Proposal for THATCamp Project: SF Bay Area

November 30th, 2010

I have a music therapist friend named Craig who once penned a clever little ditty called “Book about Zen” which contains this delightfully snarky observation:

I go to all these workshops, they’re always ending up the same.

Hug everybody, then go home forget their name.

I get where he’s coming from: it’s very easy to go to conferences, get really excited, make big mental plans and then…


Let’s avoid this. Following an email exchange with Jon Voss, and a meeting with Barbara Hui, I’m proposing that we come together to work on a collaborative Digital Humanities project, a proposal for which follows.

Please have a look, and if you’re interested in working on this, please let me know, either in the comments, or by email to john at memoryminer dot com.

THATCamp Project

I was one of those kids, who, during long car trips would often ask “are we there yet?” Now that I’m a more or less fully-formed adult, I often find myself asking “how did I get here?” The fact that I ask this may be due to being a big fan of Talking Heads, particularly their song “Once in a Lifetime.” During my teenage years, the video for this song was shown with surprising frequency on the then nascent MTV. I can vividly recall my excitement over David Byrne’s crazy dance moves and bemused wonderment while asking: “Well, how did I get here?!!”

Next time you’re out and about, I invite you stop on a street corner in any urban area, then ask yourself how did we get here? Though not a uniquely American phenomenon, nowhere else in the world are cities so radically transformed in so short a time as they are in the US. Right here in the SF Bay Area, the twin cities of Oakland and San Francisco have seen their fortunes rise and fall by the tides of great social and economic changes.  Think Gold Rush, think Transcontinental Railroad. Think Dot fucking Com.

These great historical phenomena reshaped the two cities, sometimes in an odd, zero-sum kind of way. Here’s one example.

If you were to take a walk in the Dogpatch neighborhood of SF, you’d see many rusted remains of San Francisco’s once bustling port. Look across the water to West Oakland, and you’ll see an army of mechanized cranes unloading massive container  ships. While San Francisco’s port benefits from naturally deep water, the port of Oakland must be constantly dredged, so why move the port activity across the Bay?  There are many reasons, but a major one had to due with the battle between mechanization and unionized manual labor. Mechanization won. With the death of port activity, the Dogpatch neighborhood feel in to decay for many years, only to see its fortunes rise again in recent years.

Looking back in time, if you were a unionized dock worker who had a nice house with a nice family up on Potrero Hill but saw your job move across the Bay to be performed by machine, you probably weren’t too happy. Even without the benefit of MTV, you might have had occasion to dance a crazy dance while asking yourself “How did I get here?”

Imagine if we were to organize the considerable skills that exist in the THATCamp Bay Area community and bring them to bear on a Digital Humanities project that seeks to answer a “How did we get here?” type question. We could tie the question to a relatively localized geographical area, but trace the threads to any number of different areas on the globe. We could look at the question from any number of angles, using any number of techniques from oral history, augmented reality, text mining, etc.

I’d like to propose that we act on this as a community by choosing a date in the near future for a THATCamp Project where we agree in advance on a topic, do our best work, then assemble for a show and tell, the result of which will be shared with the world.

The ground rules would be simple:

* Use whatever technology you want, but the data has to be mash-able (e.g. RSS feeds can be consumed by any number of other applications and services)

* No spectators: to attend the show & tell, you have to be prepared to show & tell

* Be willing to get your hands dirty so that we may create a model for other THATCamp Project

So, fellow happy THATCampers, what say you?

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