I have a dilemma. The part of me that was trained as a social scientist is intrigued by big data while the part of me that is trained as a critical humanist is screaming “where are the humans!?” There is this whole beautiful book The Human Faces of Big Data that says it tackles the subject, but it is… weird. It is all weird right now. So I thought I might share a few more thoughts on the limits I’m seeing with big data as a concept. I suppose I should be up front and acknowledge that I never could quite catch the post-human bandwagon. I have no burning desire to merge with the machine anymore than I already have. In fact, I am quite happy with my life as a cyborg. That being said, we are being compiled as unique data sets in this new world of big data… Only I’m not sure how new it is.
Big Data and the Book
One of the earlier modes of downloading large amounts of data, that also captured spirits of the human behind its creation (basically the beta release of post humanism) is the book. Books record of complex thoughts into a physicality corpus that was smaller than its creator yet captured thoughts in a transferable way, copy able way, reproduceable way… And had many of the same ownership problems we are seeing now with digital media, but also personal data… Here is why I can’t buy in to post humanism as it is being imagined in my little world of media & technology studies, would you ever look at a book and think “that’s a human”? As in books, it seems there are no humans in big data. I’ve been searching for a bit and the human hasn’t revealed itself. It seems the human is only the start place and the end place for the machines to communicate, create machine readable knowledge, make decisions, and then predict the next action of the unique data set (individual actor, item or thing).
Big Data is Predictive Future Time
I think the scale of big data (omfg Zettabytes!) and the relationship to time are the biggest change. While books are always already a recording of past thoughts, big data is mobilized toward the future. While books are designed to influence current thought and possibly shape the future, the focus seems to be more on the past informing the now. Big Data with its focus on pattern recognition, prediction, and visualization of this information in artistic and abstract yet understandable terms seems to exist in what I am thinking is a concept of time that is always already grounded in the future. Big Data has limited value to the past, in as much as yes it helps us understand the past but isn’t mobilizable in a meaningful way unless we can some how use it to say something about the to come…
This is the central problem to me I think. When we don’t allow the “now” to exist… and I feel like big data moves so quickly, and there is so much of it that there is never a “now”, we don’t allow a space for human experience. And while I love patterns, and I am fine with them existing, the space of experience is where humans create meaning out of this finite thing we call life. When we move towards understanding everything as a bit of data in a large data stream that can tell us something about the future, we erase the human, inherently. And because we erase the human, the ethical components of big data are hard to place, because there are no bodies in data. We see the result of this when we look at the current actions that have come to light of the US Government, recent ebbs and flows of various exchanges that are now run by computers, my favorite big data story ever of Target contacting the pregnant teenager before she had the chance to tell her family, etc.
I know that there is work being done on biases in big data, which is awesome. I think in addition to that, we need to start asking where the human in big data is too. The concept of big data makes it easy to sort of lose the human in the stream… but we have countless examples to show that when it moves to places of power (government, target, financial markets, MOOCs!, etc), it is mobilized to discern the difference in individuals and individual items against the aggregate… and when this happens there are real world effects that happen to actual human bodies.
So yes. Actual humans and big data… where’s the conversation?
As an aside on the future of the book
Since I’ve been speaking with people over the years on the future of the book in the digital world, I’m beginning to wonder if the problem is that we are “out of time” when we try to translate the form. While books are always the past, digital data is always about the future at this point, because we are sort of big data now. As such, I feel like perhaps to get a digital “book” project would need to be incomplete, to be completed/expanded at a later time by multiple anonymous people outside of the original creator.
So, I have an idea that is really a request. When we talk of society, we talk as though mutual recognition was a possibility that existed at the time of slavery. I think sure it did, but it didn’t. Exploring this was the purpose of the Letter post. Slavery is a complex system of seeing bodies as cyborgs, which to me, on some level means sexually viable for humanoid reproduction (at the cusp of recognition), yet not fully human. So, it’s about bodies that are resources of reproduction, both in terms of the almost human and labor, especially manual labor.
The thing that I think we all acknowledge but don’t actually interrogate is that slavery is the first real instance of a well oiled mechanical assembly line. That is why the transport of bodies as a labor class lasted for over three hundred years. When we look at the wealth of the west, the wealth that is now apparently in crisis, we are looking at wealth that was built on the backs of black slave labor. The Independent just wrote an article exploring this Britain’s colonial shame: Slave-owners given huge payouts after abolition. I tend to believe that society builds on itself. If the western structure for attaining wealth was built on being able to see certain bodies as less than you, as less than human, and relegating those bodies to do the labor that allows you to attain wealth, even as those bodies are forced into positions that, if you saw them as equals would be ethically unsound, I don’t know why we’d think that would change. (How crazy is it that the real wealth in the British instance was contingent on being able to dispose of the bodies!?)
So slavery was abolished in the west. I want to say not exactly. The slave trade, the need for slavery to be so focused on the bodies as technology, each with its own individual value, and skills is gone. But it is so ingrained in our culture, it has become such a point of articulation that slavery doesn’t need to exist as such anymore.
Slavery is a technique. As a result, we have situations like the Emory president speaking of the 3/5ths compromise and not realizing he’s made a horrible mistake… only not really, because in this system we have now, this slavery as technique mode of labor production, there are people who are 3/5ths. They are not in power. But they do the labor that ensures those with access to power and wealth stay in their positions. We have comments like the tweet below that instigated this post:
Slavery as technique. RT @sinboy: “We are ruled by people who think $250k/year means you’re poor, but the minimum wage is too high” – Atrios
— Jade D. (@jadedid) February 28, 2013
We all buy into the idea of “Human Resources” without realizing what we are saying when we speak these words. Hint, if Human Resources was really about serving the people that worked at the company/institution etc, I maintain that it would be called the “Office of Humanity”.
Even more than the things that are happening here at home in the states, we have people working in virtual slave positions around the world. It is the dark side of globalization and global connectivity through media devices. We can buy our cheap goods while the labor that went into creating them and bringing them to us remains invisible. Their labor is our pacifier. We are coddled by our ability to attain more than others. But, that’s part of the technique as well. Those with the bigger planation, or more stuff, are imagined to have more power. So we work to attain more. With that, I guess I should drop the link so we can all look at our slavery footprint.
The thing about understanding slavery as a technique is, techniques are in the background. We don’t have to think about them. They are built into how we move through society. The biggest issue for me is, as long as we get stuck focussing on and speaking about slavery as technology, we won’t be able to move it beyond the black body. As a technique, it is all encompassing. We all have a hand in ensuring the technique remains a part of our societal makeup. And as long as we live in the fancy big house, we seem to ignore all of those people in the global fields who are making sure we get our next fix of cheap goods… And I cannot forget the mostly black and brown people that clean the halls of my own University for lord knows how much money, but only in the middle of the night, when they can’t be seen.
I am having a thought that I could not formulate into 140 characters so on the blog it goes. I am wondering if any graduate programs making digital methods part of their core curriculum? I ask this because I am seeing so many people reluctant to use the title digital humanist for themselves. While this makes me sad, I get it. I think most people are, at the very least, (digital) humanists for the most part. We all interact with the Digital in our research. We use library websites and digital versions of articles all the time. I can’t think of the last time someone used a typewriter or a non-digital tool to write a paper. Wait. That’s a lie. It was middle school. Many of us are finding our way on to social networking sites where we connect with other people in our disciplines and talk shop, again, digital. We use digital tools to help us organize and analyze our information and/or data. The Digital is just a part of our life. Apart from those places that are completely cut off from access, (look at me avoid saying digital divide!), we live in a more and more digital world.
But people with humanistic approaches are scared to call themselves digital humanists. Grad students who have found a community online to discuss and work through the central problems of their work are scared of labeling themselves as digital humanists. I don’t know what to make of this.
My observation is that we are at a shifting point. More and more job postings show a realization that it is important to have people who explicitly do digital work. When I first entered my program 2 years ago, most of my coursework (not all), still looked at the primacy of the paper as end all be all and didn’t understand or even attempt to engage digital work. I decided to enroll in two classes this semester. For one, all the writing is done on a class blog. In the other, we have a course social networking microsite on lore.com. We share all of our written work with each other, post links and additional readings of interest, and sort of create a digital community. We are approaching our work with a digital methodology. It is being made as we go along. I am okay with this, sort of. No one is explicitly pointing out that this is Digital Methods! There is no conversation going on about the benefits and drawbacks to the format. As a result, there is limited guidance as well.
While I am a fan of the “choose your own adventure” format, a big fan actually, I wish that, across disciplines, there was a requirement for a digital methods course, where, once students knew their projects well enough to articulate primary questions, they began exploring ways to articulate, engage, and create secondary questions through the digital. The other part I want/need/hope for is discussion around theorizing and citing the digital work that is done, both as final produced scholarship & the labor of creating said scholarship. A lot of the conversations I see people having, from facebook, to twitter, to tumblr, are so amazingly generative, thought out and engaging. But then we go back to the books to see what we can find to support what we’ve already worked out. This is great… but I wish it wasn’t necessary.
I guess what all this is trying to say is, I wish that we looked at Digital Humanities and the Digital Humanist not as a product, but as critical method of engagement, one that we are all engaging in, and one that we all examined as part of working through our projects.