There's something happening here. What it is ain't exactly clear.

There's something happening here. What it is ain't exactly clear.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

With apologies to Buffalo Springfield.

Even though Spring Break holds forth for many of us this week, an intellectual row of sorts (some of us might contend that it is a bit of an unfair fight) erupting in today's pages of political wonkery (fivethirtyeight, New Republic) is compelling as a snapshot of some of the same paradigmatic shifting that is roiling the humanities. Nate Silver, doyen of a geek-set passionate about data-driven journalism, has just relaunched fivethirtyeight, his blog so named for the numbers of electors responsible for selecting/electing the President and Vice-President of the United States and a blog that has achieved remarkable prominence for the remarkable precision AND accuracy of the election predictions contained therein, especially for the last two presidential contests. The relaunch, a homecoming of sorts at ESPN, comes after Nate Silver published for a few years at the New York Times. One of the explanations put forth (but not, it should be noted, verified by Nate Silver himself) is that he did not get along with the journalists at the Times. This could be true; Nate Silver does not hold opinion columnists in high regard, and it would not be surprising to learn that many of the columnists at the Times felt equally wary of Silver.

Coming on the heels of Silver's relaunch of fivethirtyeight is Leon Wieseltier's essay in today's New Republic, "The Emptiness of Data Journalism Nate Silver could learn a lot from those op-ed columnists he maligns." At its essence, Wieseltier's piece suggests that data-journalism of a type Silver advocates, replete with data visualizations, is soulless, lacking essential truth and avoiding a certain responsibility to stand for something (a very curious compaint). Perhaps Wieseltier objects to Silver's characterization of the work of opinion columnists, relying as many of them do on lazy anecdote (his view), as akin to that of the hedgehog, which knows only one thing, versus the fox, which sees and comes to know many things (after the suggestion by the Greek poet Archilochus that the fox knows many things and the hedgehog one big thing).

What interests me in this affair are less the specific arguments, although these are fascinating, than the remarkable amount of attention this spat attracted just today. Here's Charles Pierce in his Esquire Daily Politics Blog, Dylan Byers in Politico, Talking Points Memo airquoting Silver's "data intimidation", Paul Krugman plaintively asking that fivethirtyeight "tell me why the data matter."

That data-rich and data-focused journalism reaps such a bountiful harvest of criticism, positive and negative, at this time suggests to me a few things: the age of information visualization is upon us, as both practitioners of journalism and its consumers have matured in their appetites and capabilities for such information-driven stories about the world around us. Such a flood of information, of data that can be captured about certain areas of interest extends as well to the realm of the humanities, as objects of study - be they works of art visual, literary, musical, poetic or otherwise - are everywhere sealed in envelopes of metadata that allow one to aggregate, parse, and discover patterns amongst many (thousands) of like and similar works of art.

It really is an exciting time, but also a somewhat disruptive time, in the academy. Johanna Drucker, a leading thinker and longtime practitioner of what one can call digital humanities, can pen a thoughtful and thought-provoking essay for how humanists might approach dealing with data in ways fundamentally different from that of practitioners of the hard sciences (her coining of the term "capta" is particularly effective). But to judge from the reaction in the readers comments section of a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education in which Drucker's efforts at UCLA and the efforts of others elsewhere to lay the groundwork for a digitally-inflected humanities at the undergraduate level, it would seem that there is a good-deal of skepticism and resistance from within the Academy by fellow Humanities scholars. None of this is a surprise and it is instructive that parallels are quite apparent between the Academy and Journalism. 

It probably will be the case that that which now is greeted with skepticism will in less than a decade be an accepted facet of practice within fields of study (while not comprising the whole of). Art history undergrads will have a course (perhaps optional, perhaps mandatory) of study in statistics (all the better to understand and to generate information visualizations). Faculty, grads and undergrads may well work in collaborative teams investigating certain big questions, questions that may even cut across disciplines. All of this will just be the growth of and change in our field(s). Exciting? Yes. Uncertain? Of course. Coming? Well, there's something happening here, what it is will one day be clear (again, apologies to Buffalo Springfield).