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



I’m more than psyched–why, I’d rate my anticipation as just short of stoked–for THATCamp, the user-generated “unconference” on digital humanities happening at the Center for History and New Media this weekend. But it’s also triggering a big old wave of imposter syndrome. The other campers all appear to actually, you know, do stuff with technology and the humanities. While I, um, have this blog where I occasionally talk about robots.*

My first visit to CHNM was about a year and a half ago. I’d met Josh Greenberg (now of the NYPL) at a conference, and Jeremy Boggs at another conference, and they urged me to come visit the Center next time I was in DC. So I did. I really wanted to see the place: I figured it would be a cross between Willy Wonka’s factory and the “real world” of The Matrix.** But I may have misconstrued the invitation. Read more


Light in Captivity

Paraphrased from an interesting article I just read:

In the early 1920s, the Russian writer Maxim Gorky recounted a story about a priest named Zolotnitsky from the last days of the Tsars. Zolotnitsky was imprisoned for thirty years “for some sort of heretical thoughts.” His one consolation and companion was a tiny fire in the stove in his cell. After he was finally released, the old man began to worship fire and lived to watch the dancing flames. When he encountered electric light for the first time, he was horrified to see electric fire “imprisoned” in a glass bulb. The old priest cried piteously, “And him too–oh!–and him too … What did you imprison him for?” He appealed to those around him. “Oh, slaves of God … you are holding a little sunbeam captive! … O, you people! Fear his fiery wrath!” Finally, he collapsed, trembling and sobbing, “Oh, let him go…”

The article is Julia Bekman Chadaga, “Light in Captivity: Spectacular Glass and Soviet Power in the 1920s and 1930s,Slavic Review 66:1 (Spring 2007). Gorky depicts the priest as a relic of the old world who cannot understand the icons of the new. (Lenin: “Communism equals Soviet power plus electrification.”) Chadaga uses Gorky’s story to introduce her analysis of ways the Soviet state employed spectacles of glass and electric light. I’ve retold it here simply because it’s cool.

(Chadaga also mentions that Soviet factories in the 1930s produced light bulbs with grotesquely high wattages–she cites a story about blazing four-hundred watt lights in closets and toilets–in order to meet power consumption quotas.)


On A Planetary Scale

And here’s one more concept course, but the great thing about this one is that I’m actually teaching it next year, with Bill Turkel. (Bill said in response to my last two posts, “I think your idea of ‘concept courses’ is great, except I think we should only teach concept courses, all of us, and standardized syllabuses and canons be damned.”)

Science, Technology, and Global History

There are mad and beautiful things beneath the skin of the world we know, that you only see when you look at things on a planetary scale.
— Warren Ellis, Planetary

Read more