Big Data, Better World?

Alex Juhasz

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, more broadly in academia, and even, perhaps where academia presses against, speaks to, corrects, augments, and influences (and is influenced by) industry. You can find further press coverage here.

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 necessarily 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. This will be the vast charge of the Digital Humanities initiative at the Claremont Colleges (and elsewhere) and I look forward to what we might be able to see together through our shared methods, experiments and pedagogy.


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