Sep 19

The Politics of Big Data

I’ve never actually managed to get this idea off the ground at THATCamp but I thought I’d try it one more time.

This is a totally half baked idea but it keeps popping up in my little head and maybe you all can help me deal. I’m basically thinking about the challenge of applying my humanities-trained mind to data driven projects.

The challenge isn’t that I am skeptical of quantitative stuff but that I know how easy it is to make mistakes with it if you don’t know what you’re doing or get easily confused by big numbers (I am guilty of both). I also know how easy it is to be dazzled by big numbers and beautiful visualizations (no offense Hans Rosling).

I started thinking about this while reading the first of the New York Times stories about digital humanities. Patricia Cohen wrote:

Members of a new generation of digitally savvy humanists argue it is time to stop looking for inspiration in the next political or philosophical “ism” and start exploring how technology is changing our understanding of the liberal arts. This latest frontier is about method, they say, using powerful technologies and vast stores of digitized materials that previous humanities scholars did not have.

The idea of a “data turn” in the humanities has been tossed around but it is not as if data are somehow a-political or outside of ideology, right? In this session I want to hear people’s ideas about strategies for approaching Big Data. On the one hand, the idea of being able to search for patterns across vast sets of historical and cultural data is very exciting. On the other hand, I can’t unread Foucault (or Marx for that matter). I know all of this data exists in a context but I don’t know how to keep that in perspective when I’m dealing with Big Data.

Anyway, this is just a thought on the table. I would love it if someone wants to pick it up and build an actually coherent session proposal out of it.


(full disclosure: I totally copy-and-pasted that from another THATCamp blog post I wrote over the summer)

1 comment

  1. ehealey

    Hi Stewart,

    This is a question that interests me too! I’m not sure that I have concrete information to add, but I’m also interested in the theoretical issues here. There was a lot of talk (pro and con) about Google Books’ Ngram Viewer last winter, and I’m curious to know if it offers scholars anything beyond a few minutes’ entertainment. I’m also curious to hear more about what type of data mining (if any) scholars think can/should be done using Google Books or other major corpora of texts. How fearful should we be of inaccurate metadata, loss of context, and OCR errors that result in statistically significant omissions? Elspeth

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