Thursday, April 7, 2011

THATCamp: Finding our core values in (spite of) the zeroes and ones

"I feel like a quart jar that someone just poured a gallon of water into," my colleague Marla Miller said after we finished Wednesday's THATCamp NCPH. We spent the day in five free-form sessions addressing topics that ranged from the technical (3D mapping and data mining) to the logistical (managing a digital history project for long-term sustainability) to the philosophical (“What is Digital History?”).

As with each THATCamp, ours reflected the particular mix of people, skills, and interests present. The sessions I went to were much more about relationships (between “experts” and their digital “publics,” or among public historians themselves) than about zeroes and ones, although I did learn about some useful-sounding new tools and some indisputably cool projects (check out CyArk, which is trying to preserve the world’s heritage digitally, or Gigapan, for making incredibly high-res landscape scans). Although there’s still a common perception that the digital side of the humanities is the realm of tech-savvy geeks, THATCamp reinforced my gut sense that (a) we all know more than we think we do, (b) nobody knows everything, and (c) it’s smart to keep adding to what we know, without falling into the idea that if we just had this skill or that app, we would reach some happy desired level of competency that would assuage our fears of technological inadequacy.

Another way to say this is that there really isn’t a “digital side of the humanities” anymore. We’re all in it, and being in it, we should make sure it reflects our values and goals, rather than just adding skills in the hope of making ourselves more competent or employable. The skill-set approach makes me deeply uneasy; I can see a subtle process of de-skilling here, in which too many of the humans ostensibly at the core of the humanities instead essentially become technicians, able to reproduce some piece of past reality in meticulous detail but increasingly cut off from the level of creative decision-making where projects are envisioned. If too many of us become scanner-tenders, as the artisanal workers of the nineteenth century became loom-tenders, what becomes of the overall project of creating a robust participatory realm for the exploration of the past and its relevance to the present? What good is fostering a creative connection with the past for our various publics if we lose that spark of inventiveness and discovery in our own working lives?

Overall, in a funny way, THATCamp feels like a useful tool for resisting the siren song of the new and the cool, as much as for becoming friendlier with it. Tom Scheinfeldt (left) from George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media, one of the originators of the camp concept and an articulate defender of a humanistic approach to technology, captured this for me at the end of a final break-out session where we focused on the question “What is Digital History?” When we pushed ourselves to answer this question, Tom suggested that at bottom, it’s about shared values like openness, experimentation, and collegiality—the same core values that many of us see at the heart of public history. There may be no unitary definition, and chasing one is perhaps ultimately as unproductive as chasing a single definition of public history, as Suzanne Fischersuggested during the discussion. But it was useful to think about those shared values that animate what we do and let us recognize people from various fields who are doing it too, even when they don’t label themselves as public or digital historians. It’s our secret handshake in a cultural economy that continues to try to re-cast our work in a rationalized, efficiency-driven mode that turns passions into standardized products and people into insecure entrepreneurs just trying to capture a bit of the capital circulating all around us.

The need to define and defend this set of values was underscored by the presence of several European public history colleagues, including Serge Noiret, who organized THATCamp Florence a couple of weeks ago. Serge described an increasingly beleaguered humanities sector in European public and academic scholarship, and said that the public sector is the one place that historians can find jobs and funding for research, often within “Europeanizing” projects. There are reflections here of both the 1970s academic “jobs crisis” that contributed to the coalescing of public history as a distinct professional discourse and what the future may hold if the Thirty Years War on the American public sector continues to intensify. Some European public historians are asking what the American model and approach may offer them in their own struggles; in uncertain times, that vision of the digital humanities as an open and experimental space seems like one of the best hopes for all of us.

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