Lisa Gitelman’s “Raw Data is an Oxymoron” and Lev Manovich’s “The Science of Culture?” offer interesting approaches on the understanding of collecting and interpreting data that touch upon certain aspects of my own research. While Gitelman’s article attempts to demystify the concept of raw data, arguing that data is always “cooked” and never objective, Manovich’s piece seems to be more optimistic, claiming that the computer’s ability to gather an endless number of data “offers an opportunity to rethink fundamental assumptions about what is society and how to study it” (13). While both articles appear to analyze different characteristics of data studies, I believe that they may slightly contradict each other. It is in that contradiction that I see the most interesting aspect of these articles.
One of Gitelman’s most visual comparisons, which attempts to discredit the idea of data as being objective, was that of photography and data. The former was once claimed to be objective since “no art is necessary” (170). Using the idea that framing in photography is an act that prevents this art from being objective, Gitelman introduces the concept of framing in data. Consequently, data has to be “understood according to the uses to which they are and can be put.”
The idea of framing presupposes that only a fraction of the word can be manipulated while the rest will be carefully ignored. In terms of data, the act of choosing particular variables to be collected is an act of “cooking” the information. On the other hand, Manovich’s description of wide data as “very large and potentially endless number of variables describing a set of cases” (13) appears to momentarily give computers the ability to delete data collection’s framing. While clusters of information gathered by wide data analysis may provide certain framing, Manovich contends that this type of analysis can also help us to “question our common sense view of things” or question “how we think, see, and ultimately act on our knowledge.” In other words, this belief seems to be based on the concept of wide data analysis as an objective data collection capable of altering (or correcting) our limited subjective perceptions of the world.
One of the topics of my own research has to do with the fact that while the photographic and cinematic image has been widely analyzed, the equipment that produces this image is constantly ignored. Any photographic or motion picture camera was built in a particular geographic location and in a particular point in history by an individual or group of individuals that had specific beliefs, goals and purposes in building such equipment. I argue that the human development of such equipment prevents it from producing objective material. In the same way, I believe that it is not the framing of the data that prevents it from being truly raw, but the actual machinery that is used to gather data. The very fact that computers can collect an endless number of data already frames the data.