"Ada Lovelace, creative computing, and experimental humanities"

"Ada Lovelace, creative computing, and experimental humanities"

Pip Willcox, head of the Centre for Digital Scholarship and Senior Researcher at the Oxford e-Research Centre, recently gave a talk on Ada Lovelace, creative computing, and experimental humanities as part of National University of Ireland Galway's Moore Institute series of Digital Scholarship Seminars.

Taking inspiration from Oxford's celebrations of Ada Lovelace's 200th birthday in December 2015 and the performance of composer Emily Howard's 'Ada sketches' with mathematician Lasse Rempe Gillen, Pip Willcox has been working with Centre Director Professor David De Roure and the Fusing Audio and Semantic Technologies (FAST) project to imagine what might have happened had Babbage built his Analytical Engine and Lovelace pursued its potential for musical composition: the Analytical Engine "might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent".

The Web application they developed uses the mathematics of Lovelace's day to produce sequences of notes whose music can be explored interactively by visualizing and selecting fragments to play, then exported as an audio file, piano roll, or sheet music. The application proved popular after the talk: Erin McCarthy, a doctoral student at NUIG, said "Thanks to @pipwillcox, this is what I'll be doing this afternoon".

The thought experiment continued with imagining what Lovelace might have done had she travelled forward to our time. Arduino microcontroller boards built to function as analytical engines run the Numbers into Notes software to enable them to play music. The location and orientation of the listener interacts with the Arduinos, enabling the audience to become co-creators of the music.

This work is based in archival and life-writing research and uses digital technologies to explore Lovelace's ideas, but the research does not fit clearly within the bounds of Digital Humanities as it is usually practised. Pip proposed "experimental humanities" as a way of thinking about this approach. She concluded by exploring the richness multidisciplinary research brings, suggesting that the work for which Lovelace and Babbage are known were augmented through conversation and collaboration during their long and generative friendship, even if subsequent tellings of their story have, deliberately or inadvertently belittled Lovelace's contribution. Pip Thornton, a doctoral student from Royal Holloway, described the talk: "The lit on Lovelace refers to her by first name, as bride, daughter, adjunct and 'enchantress'".

Contrary to Lovelace's mother's views, Pip suggested that mathematics and poetry are complementary rather than antagonistic fields of study. She also noted the importance of respecting and valuing all areas of work that make multidisciplinary digital work possible. Erin McCarthy commented on Twitter:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Catherine Cronin, Academic Coordinator of IT Online programmes at NUIG, described the talk as an "inspiring call for multidisciplinarity, collaboration & equality".

Dr Justin Tonra, lecturer at NUIG and co-convener of the seminar series, thanked Pip for a "terrific talk" that was "very thought-provoking".

The session was chaired by the Moore Institute's director, Professor Dan Carey, and attracted a multidisciplinary audience who engaged generously with Pip's account of research that is still in progress. Pip looks forward to continuing the conversation with colleagues at NUI Galway.