Later this week I'm going to THATCamp Melbourne. What's THATCamp, you ask? THATCamp stands for The Humanities and Technology Camp. It's an unconference devoted to exploring the ways in which the humanities and digital technology can work together. It is informal and collegial: attendees vote on the programme on the first morning. It's practical and hands-on: digital projects are often started during the camp, or tools written, or software installed. The first THATCamp was held at the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University in Virginia in 2008; last year there were 17 held around the world, including one in Canberra. Melbourne's is being held at the University of Melbourne, where I work and near where I live, so it would be hard to justify not going!
But the truth is that I did have qualms, because I don't consider myself a digital historian. Sure, there's the blog. But that's about communication, not research; and research comes first. And apart from using digitised sources where possible, my research methods are quite traditional. I find sources, I read them, I compare them, I draw conclusions, and so on. I imagine Gibbon did much the same.
In some ways, this is surprising. In my day job I work in systems administration and IT support, so it's not like I don't know my way around computers. And before history, I studied astrophysics, which has long used digital technology as an integral part of its methods. Indeed, about the first thing you do when you start out learning how to do astrophysical research is to become familiar with the analysis software you'll be using. And my masters project was entirely computational: I wrote, tested and debugged code. (Written in Fortran 77, no less!) So I'm sure that, when I came to do my PhD, I could have handled a project which was much more digital and less traditional in its approach if I'd wanted to.
But that's the thing: I didn't want to. Why leave a career in IT for one in history (and I still hope that will happen) and do the same kind of thing, just for a different end? Fiddle around with Apache installs, write justifications for storage arrays, think about database structures. That's what I want to get away from. What I want to do is read old books, uncover forgotten ideas, meet interesting (albeit usually dead) people. (And tell the world about it, which is where blogging comes in.) I would guess that most historians have similar motivations. And that's the problem for digital history. The types of people who are attracted to doing history are not likely to be attracted to doing digital history. (I have similar reservations about Anthony Grafton's recent call for more collaboration between historians, in emulation of the sciences. We tend to play better alone.)
This is not because digital history has no value: it clearly has vast potential. But at the moment it still belongs to the hackers, those who enjoy creating visualisation tools and XML datasets. It won't realise its potential until every historian is a digital historian, and that won't happen until doing digital history is as natural and painless as... well, as natural and painless as doing traditional history is, anyway. The technology needs to adapt itself to the users, in other words, not the other way around. Well, in reality both will happen; but we aren't there yet.
That said, I'm still excited to be going to THATCamp, and to seeing all the cool ideas and smart people. And I do hope to get more involved in digital history myself, rather than maintaining my current watching brief. But you can understand why I haven't come up with a cool session idea of my own. Or perhaps you can't? Am I being too cautious, too reactionary, too -- dare I say it -- Luddite?
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