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Bambazooka

dh 2013 just ended, and I think it was a smashing success. I can say that, because even though I’m a local, I had nothing whatsoever to do with that success. Kay Walter and her team worked tirelessly to make it happen, and it did.

As always, I attended lots of stirringly good sessions and panels. But one in particular stands out, because I’d never seen anything like it before: Quinn Dombrowski’s aptly titled, “What Ever Happened to Project Bamboo?”

Ah, Project Bamboo. We have dreamed about it, hoped for it, been pissed off at it, argued about it, brainstormed and flip-charted it, diagrammed it, dismissed it, rubbed the dollar signs from our eyes, and wondered what the fuck it is.

And here, finally, was Quinn Dombrowski to give us what might be the greatest, most resplendent postmortem in the history of the field. Patiently, and without the slightest quiver in her voice, she spun the tale of a fateful trip: the decline and fall of the Big Dig of the humanities. The very first slide had the word “Bamboozled” on it. It was unsparing. It was inspiring. We completely suck for not giving her a standing ovation.

I took a dim view of Project Bamboo from the very moment I read the first planning document, and my view of it darkened further as the project went on. To start with, I thought the investigators (who seemed to consist entirely of people completely outside of the dh community) and the leading grant officer (Chris Mackie) had completely and totally misunderstood the humanities. They all seemed convinced that the humanities were a set of “problems” in need of “solutions,” and that having meaningful discourse was related to infrastructure in the same way that having an enjoyable commute is related to infrastructure. Chris Mackie (the grant officer at Mellon who appeared to be the main force behind these ideas) kept saying over and over that his vision was of an “R for the humanities,” and he didn’t mean a tool for doing text analysis (that tool already existed; it’s called R). He meant some kind of one-stop-shop gizmo for doing all the “things” humanists want to do. I thought he was raving. But most of all, I resented the implication that we needed their help. It’s one thing to try to come to the aid of a user community that is unable to achieve their stated technical goals. It’s another thing entirely to come, unbidden, to the aid of a highly technically skilled community and tell them that they don’t know what the fuck they’re doing. That’s light sabers at dawn. And finally, I thought it was elitist nonsense to think that only Berkeley or Chicago could solve a major infrastructural problem (or, for that matter, any problem at all) in the humanities. qed.

[In the interest of full disclosure, let me say that I have been the recipient of Mellon money – directly or indirectly – throughout my entire career. I stand by what I just said, but you should interpret it in light of the fact that I have benefited often and significantly from the very thing I’m criticizing.]

But I was also mad at my own community as well. Various people (including people issuing reports funded by the Mellon Foundation) couldn’t seem to refrain from using two of the most idiotic metaphors in the history of the it industry: “reinventing the wheel” and “silo-ing.” The former is silly, because we reinvent the wheel all the time (it being nonsensical, as well as absurd and dangerous, to put a wagon wheel on a jetliner). As for “silo,” we need only imagine storing all of the corn grown in the state of the Nebraska in one central facility (which would add “grossly inefficient” to absurd and dangerous). In other words, there were philosophical arguments to be leveled against the charge that “reinvention” and “silo-ing” are bad, and challenges to be mounted against the idea that the “same thing” was getting needlessly funded over and over again. It seemed to me incumbent upon the people writing these lofty reports to demonstrate that there was in fact no convergence, no survival of the fittest, nothing at all to be learned from failure, nothing to be gained from having a choice between several different but related tools, and that solving things “once and for all” wouldn’t actually mean stopping innovation in its tracks. But instead of making those arguments, I think a lot of us said, “if we don’t stop silo-ing and re-inventing, they’ll stop funding.”

I suppose now I can add another source of irritation. It is often noted that the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is a private organization, and that they can presumably spend and/or waste their money as they please. I think such absolute freedom is a questionable proposition in a democratic republic (note that this is not precisely our attitude toward, say, Google or Bear Stearns). It does seem to me that they owe the public some kind of explanation when they spend years wasting the time of hundreds of people, many of whose salaries are paid out of the public purse, and I don’t know that a slideshow at a small academic conference fits the bill.

I had the privilege of asking the first question after Dombrowski’s talk was over, and thanked her for her candor. I then made the mistake (common to both professors and Jeopardy contestants) of not framing my comment in the form of a question. Here’s what I should have said: “What does the Mellon Foundation conclude from this experience? That it was a good idea poorly executed (by Berkeley, the dh community, or both?), or that it was a dumb idea in the first place?”

The answer to that question matters, but it needs to be said that it probably isn’t either/or. It has often been said that “failure” is an important part of what we do in digital humanities (Willard McCarty is famous for characterizing humanities computing as the “quest for meaningful failure”), and there have been several calls for the need to report on failure in dh over the years. Less frequently discussed is the fact that most software projects fail. That is to say, when a company sets aside money toward the development of its products (it might call that “r&d,” or it might call it “we better get something new together fast”), it fully expects that most of that money will go down the tubes. This is, I think, something that the neh understands very well, and which many private foundations – including the Mellon Foundation – understand poorly or not at all. Project Bamboo, after all, was all about throwing a lot of money at a prestigious pair of universities (Berkeley and Chicago) in the hope that that by itself would result in the humanistic equivalent of the iPhone. The reality is that Apple has spent a lot of money over the decades pursuing some truly idiotic ideas, most of which never made it to market (some of which did – Newton anyone?). Xerox parc, which many rightly point to as one of the central vortices of computational brilliance in the twentieth century, also built a lot of silly, useless contraptions that went positively nowhere. Yet even those failures probably lay the groundwork for some of the spectacular successes that came later.

This is why it’s probably wrong (despite what I’ve said) to view Project Bamboo as some sort of unqualified failure, or as merely a set of “lessons learned.” I have a feeling that the developers who spent years of their lives working on the project look at parts of it and see beauty and elegance amidst wrong-headedness and poor advertising (and let it be said: I could write a post much longer than this one – or Dombrowski’s talk – detailing my failed projects and frequent lack of lessons learned). It matters, though, that both the good and the bad gets back to the people in charge of the company. So my question remains. Did it? Will we ever know if it did?

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