Fear of a Quantified Planet

Like many academics, I have several digital storage locations filled with fragmented, unfinished and unpublished writing. Most of it should most definitely stay buried in the layered chaos of those drives, but there are few bits and pieces that may as well appear here.

The following are some fragmented reflections on the issue of data-driven research in the humanities, how quantitative research undermines the value of humanities research, and how that relates to the quantification of the minutiae of everyday life.

In the humanities, researchers are more likely to receive funding, and to be perceived as authoritative if they have quantitative statistical data to associate with their work. This impulse to quantify limits and excludes the possibilities of creative and critical thought, and undermines its value by reducing complex dynamics and relations to numerical representation. The reduction of human experience to discrete data gives the appearance that that data is useful. It undermines and obscures experience that cannot be algorithmically predicted and exploited for commercial value.

This distraction with the quantification of the humanities is fueled by the quantification of life in general. Phones, watches and other wearable technology that track movement, ostensibly for health reasons, now give users the capacity to quantify every aspect of life. Track your sleep, how often you have sex, your menstruation, ingestion of minerals. The water you’ve drunk. The minutes you’ve spent writing and the minutes you’ve spent noodling about on social media. Track the calories you consume. The calories you expend. The minutes you’ve meditated for. I’m sure some of this is useful, but the production of constant statistical analysis of the self is at best claustrophobic, and at worst, a dark future-present for the marketing and insurance industries in particular.

In 1996, Trainspotting mused on the impact of “choosing not to choose life” – but perhaps in an era where the honeyed haze of heroin use has given way to the abject aggression of ice, it might be that the best we can do is to try to choose not to have life measured.

Interest in big data has cost the humanities its value, and instead, has left researchers scrabbling for meaning in data sets produced by social media interactions. Funding is more likely to be given to those researchers who set out to prove a cultural effect by quantitative means, than it is to those who seek to analyse its production. But this is not a matter for the judgement of value of one research method over another, but rather why research in the humanities should be focussed on legitimising itself through data. A side-effect of the primacy of scientific research is an overconfident reliance on data, and its interpretation and analysis, often at the expense of the consideration of how that data is produced. In other words, copying the sciences will not save the humanities.

Returning attention to qualitative analysis, critical thought, complexity, difference and detail will.

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