Made in Sheffield: Industrial Perspectives on the Digital Humanities | Professor Andrew Prescott

Professor Prescott was the opening speaker at the Sheffield Digital Humanities Conference, and was as enjoyable and informative as ever. Introduced by Michael Pidd, he began his talk by mentioning the traditions of innovation in Sheffield, and how that tradition continued to be represented by the work done in the field of digital humanities, but he turned firstly to a topic he broached in his plenary lecture at the Digital Humanities @ Oxford Summer School back in July, and that was the Arab Spring.

One of the major aspects of the Arab Spring which caused much comment in the West was the use of social media. In fact, a prominent Egyptian blogger referred to the Egyptian uprising as “Revolution 2.0”, and technology was touted as a force for democracy. Protest in the past had been suppressed, it was noted, but social media made a difference, creating social capital on a scale not seen before, with virtual networks materialising on the streets.

However, Professor Prescott suggested that a “cyber-utopian reading” of the uprisings is misplaced. There appears to be no direct correlation between internet penetration and the extent of Arab protest. In fact in the Yemen, where there were lots of protests, internet access is in fact relatively low – and actually, most of the internet traffic generated by the risings came from outside the countries involved. Social media was not used co-ordinate protest, but to alert the world to what was happening. New media did not, therefore, supplant traditional media in that instance: instead, a complex remediation of new and old media was taking place. 

Alexander & Aouragh says talk of technology undermines the involvement of the millions who brought down Hosni Mubarek, but there is a danger of falling into the opposite trap of believing social media had no significance on events. There was obviously something going on, and we need to move away from false polarisation. The Arab Spring saw a profound realignment in the relationship between old and new media – new media as a new space, with complex interplay between the two. In past revolutions it has been difficult to recapture the voices of the insurgents, but in now social media provides us the means to explore that.

Professor Prescott, however, was concerned primarily with the idea of cybermyth; the idea that social media allowed the revolution to succeed in a way that other revolutions had not been able to. This myth is increasing in popularity, and leading to the idea that digital reformation can create major political and social upheaval on a par with something like the Reformation. However, Michael Brodie suggests that we are in a state of inexorable technological progress, leading to a technological revolution that will make the Reformation look small, and Clayton Christiensen believes that business success “was associated with the development and adoption of ‘disruptive technologies’”. These “disruptive innovations”, as they were later repackaged, reflected the idea that business models could be disruptive: Tim O’Reilly picked up on the idea of the disruptive zeitgeist when coining the term “Web 2.0”.

The Toronto School of communication theory posit the theory that major epochs in human history are marked by changes in communication media, such as the shift from oral to literate society, or the advent of the printing press, and it is this impact, this change in communication, which we will see see in the impact of digital forms of communication. It was Eisenstein who first suggested that the role of printing had not been given sufficient weight in such things as the Renaissance or the Reformation, and that printing was the “unacknowledged revolution”, allowing for two major changes: the standardisation of texts, with knowledge becoming more settled and easily transmitted, and that large numbers of texts became available and mistakes became more evident, allowing readers to become more sceptical and more prepared to argue authority. 

Digital information has allowed us to revert back to the fluidity of oral and manuscript culture, thus altered the two key characteristics as identified by Eisenstein. In fact, Tom Pettit suggested the “Gutenberg thesis”, that oral culture was in fact interrupted by the printing press, and its dominance is only now being challenged by digital culture and the orality it embraces. If we follow Eisenstein’s theory, then are we on the cusp of seeing new historical movements on a cataclysmic scale, as a result of progress in digital technologies?

However, there are theories which depose Eisenstein: for example, the Russian and Ottoman Empires kept out the printing press, and the printing press did not kill off the production of manuscripts. In fact, they were equally important in the dissemination of news and more reliable than print work (ironically, the way in which the print press is viewed today, as opposed to its unreliable online sibling). There is evidence, therefore, of a mixed media economy after Gutenberg. In addition, printing did not simply standardise text – errors could still be introduced. Thousands of books printed in the 15th century, for example, exist in different typesets for no clear reason. Printed books often differed as much as two different manuscripts.

Professor Prescott pointed out the implications for online printed books if no two copies of the original printed work available are the same. He cites Bacon’s Essays as a case in point, in that there are no two copies of the 1625 version of the Essays which are the same. Therefore, far from making the text of Bacon’s work more fluid, an online version destroys our knowledge of the fluidity of the text.  

The theory emerging is that the printing revolution did not bring about immediate change: it was prolonged, irregular and variable, even erratic – akin to the Arab Spring. From there, it becomes difficult to accept history as presented by the Toronto School, not least because it privileges technologies of communication without really acknowledging that the history of media reflects a broader technological base – canals for distribution, new ways of making paper, steam powered printing presses, etc.

Professor Prescott also commented on how little attention is paid to the profound economic changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution, marking the rise of modernity and seen as a major watershed. In contemplating the digital revolution it may seem there is little to learn from looking at the Industrial Revolution, with the clean lines of digitisation seemingly utterly opposed to smoky, muscle-driven factories. in fact, the digital is presented as a means of escape from the industrial, but they are interlinked. Brunel’s steamship The Great Eastern laid the first transatlantic cable, paving the way for the internet. Machines created by the Industrial Revolution provided the technological infrastructure which created the computer.

This led Professor Prescott neatly onto the subject of Sheffield, our host city and a “great centre for the industrial”. Does the Industrial Revolution have anything teach us, he asked, in considering potential digital transformations?

The Industrial Revolution was inventor-led, and the history of industrialisation suggests the process of change can be amorphous, patchy in impact and subject to long timescales. The revolution therefore becomes difficult to pin down. The term itself was not actually in widespread use until the 19th century, expressing the idea that Britain had gone through an experience which was akin to the revolution in France. Clearly something important had happened, but historians have struggled to get a grip on what. Economic growth during this period wasn’t particularly marked. Manufacturing remained fairly stagnant until after 1840. The changes, therefore, were not so much economic or technological but social and cultural, just as with the Arab Spring, and much more complex than the simplistic moniker of “revolution” would suggest. 

The process of transformation is both more extended and complex than is often assumed, said Professor Prescott, and the lesson we have learned from industrialisation is that the process of change through digitisation will be slow, and therefore a model of disruptive innovation is not helpful in the imagining process. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that the industrialisation process which began in the 18th century still continues today, and digitisation is simply a further process of that.

In thinking about the digital humanities we focus on tools and methods but in Sheffield and Birmingham during the Industrial Revolution tools didn’t change, but environment did. A visitor to Sheffield during the 19th century would have found the environment in which these workers operated had completely transformed from 100 years previously – workshops lit by gas, railways allowing distribution, cheap printing advertised products. Professor Prescott therefore determined that the most important changes in the digital humanities will come in the environment in which the digital work is undertaken.

The variety of of work within the digital humanities is its most fascinating aspect, Professor Prescott commented, and there is a need for a pluralistic outlook which is reinforced by the history of industrialisation, which also had an enormous spectrum of technological developments. Watt was just as concerned with musical instruments as with steam power, for example, and this reminds us of the importance of an eclectic approach to the digital humanities. There is no single answer or piece of kit that will unlock it; development will involve risky short-term developments and long-term sustainability: it will not only a critical and theoretical debate, but be fascinated by the effervescence and materiality of data.

One of the key drivers of industrialisation was the tinkering with, and improving of, technology. Watt’s invention made steam power economically viable, but further refinements made his work practicable. Economic transformations are generally associated with paradigm-shifting macro inventions, Professor Prescott observed, but in fact inventions such as the hot air balloon or the smallpox vaccine had limited financial impact. As digital humanists we are expected to demonstrate paradigm shifts in our work, but the micro-invention can be more important. Surely, said Professor Prescott, it is this sort of micro-improvement that we in the digital humanities are best able to deliver?

We need a digital equivalent of Watt’s workshop at Glasgow, a place where people could come and tinker with an idea and make it viable or prove its lack of worth, but we’ve rarely achieved this in most digital humanities departments, partially because we are increasingly at pains to separate our academic and professional staff members. James Watt wasn’t a lecturer at Glasgow University, Professor Prescott pointed out, he was employed to repair the scientific instruments, and yet his laboratory was the intellectual hub of the university. Such new spaces of making and collaboration need not necessarily be physical, but they must embrace different skills and outlooks and in fact, it was the creation of these spaces during the time of early British industrialisation, and our social capital, which allowed us an early lead in the industrialisation process. We had social structures which facilitated the spread of ideas and expertise, such as the famous Lunar Society of the West Midlands, for example. There was no set view during the 18th century as to who should take the lead on a project; they simply had to have the ability to identify a need or opportunity and find the people with the skills necessary to make it work. It mattered not if they were academics, and they operated under a particularly “Big Tent”. This is equally applicable in the digital world although, as Professor Prescott commented, we may be more risk averse in the digital age than our 18th century compatriots were.

The most striking aspect of the industrial age was the passion for making things, and playing and tinkering with something, and for James Watt at least, this making was a matter of data – accurate data and methods of making, and a blending of the two, which he came to employ towards the end of his life in the creation of a sculpture copying machine. 

Professor Prescott then went on to tell a lovely story relating to Watt’s workshop. When the contents of the workshop were moved to the Science Museum a mould of an unknown bust was discovered. It was realised that the mould could be imaged and the resulting 3D model could be used to print out the bust. A team from UCL did the work and found, to their surprise, that the unknown bust was that of James Watt himself. Professor Prescott reflected that this story brings us full circle, in that new methods of fabrication are giving us new methods of approaching to data. There is no one path for the digital humanities, and if the Arab Spring and the Industrial Revolution show us, change doesn’t have to be revolutionary or disruptive; it can be lengthy, patchy, amorphous and difficult to measure, and there is no reason to suspect that the digital will be any different. 

Professor Prescott showed us a short clip entitled Industrial Revolution 2.0 which demonstrates the blending of the old and the new, allowing for the development of something unique, which sums up to me the basic tenets of the digital humanities, and ended the session with a rousing Q&A session. One of the final questions was from Melissa Terras of UCL in which she commented on the making of “things” and the issue of digital stuff versus physical stuff. Professor Prescott commented that it isn’t one or the other, and that there is an issue of polarisation when in fact there should be, and are, a multiplicity of approaches. He said that increasingly in the digital humanities that materiality will become more important, and we’ll start to think about making things. In fact, he said, students at the Royal College of Art have produced conductive inks and are considering screen printing with ink that, if you touch it, will switch something – trigger sounds in a work of art, for example. This is the kind of thing, the materiality, which will become interesting to be involved with in the future. 

Professor Prescott’s blog can be found here.

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