[Humanist] 28.446 Big Data no boondoggle

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Tue Oct 28 08:50:36 CET 2014

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 28, No. 446.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Mon, 27 Oct 2014 10:04:13 +0100
        From: Joris van Zundert <joris.van.zundert at huygens.knaw.nl>
        Subject: Re:  28.440 Big Data no boondoggle
        In-Reply-To: <544CB60B.50904 at mccarty.org.uk>

Dear Willard,

Not sure I understand you entirely. If you are talking just about how
humanities faces big data because of things like JSTOR, then the
epistemological problem is not new, right? We always knew there were far
more journal articles, monographs, information, and data out there than we
would ever be able to find and to gauge. Maybe digital archives just put
that problem more clearly in our face. That again is an effect of what we
call tongue-in-cheek Daniel O'Donnel's first law of computing: problems are
not so much created through computing, but they are magnified manifold by

But epistemologically until now we mostly treat this problem the same way
as we did in the library age. Stephen Ramsay has succinctly described this
in "The Hermeneutics of Screwing Around"[1]. We create our individual paths
through a selection of knowledge guided by peer feedback. That is how we
have answered that problem until now: discourse.

So indeed the problem is not new, and only getting bigger–or clearer.
Natural language processing, text mining, machine learning, and other tools
still in the make may lead us to answer this epistemological problem
differently in the foreseeable future. By more advanced forms of distant
reading for instance. But these tools are still very much in the makers'
labs. Which is where a lot of the DH effort should go I think. Our
epistemology seems way too important to me to let it be dictated by
computer science alone.


Allow me to add a point about the interview with Michael Jordan. I found it
somewhat amusing that he would comment on the idea of the singularity
basically saying it is outer academy nonsense, yet a few lines on he notes:
"I don’t think most of us think the Turing test is a very clear
demarcation. Rather, we all know intelligence when we see it, and it
emerges slowly in all the devices around us. It doesn’t have to be embodied
in a single entity. I can just notice that the infrastructure around me got
more intelligent. All of us are noticing that all of the time." To me that
signals a case of academic ethical blind spot. I am not suggesting
researchers must be their own ethical referees, but relegating issues of
ethics and societal impact beyond the realms of academia and to the–implied
unimportant–domain of fiction, strikes me as dangerously dismissive of
reflecting on what your research may cause.


[1] Which was at
but that site experiences trouble as I write this. Hopefully it will
return, and otherwise I hope Ramsay may tend to renewed open publication.

On Sun, Oct 26, 2014 at 9:51 AM, Willard McCarty <
willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk> wrote:

> Misleading titles to interviews, book reviews and the like are, I think,
> not uncommon, but I wonder if there isn't a sliver of truth that the title
> has overemphasized. Jordan does note that,
> > ... it's a *major engineering and mathematical challenge*, one that
> > will not be solved by just gluing together a few existing ideas from
> > statistics, optimization, databases and computer systems....
> For those who think in next-new-thing terms, "Big Data" seems to fill the
> role not of an enormously challenging research problem but of a solution, a
> t-shirt slogan, a rah-rah rhetorical flourish, i.e. a it amounts to
> boondoggly hype. What Jordan hasn't noticed, at least in this interview, is
> the enormous epistemological problem posed by research which turns on Big
> Data. Even research like mine (almost entirely what we call "theoretical")
> has been profoundly affected by Big Data in the form of JSTOR et al. Whole
> disciplines are being affected. So, indeed, I think it's no solution to
> anything, and its representation as such is the boondoggle.
> Comments?
> Yours,
> WM

Drs. Joris J. van Zundert

*Researcher & Developer Digital and Computational Humanities*
Huygens Institute for the History of the Netherlands

*Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences*


*Jack Sparrow: I thought you were supposed to keep to the code.Mr. Gibbs:
We figured they were more actual guidelines.*

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