Big Data, Small Humanities

November 25, 2014

I attended the Claremont Graduate University’s Big Data, Better World? conference and wanted to make a small comment about the role of the humanities (and Digital Humanities) at that event, and more broadly in academia and ever, perhaps where academia presses against, speaks to, corrects, augments, and influences (and is influenced by) industry.

The point is not really mine–I’m simply reporting here–it was eloquently expressed by all three professors on the Big Data and the Humanities panel, and then reflected and reemphasized through the vision of Jack Dangermond, founder and president of Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI), “a pioneer in spatial analysis methods but also one of the most influential people in GIS,” who gave the keynote address “Mapping a Better World.”

Dangermond’s vision is of a planetary nervous system of real-time and past data that is both produced by and available to many, and can be used to make rational decisions about the social, political, environmental, medical and other severe issues facing our world; an opportunity for us to “see and understand” global problems as represented spatially; a “Living Atlas of Information.” Where before we were often gravely effected by the world’s natural (and perhaps other) processes, we will soon be able to effect and perhaps even manage them through rational measurement, mapping, and analysis.

In the question and answer session, Dr. Jacque Wernimont (Arizona State University), one of the humanities professors who had spoken earlier, asked Dangermond what might be the places for worry or critique of this unified system of measuring, compiling, and mapping. Dangermond answered gracefully, without defensiveness, and in complete support of the critical necessity of the humanities’ small in the face of this massive global data stream. He discussed the work of a scientist who studied a square foot of ground for one year and reported his findings through affect, poetry, thick description, and the changing rythyms, moods, and expressions of his own body and that small, intimate space. Just so, Wernimont, Stephen Robertson (George Mason University) in “Collecting Grains of Sand: Big Data and the History of Ordinary Individuals” and Sara Watson (Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University) in “Living with Data: Big Data at Human Scale” emphasized in their contributions not just the small of the humanities (underfunded and diminishing as we may be) but our perennial place as the moral, artistic, affective, and expressive heart of the university, and sometimes our societies. It’s not so much that we think small (although sometimes we do), and more that we are best situated to contribute heart to the soul-less nervous system that technology, corporations, government, and science streams before us.

If the technological future that Dangermond envisions is true, he affirmed as well that the role and responsibilities of the humanities have never been larger: to help shape the questions, applications, and practices for these new tools, to understand where they look and why, as well as to dare to ask what they can’t ever see and will never know.


Yesterday, I had the privilege of attending some of THATCamp Feminisms West. I had to leave just before the much-deserved beer-part to pick up my son, and knew I was in good company when this sacrifice made sense as such, nothing more needing to be said. But in my afternoon there, I was privy to conversations and processes that remind me of why we need to meet and work as feminists about and in digital culture. I will indicate a few of those reasons here, and I’m also going to to do quickly and on my blog.

Now, why this quick “work” on a Saturday morning. First, I have to give an interview to a college student this morning, in an hour, about (my) queer family: another important digital feminist act. Secondly, I want to blog about this while it is still happening (day two is starting now), because it may allow a few people who might want to know about it to follow the twitter-feed, and thereby attend. Third, I acknowledge and mark the value of my colleagues’ work when I blog it, and I feel this is a particular kind of feminist mentoring that senior women in academia can and do provide online. There’s been some great posts about academic blogging in the past few days (brought to my attention my Adeline Koh on Facebook). All by women, iterating what we get here. I wrote a similar post last year.

In our unpanel, DH400, we had the rare opportunity to talk about DH beyond 101. I was particularly interested to meet the women behind #TransformDH who I’ve been following for awhile. Our conversation focused upon our various, precarious, disruptive, transformative, outsider/insider relationships to the academy: as grad students, as archivists, as activists. To me it is was less the DH, or even the digital, that made this conversation matter, but the feminist: because we shared values, the will and capacity to be critical as well as intellectual while being supportive and trying to distribute authority and voice around the room all the while working, quick. Mia Ridge asked us “What would a feminist Digging into Data project look like?” And Jacque Wernimont said: “It would probably be related to little ‘dh’ and the owning of ephemerality.” Yep.

In the other panel I attended, on feminist digital pedagogy, I brought people up to speed on the DOCC 2013. And then we talked productively and honestly about teaching. With undergrads, librarians, grad students, jr and snr profs in the room, (or as@miriamkp tweeted: A really nice mix of students, faculty, librarians, nonprofit professionals (with diverse interests) here at #tcfw) we were able to be vulnerable, uncertain, and also wicked smart. Anne Cong-Huyen and Viola Lasmana discussed power sharing, doing things in public, acquiring skills, risk-taking, modelling ownership of our content and controlling our online identities (for their students and themselves), as well as the perennial contradictions of anonymity, discipline, and grading in classes with hands-on, experimental components. One hour, so much said and done: together, in a room, and on twitter, and now here, doing all the things that these technologies afford to us as communities, and as individuals.

I write quickly on my blog on a Saturday morning because this kind of work makes me feel like an academic in a conversation with politicized others. I make this to mark that.