About Me

My photo
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.

28 June 2012

In the Footsteps of Boulton and Watt

 I've been thinking a lot lately about a theme I broached in my inaugural lecture, the parallels between the industrial and agricultural changes in Britain in the late 18th and 19th centuries and the current digital revolution. I feel that the changes associated with the Industrial Revolution give us a better framework for interpreting present changes than the arrival of print in Western Europe in the 15th century.

I want to explore these themes more deeply in my keynote for the Sheffield Digital Humanities Congress in September, but when I was invited to speak at Birmingham City University at the excellent InterFace conference, organised by a talented group of postgraduates (and many thanks to Tychonas Michailidis for the excellent arrangements), it seemed a perfect opportunity to try out some of my ideas in the city of Matthew Boulton and James Watt.

I became fascinated by Watt's project to build a Sculpture Copying Machine, which, with Watt's proposed use of artificial stone in liquid form, seemed extraordinarily like 3D printing. The way in which a team from the Science Museum and from UCL had afterwards used 3D scanning to recreate a bust of Watt from moulds found in his workshop seemed to bring the story full circle.

The slides from my talk to InterFace are available here.

It was very worthwhile trying out these ideas in Birmingham - I had some helpful and constructive response from the audience, but using history to make comments on current digital cultures is complex. Space makes it difficult to avoid turning the discussion of figures like Watt into a eulogy in the manner of a latter-day Samuel Smiles. In considering how history helps us understand the digital, its striking how the history can lose out. It was useful to have had some practice in trying to balance this out before I hit Sheffield in September...

Read more »

14 June 2012

Project Fever

I am just starting a very slow, very tentative process of getting back into the swim of normal life after the accident in which I broke my leg in February. Two enjoyable outings as part of this process were to the workshop organised by the AHRC in connection with its Digital Transformations theme at the Cotswold Conference Centre on 28-29 May. The slides from talk reflecting on the workshop and on the nature of 'Digital Transformations' are available here, and are fairly self-explanatory, I think.

My second outing was to the Early Career Researchers Workshop organised by the excellent CRASSH at the University of Cambridge last Friday, 8 June. The title of the workshop was 'This Project Will Self-Destruct in Five Years: the beginning, middle and end of a digital humanities project, and how to keep it alive'. The day had excellent presentations by a number of leading digital humanities projects, as you can see from the programme here.  Which meant that, coming at the end of the day, I was initially a bit uncertain as to how I could best reflect on the day's proceedings. The previous presenters had already made many very useful and practicable observations o the mechanics of project management and on supporting the sustainability of digital humanities projects. I am not sure that 'Prescott's Top Ten Tips on Project Management' would have added very much to the day's proceedings.

But one thing did strike me - how we have all come unquestioningly to accept 'the project' as the unit of currency in the digital humanities world. We live our lives, dream our dreams, and govern our waking and sleeping by projects, endless streams of projects. Why? How did this happen, and it is really necessary to achieve the visions which drive the digital humanities?

If we take a step back from the immediate preoccupations of funding and project management, we can soon see how our world is increasingly governed by projects, from the Euro project to the Olympics project. It is strange how the project, a faintly scurrilous and ludicrous term in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, has become the byword for efficiency, achievement and organisation.

My talk for the CRASSH workshop, 'Does My Project Look Big in This?', sought to consider reflectively this project fever in the digital humanities. The slides from the talk are available here. I wondered in the talk whether our preoccupation with the project is actually holding back the development of the digital humanities as an academic discipline, because it discourages us from engaging with process. I suggested that if we are to escape project slavery, we need to wean the the digital humanities away from its project dependency.

Given the extent to which the project is a metaphor for our time, if the digital humanities could conceive of an alternative to the project, that would be truly transformative.                

Read more »