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.

22 March 2014

A Modern Memento Mori

It's that time and that moment when a laptop gives the greatest pleasure. It's late in the evening. You've cleared a lot of e-mails (although a terrifying number still remain), so you can indulge in some web surfing. There's a good track on Spotify and a glass of wine seems in order. Then, your hand catches the glass, and suddenly there's liquid where it shouldn't be, on the keyboard. You immediately switch off and unplug to reduce the risk of short circuits, and anxiously dry the keyboard.

I left the keyboard overnight in the hope that, left to dry with minimum risk of damage to the circuits, the laptop would survive. But the secret of the amazing battery life of the Mac Book Air appears to lie partly in its integrated circuitry, and when, full of hope for a resurrection, I went to switch on the laptop the next morning, it was dead. A visit to the Genius Bar (which always feels like dealing with a sinister cult) confirmed damage to the logic board, requiring very expensive repair, and left me contemplating whether it was more financially prudent to have the repair done or buy a new model.

The death of your computer is a modern memento mori. One moment you rejoice in the joy and pleasure of unlimited internet access; the next your computer is an inert mass of silicon, metal and plastic, and all those plans you had for the following day somehow look hopeless and irrelevant. In the midst of drinking wine and watching You Tube, there is death. Such a moment is a particularly forceful reminder of mortality because we frequently describe our digital connectivity in terms which present it is a kind of irresistible life force in some way disconnected from day-to-day materiality. Yet, as Matthew Kirschenbaum has so brilliantly discussed in Mechanisms, that flow of digits is directed and stored by a funny whirring disc which is in a constant state of decay from the moment that we first state the computer. The death of each hard disc is as inevitable as our own deaths. The computer is not a means of transcending mortality, but a constant reminder of it, and that inevitable moment of disc failure prefigures the larger scale failure which will eventually overtake us all.   

And of course you can back up computers; I don't currently have any means of backing up my mortality. Luckily, on this occasion, I'd been regularly backing up my computer, partly because Mac's 'Time Machine' makes the process of backing up simple. However, to restore from Time Machine, I need another Mac. Whether I go for repair or replacement, it still leaves over a week without a machine which I can use to restore the data. So, temporarily, I'm in almost as bad a situation as if I hadn't backed up the data, although I do have the comfort of knowing that rescue and redemption is not far away.

It is partly my fault for eschewing a desktop machine. I don't often work with multiple screens and when I undertake image or video work, I use machines in labs or libraries. I haven't had a desktop for a number of years and have relied on laptops. It means that when the laptop dies, I'm in trouble. Why is that desktop computers are so unmemorable? It is now 25 years since I got my first desktop machine. British Library issue at that time was a Dell, which made a noise like a coffee percolator, but otherwise had little to commend it. The British Library subsequently switched to Fujitsu desktops, which felt like they were rejects from the set of a Gerry Anderson puppet show. I gave up using desktops while I was at the University of Sheffield and when I went back to a purely desktop environment in Lampeter (no Wifi and a very locked down network), it felt like using a hammer and chisel. What I tend to remember with affection from my desktop days are odd bits of software (DBase III, Ventura, early web browsers) rather than the hardware.

On the other hand, I remember all the laptops I have had very affectionately, and the demise of each one was almost like the death of a favourite pet. My first laptop was a rumbustious Dell, and it became a firm and long lived companion. I only needed to change it when it was necessary to have something more high-powered to demonstrate the Electronic Beowulf CD, and the Toshiba laptop I had from 1999 is probably the single computer I have most enjoyed possessing and using. Both these early laptops went into retirement and died of gentle old age. The saddest loss was probably a new Toshiba Satellite Pro which was stolen within a few days of my taking delivery of it. Its successor confirmed my enthusiasm for Toshiba. My attachment for that machine was such that I even attempted surgery on it myself, replacing the keyboard. I worried afterwards that this repair may have contributed to the hard disc failure a few months later.

One advantage of my accident with the wine is that lack of other backup has forced me to get more to grips with a recently acquired iPad. I can see possibilities with the iPad which had eluded me before and can finally see that it is much more than a consumer object of desire. The iPad is starting to insinuate itself at the centre of my life. Indeed, part of the purpose of this blog post is to test a wireless keyboard and see how far an iPad can be useful backup when a laptop fails. My enthusiasm for Ubuntu has also been reinforced by its ability to resurrect one of my aged Toshibas, which is now valiantly trying to provide help but whose aged and arthritic hard disc is limiting its effectiveness. It's fun playing with these alternatives, but really life is on hold until the replacement MacBook Air arrives. Let's hope its life is a long and virtuous one and that, when the time comes for it to die, it goes gently into the cyber-night.

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