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What is Data?

March 24, 2013

Today’s offering on the nature of data is a little of what we’ve already seen (if you’ve been following along with the past dozen posts or are in my History and New Media class) and a little of something new. Trevor Owens conveys interpretations of this topic most clearly (http://journalofdigitalhumanities.org/1-1/defining-data-for-humanists-by-trevor-owens/) noting that data is several things at once: a constructed artifact, an object created for an audience, and information meant to be processed and subjected to analysis. On the latter category, data is always in flux depending on perspective. Owens also writes that the social web created by new internet media allow for collective analysis. In his piece on crowdsourcing opinions on the construction of the statue of Einstein at National Academy of Sciences (http://www.trevorowens.org/vitae/tripadvisor-rates-einstein/) he demonstrates how public interpretation can co-create meaning for cultural heritage sites.

Lev Manovich takes us further down the rabbit hole by attempting to define the data base (http://vv.arts.ucla.edu/AI_Society/manovich.html) and demonstrating its prevalence in new media. Here things begin to become less concrete. Is a database a narrative? Can they exist in genres of information such as computer games? What can be ascertained here is that all narratives are databases, but not every database is a narrative. Matthew Kirschenbaum attempts to point out that methods of storage in the digital age are just as important as the data itself (http://texttechnology.mcmaster.ca/pdf/vol13_2_06.pdf) but ends up being sucked into the black hole of post modern jargon and in-group wink and nod references, much like the previously reviewed book Radiant Textuality, that threatens to completely obscure his point.

Meanwhile, Patrick Leary expresses excitement at the use of information technology to access vast new quantities of previously inaccessible primary source material to study the Victorian age (http://victorianresearch.org/googling.pdf). Jean-Baptiste Michael, Yuan Kui Shen, and others make a familiar point about the usefulness of applying quantitative methods to scan millions of digitized books in order to tease out observations about culture (http://www.sciencemag.org/content/331/6014/176.abstract). Ironically, this article is hidden behind a login for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which subjects you to spam about subscribing to their various magazines in order to gain access. Seems like everyone is attempting to give away a free ipad these days. Finally, we are left with Michael Davies’ somewhat disembodied analysis on how commonly used terms and phrases produce limited success with tools like Google Books.

Obviously, data is important and on the minds of academics. How it is defined, what form it takes, and how it can be utilized can be explained with various degrees of coherence.

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One Comment
  1. You raise an interesting question! So what is data?

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