Technology, Social Justice, and the Humanities Intersect at THATCamp PNW Unconference

What are the relationships between technological literacy and social change?

Participants in this year’s THATCamp PNW came together on Saturday, November 12, at the University of Washington-Bothell’s Center for Serious Play to explore this question.

THATCamp (or, The Humanities And Technology Camp) PNW 2011 was a free, participant-driven event best described as an “unconference”—an open workshop for which the program is developed  by participants in online and day-of planning discussions. This was the second THATCamp PNW unconference held at the UW; last year’s met at the Simpson Center.

Unconference participants are involved in nearly all aspects of the event, from the schedule creation to the wrap-up session. This year’s THATCamp PNW invited participants—including scholars, librarians, programmers and community activists—to explore topics ranging from activism, digital access, and gaming to pedagogy, curriculum, cultural studies, and the digital humanities through the theme of Technologies and Social Justice.   

“THATCampers” gave application demos and tutorials, led research and pedagogy discussions, exchanged project ideas, and shared other approaches to the humanities and technology that encouraged collaboration and exchange. There was only one underlying rule: formal paper presentations were not allowed.  

Jentery Sayers, Assistant Professor of English at the University of Victoria and one of THATCamp PNW’s organizers, appreciates the unconference format because it privileges conversation and collaboration. “In the academy and elsewhere,” he suggests, “knowledge workers need opportunities to share their work in a variety of ways.” 

Paige Morgan, a UW graduate student in English and a returning participant, echoed this sentiment. “There's always been a lot of chatter decrying the way that the internet accelerates everything, and shortens people's attention spans,” she said. “THATCamp is revolutionary in that it prioritizes making time for conversations. You go to three sessions in a day: not four or five. Because the event is one day, and not three, you're not drained by the end of it as you might be at a traditional three or four-day conference. And because participants aren't exhausted, the discussions are more productive.”

The focus on social justice was selected for its timeliness. “Technologies and networks are now so complex that it seems practically impossible for anyone to intervene in them,” Sayers explained. “Or put differently, it is commonplace and often tempting to separate the technologies most of us routinely use from the belief systems and inequalities they enable. What do you do in the face of such complicity?” He hoped THATCamp PNW would inspire collaborative, creative, critically informed responses to this question.

THATCamp PNW sessions focused on topics such as game design and gaming for social action, pedagogy and video games, location based services and the digital mapping of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and  how to use Omeka, a free, open-source web-publishing platform for the display of scholarly exhibits. During the day, THATCampers actively used social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, to circulate ideas and conversations generated with scholars at other institutions globally.

THATCamp PNW 2011 was sponsored by the Center for Serious Play, with support from Microsoft Research, the Simpson Center, and Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at UW-Bothell, all of whom are committed to supporting the growth of digital humanities projects in the Pacific Northwest. It was also supported by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, which created the THATCamp model.