Mechanical Humanities

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.

Mechanical Humanities

2 thoughts on “Mechanical Humanities

  1. naomidecelles says:

    I love the way you connected Gitelman and Manovich on data collection to debates about realism in the arts—a point Gitelman makes, but in connecting it to Manovich as you did here, can be mobilized for other lines of inquiry. In particular, the rhyme you point out between discourses on photography and the computer as enhancements on human capacities for perception is striking, and I appreciate the implicit call to historicize: Manovich does seem to argue that the power of wide data analysis is that it can correct the inherent narrow-mindedness of human-powered data analysis, and provide new, expansive ways of looking at the world.

    Similar things have been said about the power of photography and film. In one of the more poignant and memorable passages of Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality, Siegfried Kracauer argues that the defamiliarizing power of the camera (which derives from its ability to represent physical reality indexically, outside conventional frames of reference, and—like Manovich’s ideal computer—expansively) allows for “disclosures of new aspects of physical reality.” Furthermore—and in an interesting parallel to Manovich’s interest in machine-scale analysis, which is construed as emphatically different than the human-scale—the close-up, for Kracauer, is the ideal example of a camera-specific perceptual tool that can change for the better the way we look at and act in the world: “Such images blow up our environment in a double sense: they enlarge it literally; and in doing so, they blast the prison of conventional reality, opening up expanses which we have explored at best in dreams before” (Kracauer, 1960: 48). [link: My point here is neither that both Kracauer and Manovich are right, nor that they are wrong; rather, I am interested in the epistemological posture both take (it’s worth asking whether this is something embedded in humanistic inquiries often, and if so, why) in claiming novelty as the primary good or utility of machine-aided perception. Here, I am framing Kracauer’s “images” as a unit of analysis comparable to Manovich’s “data,” which I suppose could be debated.

    What are the origins and consequences of assuming that the limitations on human perception hold us back from potentially greater powers of analysis? Early in his career, Tolstoy wrote but did not finish a short story titled, “The History of the Previous Day” (1851), which was based on his diary and attempted to represent the entirety of his perception over the course of a day. Reportedly, he felt that the attempt itself was an interesting exercise, but that the complexity and laboriousness of such a project were not warranted by the stakes. Interestingly, Stephen Wolfram has mounted a project [] with similar aims, but has enlisted the automated data analysis capacities of his incredibly powerful Wolfram Alpha program to do the bulk of the work. With stakes similar to Tolstoy’s, the question of labor recedes and we are left wondering how Tolstoy’s unrecorded but perhaps peripherally visible insights (the realism his later works were praised for cut its teeth, so to speak, on “The History of the Previous Day,” one could argue) compare to Wolfram’s eminently visible but less obviously interesting knowledge.


  2. Nicole says:

    I agree here with the value in following this trajectory of inquiry into the epistemological boundaries between human agency and technological/mechanical prowess in conveying data/information. As we’re reading in Carolyn Marvin’s book for Cristina’s class this quarter, (“When Old Technologies Were New” (1988)), these ideas of mechanical prowess and fascination with technology harken back to the interpellation of technology into the Western world. Due to the imperialist nature of the world powers of the time, these technologies were assimilated into a structure that was meant to solidify class, social, cultural, and economic distinctions in order to maintain the stratified nature of Western culture. As technology has snowballed into the present “data” age, I side with Marvin in seeing the continuation of these same hierarchical practices of that follow along this path of negotiating “new media,” where Western cultures continue to hold the keys of deciding the place of these new technologies within the world order, often using them to then “kick out the ladder” on nations/cultures that hold the same tools. Here I see photography, as Gitelman discusses in her brief history, as the epistemological precedent to the place of data in relationship to objectivity and “truth” rather than an analogous term, making these discussions that you bring to the table regarding the epistemological value of photography and film very relevant, Naomi. Where Daniel here makes a great point is in the call to enquire about the origins of the technology itself, whether it be a camera, a computer, or the internet. The technologies that we deem as cutting-edge and “revolutionary” (and I think Marvin discusses this point as well) are only termed that way because they directly benefit the lifestyles of those in power to deem them so. In this way, dependence on or even our imagination of the idea of data to prove truth and objectivity follows along this narrative of hegemonic epistemological practices that are negotiated by the Western world and then projected onto the rest of the world. Those who comply in order to benefit from the technology reaffirm the projected world order, while those that don’t are typically deemed “backwards” or “barbarous” by the inventors and supporters of technology. I really think that this interest in the circumstances in which technology are created, exhibited, and circulated is one of crucial importance in a world too quick to spend millions of hours and dollars just to obtain the latest “smart” technology and too trusting of facts and figures that appear to be the least bit technical.


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