Making the Digital Human: Anxieties, Possibilities, Challenges | Professor Andrew Prescott

Because Aberystwyth is actually located in a parallel dimension located through a distant wormhole seven light years away from Earth, I was compelled to leave the Digital Humanities at Oxford University Summer School early, to ensure I had a vague chance of getting back there much before midnight. And, as I am the eternal worrier and Arriva Trains Wales are not (how do I put this?) entirely reliable, I like to ensure that I have a few opportunities at my disposal to catch a train after the one I’ve actually booked to travel on. All this panic and angst led to Professor Andrew Prescott’s plenary lecture on the 6th July being the last lecture I attended as part of my week of lectures and activities at Merton College, Oxford – and oh my, was it a peach.

Andrew joined us at breakfast that morning and amongst talk of mutual ankle injuries and my contention that Aberystwyth has “something of the noir about it” (to paraphrase Ann Widdecombe – not something I ever expected to write) I asked Professor Prescott when he would be returning to his home in Ceredigion. We had a brief chat about our means of travel, and he indicated he might have to leave Oxford in a hurry “with a baying mob on my tail”, given the nature of his talk. I finished my coffee and hurried eagerly to the T.S. Eliot Theatre in order to discover what he meant.

Professor Prescott started innocently enough by stating that increasingly, scholarly literature in the digital humanities is engaged more and more with where the digital humanities sit as an academic subject. He suggested that we are asking questions as to whether it represents a scholarly activity, and he cited the recent book Debates in the Digital Humanities as a case in point.

The fundamental message, he contended, is that we don’t have to buy into a lot of the conventional answers as to what the digital humanities represents: there are other approaches, and fluidity. 

He then showed us a slide of Peter of Capua’s Distinctiones Theologicae, a 13th Century manuscript held at Trinity St David’s in Lampeter, and reputedly stained with the blood of monks murdered during the time of the Reformation which, to the layman, sounds like a rollicking good read and not in the least bit creepy. Whilst the story of the bloodstains isn’t true, what is true is that the Distinctiones is a collection of biblical extracts known as distinctiones compiled by Peter Chanter, Peter of Capua and others, and represents a key moment in human history – they are among the earliest experiments of alphabetisation. These manuscripts were the direct ancestors of all later alphabetical and searchable tools.

The Distinctiones paved the way for Les Enluminures, which was the first concordance of the Scriptures, compiled under the direction of Hugh of St Cher. This was, according to Professor Prescott, one of the greatest ever feats of information engineering, involving as it did the work of 500 Dominicans to compile the concordance. It was industrial in its scale and conception. The idea of a sacred text being approached in such an abstract and arbitrary fashion was revolutionary, and it brought about a change in the relationship between Man, text, and God, and the ways in which people thought. With new alphabetical tools the cultivation of memory became less important. Thus, documents like Les Enluminures altered the way Man explored his relationship with God, and changed our perceptions of what it is to be human.

The British Library holds a copy of William Harvey’s Prelectiones Anatomiae Universalis, which was written in 1616. Professor Prescott cites Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of blood as another instance when our understanding of the world changed (Harvey, interestingly enough, was a former student of Merton College, and so Prescott’s citation of his work was quite apt, given our surroundings). Allison Muri, in her work The Enlightenment Cyborg, suggests that Harvey’s discovery ushered in a debate as to whether the body is a machine, and whether machines can be 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”. Wordsworth, said Professor Prescott, portrayed factory workers as being dehumanised by their work, and turned into machines.

This, to me, ties in with what Professor DeRoure was saying in his own plenary lecture that week: that we are moving away from the ideas of humans as separate entities to machines, and into an idea of the human as being a sub-routine of the computing process: a symbiotic relationship between human and machine. Indeed, Professor Prescott suggests that the mapping of the genome completed the reduction of man into bits and bolts and that, as Harraway phrases it in her cyborg manifesto in 1985: “We are all chimeras…hybrids of machine and organism…we are cyborgs”. Harraway’s manifesto ushered in the theory that we are post-human, and in an era in which the Enlightenment understanding of the relationship between body and mind has ceased to be relevant.

The formulation of the term post-human was first recorded in 1888 and is, said Professor Prescott, a deliberately provocative one. It doesn’t merely mean that humans will be pushed aside by machines; rather, our sense of what it is to be human has changed. As Katherine Hayles suggests, “The post human is a state of mind…mankind has finally understood that it is not the centre of the universe”.

Professor Prescott then asked us to consider what the implications of the post-human state of mind on the digital humanities, particularly as there is little discussion of the humanities in the digital humanities field. Ronald Crane, said Prescott, had said the humanities were the study of human achievement – we [meaning men] developed languages, produced literature and art, and created systems, and it is these developments which are at the heart of the traditional humanities. Since Crane wrote that, the idea of the humanities celebrating mankind’s achievements has begun to be challenged, as humans are no longer the heart of the humanities.

The “dethroning of the human” reflects wider shifts in our understanding. Human society may be shaped by deep, long-term underlying geographical factors, as shown by Braudel. The relationship between human society and the animal/plant worlds are complex and symbiotic. All these trends have helped displace the human from the centre of debate. We are, Prescott suggests, moving beyond the idea of a neatly packaged cultural canon that defines the heights of cultural achievement. Culture is ordinary in every society and mind, as evidenced by things like YouTube. The argument is that we need to develop a post-humanities, which overturns an elitist view of the humanities and sees the “human” in a more interactive sense. This post-humanities would engage with technology and biological matters – climate and animals, media and microbes. 

Tim Hitchcock has discussed the implications of Google Ngram visualisations. Hitchcock argues that the interests of humanities scholars needs to shift towards interrogating and manipulating in new ways vast amounts of data [Big Data]. This is a topic that has been addressed by almost every one of our plenary speakers this week, and I’ve already explained the concept behind Big Data, which can be stripped down to this – there’s loads of data, what are we doing with it?

What we need to do first, Professor Prescott said, is to make a stand against our Humanities oppressors. We need a “bonfire of the disciplines”, a post-human position. Discussions within the digital humanities gives vent to the growing impatience with traditional boundaries: “ is all about innovation and disruption…the digital humanities are an insurgent humanities”. This echoes the frustrations expressed by Badmington in his quote: “I wish for the destruction of this cold grey building…I wish from the rubble would rise the post-humanities”

And whilst, as our erstwhile friend Stanley Fish claims, little is said of the humanities part of the digital humanities, and he questions whether it offers anything new in terms of realising the goals of the Humanities or, indeed, change our understanding of those goals, we need to ask ourselves also do the digital humanities help at all in moving us towards a post-humanities state of being?

Professor Prescott says that in Britain, digital humanities centres have recently been active in creating directories of projects, which provide an overview of the cultural agenda of the field. This includes a number of commercial packages not produced by digital humanities centres. In order to get an overview of what’s happening in Britain, one would do well to look at those directories of projects.

These directories will show the type of humanities which would “gladden the heart” of Ronald Crane. At King’s College London, says Prescott, only eight are concerned in any way with anything that happened after 1850, and most deal with subjects before 1600. The geographical focus is on the classical world and Western Europe: Ovid, Shakespeare, Jane Austen and Chopin. It is old style humanities dressed in new clothes for a digital age. It is the Emperor’s New Humanities.

Prescott acknowledged that whilst Oxford seemed a little more willing to countenance modernity than King’s College London, about thirty of its one hundred and ninety projects were concerned with projects after 1850: their centre of gravity is rooted in earlier periods. Half are concerned with the period before 1600. This is an extremely conservative view of the humanities. Writers such as Chaucer and Swift dominate.

Whilst there is a smaller range of projects at the University of Sheffield, the digital humanities centre there reflects a similar bias. In fact, whilst the University of Glasgow has by far the highest proportion of more modern projects, with over half covering the period since 1850, old-style, male cultural icons dominate, such as Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

In short, said Prescott, for all the rhetoric, the overwhelming picture is that the leaders in the field of the digital humanities are busily engaged in turning back the intellectual clock to the 1950s. In fact, Prescott claimed, if recent scholarship in the humanities had managed to wrest culture away from the Cambridge tea-shop, the digital humanities seems determined to put it back there.

We persist, he maintained, in dealing with elite objects, rather than the everyday, and even the British Library’s priorities reflect this, with its penchant for Caxton editions of Chaucer and early Byzantine manuscripts. Digital technologies have not generally enhanced access, and do not offer those outside the Library a fresh perspective of the collections.

As a legal deposit library, the British Library has received vast quantities of material that it hasn’t been able to catalogue. These lurk in the print catalogue but are impossible to find online. Examples include estate agents’ descriptions of houses in the 1920s, which are arguably culturally important but completely inaccessible. Shouldn’t the British Library, asked Professor Prescott, be giving a higher priority to hidden documents that record ordinary culture rather than giving access to its treasures? That’s not to say it shouldn’t give those access too, but that there should be greater parity of esteem.

I’ve been really interested in the use of the word “collaboration” throughout the whole of this week, and it struck me most forcibly during Professor Prescott’s lecture. I’m by no means an expert in etymology or why language is used in the way it is, but whilst I’m aware that we make use of the term in its basic sense of working jointly with others or together, especially in an intellectual endeavour [definition from the Merriam-Webster online dictionary] it is also historically imbued with a much darker meaning: to collaborate is to “co-operate with or willingly assist an enemy of one’s country and especially an occupying force…” Indeed, Prescott refers to the digital humanities as “insurgent” – revolting against the established humanities. The terminology is that of a field at war with itself.

Professor Prescott claims that digital humanists have failed to distinguish their own intellectual agendas, and still operate as a service unit. In fact, even the biggest digital humanities centres are nothing more than XML factories. From an intellectual point of view, this means the digital humanities are always reactive. They are fraternising with the enemy; vulnerable to those subjects anxious about their continued relevance and funding and desperate to prove that their subjects are “switched on”. 

One of the exciting things about digital culture is that it gives us a boundary-crossing view of culture. YouTube, in this context, is just as deserving of scholarly analysis as Ovid. If the digital humanities fail to embrace this, proclaimed Prescott, there will always be a disjunction. Our academic collaborators will want to keep us close to hand, and until digital humanists cease control of their own intellectual agendas they will remain ancillary. Collaboration is the enemy, and as far as the digital humanities are concerned, inter-disciplinary activity reflects a lack of innovation. In fact, because teamwork has become routine with the establishment of research council funding, the lone scholar is becoming more of a rarity, as everyone asserts their ability to be inter-disciplinary. For the digital humanities to claim this as one of its main features, therefore, is to claim nothing.

There was an audible drawing of breath from the audience at this juncture, who were compiled of both students at the Summer School, lecturers such as Sebastian Rahtz and contributors such as Elton Barker. I’m sure, towards the back of the auditorium, I caught sight of the lighting of the first flaming torches.

But Professor Prescott wasn’t finished. Those of us within the digital humanities, he said, need to engage more with the born digital. From his perspective, British digital humanists are not particularly interested in what is happening on the Internet, and they should be, because whilst practitioners have too often seen their role as ensuring the provision of highbrow material, this is a futile exercise in the world of a Web. Culture is ordinary and it is everywhere, and the Web reflects this.

During the July 7th terrorist attacks in London, information was disseminated in a different way, by use of CCTV, mobile phones, and pictures on Flickr amongst other myriad means. In fact, the vast majority of the images uploaded to Flickr show images of the streets, not of the main areas of attack. There was a curiously de-centred view of the event, away from the traditional modes of media where, in the past, information was restricted and potentially distorted by its transmission in writing.

In the July 7th attacks, said Prescott, the predominant feeling conveyed by the way the information was disseminated was one of waiting and uncertainty; an aspect of historical events which isn’t often reported. There was a memorialisation created by the different types of media used (with blogs being different to mobile phone messages, for example). We can study new types of textuality, such as handwritten notes which people have taken pictures of. But, Prescott continued, that is not to say that in our investigations we should focus solely on the modern.

One feature of the digital humanities is that we should understand the Internet is heir to the 13th Century. We can compare the digital traces of July 7th to how the Peasants Revolt or the Great Fire of London was portrayed in written witnesses, for example. The fundamental point of the digital humanities should be the investigation of intertextuality and should help us bridge the gap between the born-digital and the media. Digital technology is as material as writing or printing, despite the fact we thing of it as transcendentary.

Katherine Hayles has described one of the fundamental issues in the emergence of the post-human as the improvement of telegraph communication at places like Porthcurno. Claude Shannon proposed that information should be independent of the material carrying it. in other words, communication science should strip a message down so that the message can be reproduced at a distance. At the time there were complaints Shannon was over-formulistic and inadequate for a theory of communication, but the need to improve the quality of cable traffic prevailed. His discoveries form the basis for modern computing.

Prescott began his conclusion by stating that texts are inherently messy and deceptive, because they are human. We need to explore the materiality of those items to discover the truth behind the human, and in this way we can integrate the human and the digital, transcending the post-humanities and accepting that technology changes our experience of what it is to be human, but enabling us to explore the new ways textual objects engage with humans and humanity.

There was loud applause when Professor Prescott’s lecture came to an end, and one or two people agreed with his sentiments, whilst others evidently didn’t agree but paid due homage to his experience within the field. It certainly gave me something to think about on the six hour journey back through the wormhole. Prescott’s full lecture can be found here and is well worth the read.