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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.

22 July 2013

Riffs on McCarty

A recent highlight for the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s College London was the award of the Roberto Busa prize, the major international award for lifetime achievement in the digital humanities, to Willard McCarty, one of the founding fathers of the Department. Matthew Jockers in introducing Willard’s Busa lecture memorably described him as the ‘Obi-Wan Kenobi of digital humanities’, a denomination which Willard relished.

Occasional lectures of this kind can often be damp squibs, but Willard’s Busa lecture was truly memorable, because it mapped out an intellectual manifesto for the future of the digital humanities which is ambitious, exciting and inspiring. The title illustrates the ambition of the lecture: 'Getting There from Here: Remembering the Future of the Digital Humanities'. Willard’s lecture was live-streamed, and I understand that the archive video will shortly be available online. We are arranging for Willard to repeat his lecture at King’s in the autumn, and it will be published.

Willard’s lecture was incredibly rich and intellectually challenging, so it might be worth starting the process of unpacking his message. Willard’s lecture will I am sure lead to as much discussion and debate as his 2005 book on Humanities Computing, and the lecture should be seen as the next move forward from what Willard describes as the ‘intellectually claustrophobic territory’ represented by his book. Among the key themes in Willard’s lecture to which I would draw particular attention are:

- ‘Failure is our most important product’. In describing his work to see how far tagging could capture aspects of Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’, Willard urges us to move away from our preoccupation with creating user-friendly online resources which will enable humanities scholars with low levels of computer literacy more easily to search and interrogate their primary materials. Willard urges a more experimental digital humanities which explores the limits and inadequacies of computing. I couldn’t agree more. For too long, we have seen ourselves as evangelists of technology, trying to convince humanities scholars that machines can be helpful. The risk now is that, as digital technologies become commonplace in the academy, we will assume that there is only one way of doing things, a series of methods and standards which have to be shared and disseminated. The result will be an evisceration of the possibilities of the digital humanities. The only way to avoid this is to embrace that sense of computing as an ‘ongoing, never ending experimental process’ described by Willard, but that means radically changing the type of things we assume that digital humanities should do – death to projects; more experiments, more tinkering, more just trying out.

- ‘Imaginative exploration’.  Willard picks up on Busa’s 1976 question ‘Why can the computer do so little?’ to criticize our assumption that computers simply enable us to reduce the drudgery of scholarship by performing routine tasks more quickly. Thinking of the computer as a ‘mere’ tool is a way of making it safe – it becomes from this perspective just a humdrum piece of technology which gets rid of the tedious aspects of research. Such thinking is a way of avoiding confronting the radical epistemological and phenomenological implications of computing. If we think of digital humanities as a series of ‘methods’ which can be ‘applied’, we are complicit in such denial of the radical implications of the computer. Digital humanities is not a series of methods which can be learnt or introduced but rather a field of exploration. We need to focus on imaginatively exploring the potential (and limitations) of computing rather than on creating ever more efficient scholarly data crunching.

- Learning from artists. Referring back to the 1968 Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, ‘at which artists and engineers experimented with ideas so far ahead of their time they remain mostly ahead of ours’, Willard urges those engaged in the digital humanities to create a stronger dialogue with technologically aware artists. This is a theme I have found echoed in my own work on the AHRC’s ‘Digital Transformations’ theme where it has become evident that the time is ripe for a stronger cross-over between the digital arts and the digital humanities. The kind of work with arduinos, conductive inks or mBed microcontrollers is precisely the field for that restless experimentation, the constant tinkering, that Willard urges us to engage in.

- ‘We need the technosciences just as much, more than many of us realize, more than some of us fear.’  Willard powerfully argues the need for the digital humanities to connect more closely with the sciences. At one level, this is simply because the discipline will wither and die if it loses its connection with its epistemological roots. At another, shared issues and concerns mean that scientists are people we can and should be talking to. One of the most fascinating events I attended recently was a multi-disciplinary workshop on theproblems of Big Data organized by the Large Hadron Collider community. The cross-connections and parallels across different disciplines were fascinating. We need more of that sort of dialogue – we won’t learn much new from talking to historians or classicists but talking to scientists will lead us into completely fresh pastures.

- Where is the criticism? Willard, taking up questions posed by Alan Liu and Fred Gibbs, emphasizes the importance of retaining a critical stance in exploring these areas. Indeed, one of the things which we as humanities scholars bring to the table in discussions with scientists and technologists are the remarkable theoretical tools which are among the great intellectual achievements of the past fifty years (and in turn have their roots in the scientific discoveries of men like Einstein, Heisenberg and Freud). The most fruitful areas of future development for the digital humanities will be at these intersections of science, art and criticism – as critical code studies are beginning to illustrate. A key element for this in Willard’s discussion is the importance of historicizing our understanding of an engagement with computing.

- Resonate with the humanities! Just as digital humanities wilts if it ignores its roots in computing science, likewise its roots in the humanities cannot be forgotten. Willard expresses the aim perfectly when he says that the results of our foraging across the sciences, technology, arts and culture should ‘resonate with the humanities’. The mix we produce from our hunter-gatherer expeditions will not necessarily fall into such easily recognizable categories as history, literature or archaeology, but what we find and express should have resonances across all these disciplines. Here, I think we can draw inspiration from disciplines such as bibliography or manuscript studies. To take an example from my own work, my study of the restoration of the burnt manuscripts of Sir Robert Cotton has, I believe, implications across a range of historical, literary and other studies, but I would find it difficult to categorise it as history or literature – I hope it has wider resonances, as our DH experiments should.      

Willard described in his Busa lecture a new type of digital humanities. This is a digital humanities which remembers its roots and traditions – indeed to some extent Busa’s 1976 question ‘Why can a computer do so little?’ provides the key epigram for the lecture. It is a digital humanities which is intellectually restless and exists in marginal lands: ‘I’ve imagined us as maritime explorers in an archipelago of disciplines, peripatetic, prowling the margins; I’ve imagined us with the novelist David Malouf, adventurous youth discovering life and death in a wild, dangerous acre of bush’. This area is defined by a triangulation between science, digital arts and making and cultural criticism. It is an area of experiment – of tinkering and playing with cross-connections. It is a zone of failure but also of restless intellectual energy.

At the end of his lecture, Willard commented how the digital photograph albums we increasingly produce in the name of improved access distort and oversimplify our understanding of the act of remembering. It is a tragedy how so much of what we do in the digital humanities denies the possibility of reinventing and changing the textual and other forms we have inherited. Our ‘digital scholarly editions’ are so conservatively conceived that they would be recognized and understood by the Grimm Brothers; we continue to use the calendar form, deeply bound up with print technology, to reproduce abridgements of historical documents; our collections of images are little more than photograph albums. Is the computer really no more than a digital photocopier? Does our digital humanities work explore whether it has greater potentiality? If we are to embrace Willard’s vision of a more intellectually restless and experimental digital humanities, we need to abandon many of the assumptions we have made about what we do in the digital humanities. Building endless numbers of unimaginative, repetitive, stereotyped and hidebound projects is not enough. As digital humanities develops, it is difficult to escape the suspicion that for many the routine creation of digital projects or the cutting and slicing of data provides a quiet peaceful haven, where we can code quietly without the risk of demanding intellectual challenges or complex theoretical considerations. Data is too often at the moment seen as a substitute for thought. Willard’s fundamental message is that digital humanities should be intellectually demanding and challenging, posing fundamental philosophical and theoretical questions at every turn. Willard describes here the intellectual constituency of the digital humanities, and it is the exploration and investigation of this constituency which should be our concern. We can discuss pointlessly and forever how big and what shape the text of the digital humanities should be (and what the labels on the door mean), but in the end it is only the conversations that take place within it which count. 

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