POST: Big Data for Dead People: Digital Readings and the Conundrums of Positivism

Historian Tim Hitchcock has posted the text and images from his recent keynote at the CVCE (Centre Virtuel de la Connaissance sur l’Europe) Conference on “Reading Historical Sources in the Digital Age,” which took place on December 5-6 in Luxembourg. The talk, “Big Data for Dead People: Digital Readings and the Conundrums of Positivism,” explores the methods and implications of digital history and a big data approach. As Hitchcock summarizes it:

This talk forms a quiet reflection on how the creation of new digital resources has changed the ways in which we read the past; and an attempt to worry at the substantial impact it is having on the project of the humanities and history more broadly. In the process it asks if the collapse of the boundaries between types of data – inherent in the creation of digital simulcra – is not also challenging us to rethink the ‘humanities’ and all the sub-disciplines of which it is comprised. I really just want to ask, if new readings have resulted in new thinking? And if so, whether that new thinking is of the sort we actually want?

Hitchcock looks at what happens to the historical imagination when faced with distant reading, and how those approaches are grounded in the history of bibliographic technology:

In part, I suspect the banal character of most ngrams and network analyses is a reflection of the extent to which books, indexes, and text, have themselves been a very effective technology for thinking about words. And that as long as we are using digital technology to re-examine text, we are going to have a hard time competing with two hundred years of library science, and humanist enquiry. Our questions are still largely determined by the technology of books and library science, so it is little wonder that our answers look like those found through an older technology.

dh+lib Review

This post was produced through a cooperation between Jennie Burroughs, Elizabeth Gushee, Rebekah Irwin, Elizabeth Lorang, Heather Martin, and Jeffrey Sabol (Editors-at-large for the week), Roxanne Shirazi (Editor for the week), and Zach Coble and Caro Pinto (dh+lib Review Editors).