AHeSSC atque Vale

A slight hiatus on the blog front. Not, for once, due to idleness or indolence (at least not entirely), but more due to a faulty laptop and extended absence from the office.

Last Friday saw the final projects meeting of the Arts and Humanities e-Science Initiative, held in the pleasant surroundings of the Anatomy Theatre and Museum at King’s College London. This was a great opportunity for a last reflect on what the seven projects have achieved, and where things might go beyond the end of the funding (AHeSSC itself finishes at the end of this month). I was somewhat taken with the term ‘digital craftsmanship’, which implies some concept of ‘making’. Certainly the first four presentations – from Medieval Warfare on the Grid, eSAD, e-Curator and Archaeotools, all of which have an historical or archaeological interest of some kind, one can detect commonalities of the ‘making’ variety: making a hypothesis based on Agent-based Modelling; building an interpretation using an interpretation support ontology, forming questions of what, why or when around distributed datasets, and so on. And the three that followed – e-Dance, Purcell Plus and MusicSpace are similarly concerned with digital creativity. It occurred to me that it is useful to think of these different kinds of making ‘things’ on one side, and on the other side the intellectual and/or interpretive things you can do with them on the other: reception studies, digital repatriation of cultural artefacts – providing a digital replica of an artefact removed from another country to that country (no one is claiming that any of the modes of making are perfect, or would please everyone), reading and understanding texts, visualising and de-constructing interpretive processes… And in the middle you have the difficult things that enable and hinder mapping from one side to the other: the absence of mass digitization programmes that steer engagement with digital content in ways that are (or can be) totally at odds with what is interesting, or what it might be intellectually desirable to do; copyright (ugh, don’t go there, say especially those concerned with music), the fact that most engagements with these technologies are driven by individual research questions and the success (or otherwise) of individual project grants, and not by overarching research paradigms. This, I think, has been both the upside and the downside of the Initiative: it has – wonderfully – fulfilled its aim, set out in 2005, to be driven by humanities and arts research questions. The problem now is that it is only driven by humanities and arts research questions. Which begs the question of how this work can be sustained when there is no Initiative to support it.
What will ride to the rescue? The Digital Economy? The problem with the digital economy is that it is going through an analogue recession: this means that when our paymasters say they want us to collaborate, it is not because they like collaboration; it is because they think it will bring in the folding stuff. Not a long term model. Perhaps we should just accept that this will be a very, very long and slow process, and – even though the realisation that e-science is NOT just Grid has come about in less than five years, sustaining and growing the kind of fantastic, ground breaking research that the Initiative has been able to support in the seven projects, six workshops and three demonstrators will take a long time. As was said several times in the workshop, it will take engagement with the research councils, a recognition (not least by them) that the benefits will not all come in the short term, and an awareness to capitalize on highly relevant concepts such as Linked Data.

It’s by no means all doom and gloom. In a very upbeat summing up, Dave De Roure noted that the Digital Humanities have been around considerably longer than e-Science, and may yet outlast it notwithstanding the recent trenchant analysis of Melissa Terras in her keynote at Digital Humanities 2010). The work of the projects has been, by any standard, world leading in the field, and the opportunities which have been created – and which have been exploited by our colleagues – are surely unquestionable. And as Dave pointed out, we have been able to look well beyond so-called ‘acceleration of research’ – doing things faster, cheaper and bigger – and instead done new things, and done them better. And I think there is a lesson about what kind of support a programme of this type needs, which is is equally interesting. In 2006 we, AHeSSC, were commissioned to provide helpdesk-type support, but I think it is probably fair to say that something a little more sophisticated was needed and – hopefully – provided.

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