emerging?
Here's the response from Professor Kessler:
I do appreciate the earnestness revealed in Prof. Prescott's comments.  I
do think he rather misses what is the point of the present discussions.  He
concentrates on "learning." Viz., *"** As a schoolchild myself in the 1960s,
I was always struck and enthused by the willingness at that time of many
educational bodies to try and break down the obsession with exams and
measurement and try new methods of learning..."*

*Methods of learning? * What does that mean, exactly?  I was a schoolchild
in the 1930s-40s.  I dont think there was or is a method of learning,
unless it is taught somehow.  By digitized instructors?  Kids learn, Homo
sapiens learns as it learns, sans "method" or methodologies concocted
by...whom?  A robot might learn by implantation of code.  Okay, we stick
silicon chips in newborn heads?  But then the chips learn, and what does
each unique individual brain make of it all internally?   There may be
methods to teach say violin technique, but they are applied and tested one
on one: teacher and pupil. Results vary by talents.  Apart from all that,
what I questioned in my letter to the FT was the costs of teachers vs.
internet teaching. The learning part requires foot soldiers, future
teachers in higher Ed, what schools have been and been about since Sumeria, 
to test what has been learned,  grade and tutor or instruct it.
When the Univ of California at Santa Cruz was inaugurated, Prof C Page
Smith [in my letter] went up to organize it.  It was all Pass/Fail...no
grades.  Assuming perhaps Humanists and Historians and Lit and the rest
reviewed the written work, not multiple choice Xses, of students.  It took
but a few years until the scientists rebelled at the lack of grading for
qualifications in hard subjects, not philosophical or literary chatter. And
grading was back, and how, even for a largely pothead and hippy university
student body in the 70s and 80s and perhaps beyond, up in the Redwoods

Even with an Open University scheme, Lenin's question remains: *WHO, WHOM?*
All may enter and study... but what has been learned by each individual?
That costs, and doing away with the absurdity of OxBridge doesn't solve the
question of judgments by individuals, referees.  You cannot get away with
anything in competitive sports.  Some are better than others, as in horse
and dog racing, and judging there is easy: whoever finishes first second
third, etc.  Not including Lance Armstrong, et alia, as it turns out.
Then, too, we are advised:  "It would make great
sense if in the UK we scrapped absurd anachronisms like Oxford and
Cambridge Universities, and created *a more integrated and strategic**
**service based around* the OU."  What, it may be asked, is meant by that
phrase in italics?  More integration of what?  Service meaning...teachers?
Who, Whom? what qualifies?  Integrated whos? Serviced by Whoms? * O,
Orwell, thou shouldst be living at this hour!*

I take Prescott to be serious, but the questions I raised about Humanities
and the Internet remain.  It is *not* a matter of tv lectures.  When the
few expert lecturers have retired, who takes their place?  Who has learned
what from the medium?  I like documentary films, How it is made, where the
penguins walk? but then all that may be teaching me what is out there.
Still, what goes on, how and why, stanza by stanza in the Divine Comedy?
Who will learn or teach what the Divine is, the Commedia means?  Or even
says?  E=MC2 says what it means, and means what it says, and a digitized
quiz can locate my grasp of those letters.

However,  and for example, I offer an Honors Seminar for Frosh, first year
students, pass/fail, just show up, and select one assignment.  I provide
100 pages of poems; I lay out the fundamental 3 modes of poems written from
history. I require each to pick a poem, read it aloud and deliver orally 1 written 
page that tells the rest what the poem says.  I forbid students
to say what anything, lines, stanzas, whatever *means*.  *Meanings are
idiosyncratic and arbitrary.  If anyone imagines  contemporary student of
19-20 can write one double-spaced page of sentences stating what the poem
says, lines say, that one is mistaken.  These University of California
youth are admitted as of the top 17-19% of high school graduates. We have 2
dozen State Universities for the lower tiers; and many community, 2 year
colleges for all the rest who want something after high school and need a
lot for work and life and career.  A sort of Open system a la UK.
But...there is hardly any system to integrate persons tomorrow who have
not studied and learned and been graded.  Quality is quality.

Finally re my Honors Seminar: I attach Plato's Symposium, and tell them to
read that short work.  As all will recall, each principal vocation speaks
in turn all that night, and each man speaks only of what he knows from his
craft or profession.  Not a one is able to tell the group what it is that
the god Eros does to discipline or inspire or create their work[s].  They
are all good and educated senior Athenians.  But as for understanding the
matter of daily life and work's structures and statements, let alone
meaning...*nada, nada e pues nada.  *In the end, Socrates overturns the
evening, although what he has to say remains a mystery, clearly presented.
And he got it all from some old Sybil in the mountains. The SYMPOSIUM, in
short, remains exemplary regarding this problem.  The scientists and
technologists are crystal clear about what things say, not what they [might
or could] mean; they measure, and measure has always been, or measuring,
the foundation effort of civilization: Tekne, the Greeks called it. But I
am sure it was known to the painters of Paleolithic caves. That is clear
enough, or should be.  As for *meaning?* Alas, that is the burden of
would be Humanists, digital, digitized, or whatever.

Jascha Kessler
And my reaction:
Professor Kessler is right that I did not address the main point in his 
letter, which is that the use of new technologies in learning does not 
automatically mean that the academic profession is doomed. He is right 
on this. What I wanted to point out is that we have over forty years of 
experience in Britain of providing university education through a 
mixture of television, radio, internet, radio cassette and other media, 
and it seems to me very strange that the current fevered discussion in 
the United States does not ever refer to this experience which provides 
very clear pointers for future development.

The idea of a 'university of the air' was proposed in Britain as early 
as 1926 when a historian working for the BBC suggested the development 
of a 'wireless university'. The idea of a 'university of the air' 
gathered momentum in the early 1960s, and the creation of an 
experimental university using television and radio was a prominent part 
of the Labour Party's manifesto when it was elected to government in 
1964. The intention was to offer university education without the 
requirement for any prior educational qualification. That seems to me 
one important difference between the discussions in the 1960s and the 
debates on which Professor Kessler comments - in Britain, we have always 
seen new technologies as providing a key to offering wider access to 
education; the current discussions in America seem to focus almost 
entirely on technology as a cost-saving option.

The Open University was established at Milton Keynes in 1969. The Tory 
minister Iain McLeod called the idea of a 'university of the air' 
'blithering nonsense' and threatened to abolish it if the Conservatives 
formed the next government, but fortunately Margaret Thatcher, the new 
Education Secretary, decided to allow the experiment to go ahead and the 
first 25,000 students were admitted in 1971 to be taught by a mixture of 
television, audio cassette, home science kits, course packs and 
residential courses. Today, the Open University is the largest single 
university in Britain with more than 260,000 current students. Since 
1969, over 1.5 million students, many without previous formal 
educational qualifications, have graduated from the Open University. As 
I mentioned in my previous post, the Open University is pioneering 
on-line methods of teaching. But, above all, I think the most important 
achievement of the Open University was that (in the words of its 
website)'The Open University was the first institution to break the 
insidious link between exclusivity and excellence'.

The Open University has been revolutionary in many of its pedagogical 
methods and many of these have been since adopted by conventional 
British universities. But, to support Professor Kessler's key 
contention, what the Open University demonstrates above all is that such 
innovative educational achievement depends on first-rate academic staff. 
The Open University currently employs more than more than 1,200 
full-time academic staff and more than 3,500 support and administrative 
staff. Above all, it has a network of 7,000 tutors locally based (as 
famously depicted in 'Educating Rita'). The chief lesson of the Open 
University experience supports Professor Kessler's argument - to 
successfully use new media to widen access to higher education then you 
need committed and inspirational academic staff. I think this alone 
shows why current discussions about the use of new technologies in 
teaching should take the experience of the Open University in Britain as 
a starting point. 
Much more information about the Open University can be found on its 

I suggested in my previous post that the Open University stands 
comparison within the National Health Service as one of the greatest 
social achievements of Britain in modern times. On reflection, I wonder 
if the Open University isn't the greater of the two achievements. To 
create a collectivised medical system chiefly requires a society with a 
strong sense of a social justice and a political and administrative 
determination to put a fairer and more civilised system in place - it 
wasn't necessary to do much new in terms of the medicine. The creation 
of the Open University required an equally strong social sense of social 
justice but also needed to develop completely new ways of providing a 
university education which didn't compromise on standards. We need a 
similar set of values in approaching the pedagogical possibilities 
provided by new technologies.

For further reflections on some of these themes, I would recommend the 
blog on the history of the Open University maintained by my friend Dan 

A recent post by Dan is pertinent to these discussions: 
"Open learning is a movement that isn’t going to go away 
The idea that technology can be deployed to support learners isn’t new 
to those who work at the OU. Suddenly, however, it is in the headlines 
because Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have 
formed a $60m (£38m) alliance to launch edX, a platform to deliver 
courses online – with the modest ambition of ‘revolutionising education 
around the world’. 
Paying relatively little attention to the decades-long history of 
sophisticated use of television, radio, video and the internet that has 
occurred at the OU the director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial 
Intelligence Laboratory and one of the pioneers of the MITx online 
prototype. Anant Agarwal said ‘This could be the end of the two-hour 
lecture…You can’t hit the pause button on a lecturer, you can’t fast 
forward’. While MIT might be struggling to catch up pedagogically this 
development could be a challenge to the OU, as well as an opportunity 
for it to demonstrate its experience in the field of supported open 
learning. As Dr Anka Mulder, head of Delft University in the Netherlands 
and President of the OpenCourseWare group which advocates free online 
course materials, said ‘Open learning is a movement that isn’t going to 
go away’".


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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.    

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