the data-reality conflation and the role of the digital humanities.
Courses of study will place much more emphasis on the analysis of data. Gen. George Marshall famously told a Princeton commencement audience that it was impossible to think seriously about the future of postwar Europe without giving close attention to Thucydides on the Peloponnesian War. Of course, we’ll always learn from history. But the capacity for analysis beyond simple reflection has greatly increased (consider Gen. David Petraeus’s reliance on social science in preparing the army’s counterinsurgency manual).
At first, the rise of the digital humanities as a field of scholarly inquiry may seem to have little to do with contemporary political rhetoric about education. We’re studying humanistic topics in new ways, but what does that have to do with the crisis of funding, jobs, and debt in higher education?
It has everything to do with this crisis. The recent call by the Obama administration to adopt a misdirected “No Child Left Behind”-style assessment strategy for colleges and universities echoes a sharp turn toward what I call data-as-reality among the managerial elites of the United States. (And wait a minute, Dr. Summers, is that counterinsurgency campaign really succeeding? At what costs? It remains unclear if the numbers and the reality align.)
Summers’ assertions—and his recent article for the New York Times Education Section was comprised mostly of assertions rather than actual analysis—reveal that there is a terrible gap emerging between the use of data by managers of social and economic policy and the reality of everyday lives. Faced with the staggering complexity of global, postindustrial society, and rewarded for their attention to surface appearances and various modes of marketing and advertising, managers from the heads of state to the heads of universities to corporate officials to military generals rely increasingly on quantitative assemblages of reality that may be dubious or inadequate both in what they measure and in the interpretations made of them.
Data is not reality, and conflating the two is dangerous. Nor is data neutral or objective. If we learned anything from the last fifty-odd years of cultural and social critique, it is this fact: that facts themselves are loaded with tints and hues and colorations, that they are porous and open to multiple, ambiguous interpretations, that they are only facts when their non-objective qualities are factored in.
Just as we know from projects such as Invisible Australians that archives are not neutral, that they always assert certain kinds of power or resistance through their structures, that they cannot avoid doing this, so too data is always a collection of imperfect bits and pieces of information arranged in a social and historical context. It’s messy stuff, detached at one level from what it seeks to measure. Data is always already meta-data.
We ignore this crucial data point at our own peril. And this is precisely where the humanities part of the digital humanities has a key role to play. It is an epistemological role, but it is also an ethical and a political one. We must deepen the awareness of data’s inadequacies, its ability to be misused, its strikingly sneaky ways of substituting itself for reality. We must place quantitative data into more supple qualitative and humanistic frameworks, not submit ideas and analysis to the factory of facts.
The danger we face is that what Summers dismisses as “simple reflection” will evaporate into a manipulatable set of data detached from the reality of people’s lives. That’s not the digital humanities, it’s the use of computational power to dehumanize. We must always remember that there are bodies, minds, desires, dispositions, and other extraordinarily concrete qualitative realities not captured in the numbers or, if caught, suspended sideways or even upside down. Numbers do lie sometimes, but reality does not.
One of the tasks of the digital humanities, it seems to me, is to counteract dehumanization. The tools are there: computational power and the combination of ethical, epistemological, and political thinking that measures reality on different scales. Maybe this work, this effort to know the really real, can get the scales to fall from the eyes of university presidents and national presidents alike.