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Thinking Data, Data Thinking

Etymologically “data” is that which is “given”, but in humanistic inquiry there are very few, ifany, “givens”. Some have suggested that “humanities data” is a “necessary contradiction” (Posner). Others argue that rather than data, the humanities deal with “capta”—that which is captured, or actively taken and constructed, “not simply given as a natural representation of pre-existing fact” (Drucker). This latter term is meant to emphasize “the situated, partial, and constitutive character of knowledge production” in the humanities (Drucker). It is also meant to invite humanists who borrow tools, techniques, and even terminology from the sciences to think more critically about the implicit assumptions that they might unwittingly inherit in doing so. Take the case of information visualization, which is fast becoming a staple of computationally driven humanistic inquiry (Jänicke et al., Jockers, Moretti, among others). Such methods (with their provenance in the sciences) often project a positivist approach to knowledge generation that is fundamentally at odds with the interpretative critical practices of knowledge construction inherent in humanities research (Drucker). To a certain extent all visualizations depend on counting bits of information, but by the time they “present” the effect of their counting, several interpretive steps have already taken place out of sight, including fundamental decisions about what counts, how to count it, and how to represent it. These are not trivial decisions; they should not go unexamined and unchallenged. Rather, they must be subject to critical deliberation and open debate within and across disciplines and communities.

The “Thinking Data, Data Thinking” working group will cultivate the synergistic possibilities of combining humanistic critical interrogations of data structures and representations with the cutting-edge research being done in computer science (especially information visualization and computational media design).


Dr. Stefania Forlini, Associate Professor, Department of English
Dr. Susan Bennett, Professor, Department of English
Dr. Sheelagh Carpendale, Professor, Department of Computer Science

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