It’s early Saturday afternoon, and in the basement of the Graduate School of Education, people gather around a seminar table to intently edit Wikipedia articles. Next door, a group discusses the challenges involved with getting blog posts to count toward tenure tracks. Programming later today will range from exploration of text matching software, pioneers of synthetic synaesthesia, and the subtle difference between digital preservation and conservation.
This is the Humanities and Technology Camp (THATCamp), an “unconference” aimed at exploring issues related to the digital humanities: a rapidly evolving field at the intersection of tech, history, social media, literature, rights, music, and myriad other domains. The “unconference” is populated by passionate librarians, tech savvy grad students, innovative professors, and the like. This is the first time Harvard has hosted THATCamp, a series of global meetups independently organized to provide cheap or free ways for technologists and humanists to network and discuss ideas.
One session, called “Archives à la Carte” for reasons which will never become completely clear to me, is held in a multimedia classroom. When I drop by, the discussion centers on encoding the provenance of historical objects and ephemera like photos into their digital versions. The word “metadata” is thrown around a lot, as well as a snide reference to the apparent illiteracy of college students confronted with source documents: “Undergraduates interact better with images.”
At this point, one woman poses a hypothetical to the assembled group: “If I were digitizing a historical journal, and there were 53 blank pages, would you want me to scan and digitize all 53 blank pages?” She’s met with a few seconds of blank stares, and then the room erupts in a chorus of vehement yeses. One woman passionately likens excising the blank section to “stealing bread from my children’s mouths.” Another explains in a slightly patronizing tone that images of the pages are crucial because “you want to know what about them is blank.”
In between sessions, I talk with THATCamp organizers Judson Harward, Harvard University Information Technology director of arts and humanities research computing, and Christopher M. Morse, instructional computing specialist. Harward expresses a sentiment that I hear a lot throughout the day: One of the goals of THATCamp is to break out of the formality and rigidity that can plague Harvard events and, in fact, all aspects of Harvard academia. With this in mind, today’s “unconference” was apparently planned just this morning. After a series of briefs, called “dork shorts,” in which various speakers pitched their projects and ideas, attendees and organizers spontaneously planned the afternoon programming.
Sessions are intentionally quick, ensuring that neither presenters nor attendees, who Harward says include faculty, librarians, grad students and an errant undergrad or two, are forced to invest a lot of time into any single topic. “It can be playful,” Harward says of the conference. The purpose of the sessions isn’t necessarily to flesh out a practical interest, but to “get you thinking in a new way.”
Morse leads one of the afternoon sessions, an hour-long discussion on music visualization. He briefly presents his cyclochromatophone, a color-wheel-based keyboard which can be played online. The cyclochromatophone is just one of many unconventional modes for reimagining the musical scale, many of them synaesthetic, which will be a major topic of discussion. How can we avoid the biases of western music notation when transcribing non-western music? How do children visualize music before they’re taught a regimented system? Is it possible to create a program that identifies larger trends in much the same way that violinists don’t have to rely on sight reading each note in sheet music? These questions are all raised in the first ten minutes of the hour.