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That Is All

What may be the world’s first telephone directory, published in 1878 by the Connecticut District Telephone Company, is being put up for auction next week at Christie’s, along with manuscripts by such lesser lights as Copernicus, Darwin, Newton, and Descartes. Some friends of mine discussed chipping in to buy the telephone book for me; the indispensable Ralph Luker sent a NYT piece on the auction:

Two things struck me. As an aging veteran of the current rewiring of the human condition, I wondered whether there might be lessons from that first great rewiring of our collective nervous system. Another was a shock of recognition — that people were already talking on the phone a year before Einstein was born. In fact, just two years later Einstein’s father went into the nascent business himself. Einstein grew up among the rudiments of phones and other electrical devices like magnets and coils, from which he drew part of the inspiration for relativity. It would not be until 1897, after people had already made fortunes exploiting electricity, that the English scientist J. J. Thomson discovered what it actually was: the flow of tiny negatively charged corpuscles of matter called electrons.

I haven’t seen this particular phone book, but I’ve read others like it. They are extremely quaint: names given without numbers (those came later), detailed instructions on how and where to hold the phone, strict prohibitions against swearing, pleas to limit or control the use of the phone by children, servants, and wives. It takes a real flex of your historical imagination to see them as the high-tech support docs they once were.

“When you are not speaking, you should be listening,” the Connecticut District telephone book says. (Words to live by.) It also says you should begin each call by saying, “Hulloa” (“Ahoy-hoy” went by the boards pretty quickly) and when done talking, say, “That is all.”

“That is all” is how John “I’m a PC” Hodgman signs off every blog post, and almost every Twitter (giving up 12 of his 140 character limit each time–that’s dedication). Is he the last observer of this now obscure fillip of Gilded Age telephone etiquette? I WOULD NOT PUT IT PAST HIM.

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All That Camp

Well, they didn’t throw me to the Oompa Loompas.

This weekend I attended THATCamp, a BarCamp-style “unconference” on the humanities and technology (hence, THATCamp) hosted by the Center for History and New Media. It was terrific, and my earlier wibbling proved unjustified. While I was certainly in awe of the digital kung fu being thrown down, I could in fact follow 95% of the conversations, and I had a great time. Many, many thanks to the CHNM crew, especially Jeremy Boggs and Dave Lester, who I gather were the real architects of THATCamp, and to all the other great folks I met. Now I’ve got that post-conference power-up of enthusiasm, not to mention a lot of new blogs to follow, friends to correspond with, and things to think about. All should be fodder for future posts. But if I had to summarize what I took away from the weekend as a whole, I’d say this:

First, a lot of very smart people are thinking very hard about how best to apply the tools of the digital world to history and the humanities. It’s actually not an obvious or an easy question to answer, and I have to say I don’t think we as a community have entirely cracked it yet. There seemed to be more exciting and promising tools at the conference than there were obvious problems to apply them to. That’s not a dismissal. I think “more tools than problems” is a great position to be in. I just thought many sessions were stronger on “here’s what you can do with these tools” than on “here’s why you’ll want to do it.” Case in point: the NEH’s Office of Digital Humanities is seeking ideas for humanities supercomputing. Supercomputing! They want to give historians and other humanists access to supercomputers! But there’s an unfortunate dearth of historians who need a trillion calculations done in one second. This is what I really want and need to put my brain to. Not supercomputing, but the whole “OK, so what should we do with these tools” question. We really need some canonical projects that anybody can point to and say “oh, so that’s why this stuff is valuable to the humanities.” It’s going to happen soon–like I said, there are some very smart people thinking very hard about it. Once it does, we’ll probably stop calling this endeavor “digital history” at all. It will just be “history”, part of how it’s done.

Second, there’s money in them digital hills. If you’re a history or humanities graduate student looking to set yourself apart from the crowd, I strongly suggest thinking about getting involved in digital research. I’m afraid I don’t just mean a blog about robots. Demonstrate some programming chops along with your humanities education and there ought to be people who’ll want very much to hire you. (Edit: See? Here’s some THATCampers wondering where to find programmers.) Better yet, come up with some answers to the questions in my last paragraph. You don’t need a compsci degree, and you don’t need to be a math whiz. But you can’t be scared of your computer, and you do need to put in some time.

Third, I really like these people, the ones tearing down the wall between the two Cold War cultures of science and the humanities. You could say there’s an element of preaching to the choir at any meeting like this. Nobody at THATCamp was unsympathetic to the project of digital humanities. But so what? Choirs need to get together, to practice and to sing. A big reason to go to any conference is for validation–the formation in physical space of a community linked more by outlook and interest than geography. As I said before, these people feel like my tribe. So even if I don’t crack the digital humanities riddle, I’m going to keep turning up for things like THATCamp as long as they’ll have me.

My notes on specific sessions are below the fold (it’s a long post), along with links to many shiny gewgaws that were demoed or displayed. Read more