Thursday, June 05, 2008

Next Year in Jer--er, George Mason

I really wish I could have attended THATCamp, the (un)conference on digital humanities at George Mason this past weekend. Rob MacDougall at Cliopatria has an insightful recap:

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.

My favorite metaphor that I've come up with for thinking about digital content, especially in the humanities, is a multifunction printer, one that copies, scans, prints, and faxes. Digital media, as Kevin Kelly likes to say, increasingly sends the price of copies to zero, whether it's music mp3s or chunks of a blog post I just cut-and-pasted into my own. There are millions of people scanning content, whether literally or figuratively, porting material from the non-digital world into the digital, or from one set of conversations (programmers) to another (historians). And Web 2.0 has made it easier than ever to fax/broadcast your content digitally to the world. But we need to be able to print -- not necessarily literally, but to create things, new documents and projects that harness all of that power to make something new and useful.

I really like these people, the ones tearing down walls 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.

Polemical note: I think the digital humanists are sooooo much more interesting right now than the third culture humanists celebrated at places like Edge (as smart as they are). It doesn't make any sense to turn your back on a very traditional culture of the "literary intellectual" if you're going to miss out on how that culture is itself getting transformed and permuted by new developments in science and technology. And even these two very different strands have a great deal to say to one another, which means there's hope. (Don't even get me started on those brain-dead reactionaries calling themselves evolutionary literary critics. Grrr.)

Maybe it's my own intellectual make-up, but I want my Joyce and my Godel, my Herodotus and my Python scripts, my Derrida, my De Sica, my Duchamp, and my television all together. Is that too much to ask?

1 comment:

Rob MacD said...

Thanks for the link and the very sensible comments. I'm sure there will be more THATCamps, so hopefully you can get to one someday.

Maybe it's my own intellectual make-up, but I want my Joyce and my Godel, my Herodotus and my Python scripts, my Derrida, my De Sica, my Duchamp, and my television all together.

Amen! I just saw this similar line in a review of Michael Chabon's new book of essays:

"There is no single standard for literary merit; Chabon’s personal list of pleasurable encounters includes “the engagement of the interior ear by the rhythm and pitch of a fine prose style; the dawning awareness that giant mutant rat people dwell in the walls of a ruined abbey in England; two hours spent bushwhacking through a densely packed argument about the structures of power as embodied in nineteenth-century prison architecture”."