Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Where are the individuals in data-driven narratives?

Note: this post is part 5 of my series on whaling logs and digital history. For the full overview, click here.

In the central post in my whaling series, I argued data presentation offers historians an appealing avenue for historical argumentation, analogous in importance to the practice of shaping personal stories into narratives in more traditional histories. Both narratives and data presentations can appeal to a broader public than more technical parts of history like historiography; and both can be crucial in making arguments persuasive, although they rarely constitute an argument in themselves. But while narratives about people ensure that histories are fundamentally about individuals, working with data generally means we'll be dealing with aggregates of some sort. (In my case, 'voyages' by 'whaling ships'.*)

*I put those in quotation marks because, as described at greater length in the technical methodology post, what I give are only the best approximations I could get of the real categories of oceangoing voyages and of whaling ships.

This is, depending on how you look at it, either a problem or an opportunity. So I want to wrap into this longer series a slightly abtruse--technical from the social theory side rather than the algorithmic side--justification for why we might not want to linger over individual experiences.

One major reason to embrace digital history is precisely that it lets us tell stories that are fundamentally about collective actions--the 'swarm' of the whaling industry as a whole--rather than traditional subjective accounts. While it's discomforting to tell histories without individuals, that discomfort is productive for the field; we need a way to tell those histories, and we need reminders they exist. In fact, those are just the stories that historians are becoming worse and worse at telling, even as our position in society makes us need them more and more.

It's probably necessary to make it clear I don't mean we should completely eschew individual accounts. Every single historian--and most other humanists as well--would agree that all scholarship should place individual lives or works in the context of their time. Structure vs. Agency is one of those great pendulums in the field that swings back and forth. But the middle ground is quite variegated; and I think that digital historians in particular will be better positioned farther to the structure end of the spectrum. Digital history that fails to take up a more structuralist mantle may make itself more palatable to traditional researchers; but at the same time it will be obviously less useful for historians looking to understand the past.

That is to take a traditionally instrumental view of historical sources: when we look at digital sources, we should exploit them in the direction that they can best expand the conversation. As a rule, there's reason to think digital sources tend to be worse than the evidence we're already using for understanding individual stories and individual motivations, but much better than the evidence we're using for describing large-scale, structural changes. If you want to know what it felt like on a whaling ship, you should go to an archive.* But if you want to understand the patterns of resource depletion that the whaleships engaged in, you will get a better understanding by looking at statistical aggregates than trying to interpret individual results.

*Possibly a digital archive, of course. But you'll still probably read the documents one at a time in the traditional way, not using any algorithms besides search engines.
The claim that Digital Humanities should spend less time worrying about individuals, though, is an unpopular one to make. In fact, it's the sort of claim (like 'close reading is obsolete') that the detractors of digital work ascribe to it far more often than it makes. There are both practical and theoretical reasons for refusing to ever, as one questioner put it to me recently, "take the human out of the humanities." Digital humanists themselves treasure the shibboleths of human agency. Benjamin Breen responded, in a thoughtful essay, on narrative digital history for the Appendix, to some of my whaling arguments that we should never "let the individual get lost in the torrents of data that pervade our present, and, increasingly, our past as well." This is a nice formulation of an important conviction in much of the humanities: that data is dehumanizes and oppresses individual experience, which is fundamentally true.

I could respond with an inverse statement "we should never the description of larger trends become diffracted by the billions of individual stories humans have lived over the years." But while Breen's formulation is appealing, mine is cold--maybe not humanistic, because inhumane. We are proud that our histories tell individual stories; and we tend not to be ashamed when they fail to connect with larger issues. Indeed, throwing numbers at history is suspect in itself, liable to being labeled 'bad sociology'* at best, and 'positivism' at worst. Particularly if "Digital Humanities" wants to seek its destiny as a separate discipline, this might be reason enough to avoid ever denigrating individuals as the center of our study.

*If you'll indulge an aside: Injunctions to avoid treading on the toes of sociologists have always seemed to me greatly misguided. Is the Great Cat Massacre pointless because it's merely "bad anthropology?" To the contrary: it's great history because it adapts anthropology to historical purposes. And that means we set our own terms for what's good and bad. An econometrician might think 'good sociology' adds some rational-actor assumptions and more elaborate statistical models to theories of group behavior; for a historian, 'good sociology' will carry a humility about epistemic categories, an awareness of broader contexts, and a disinterest in the accuracy of the model as an end in itself. That's something we can help promote.

But historians have an obligation to describe the havoc that humans wreak in the world at least as strong as their duty to summon up individual experience out of the past. From narrow disciplinary concerns, data can seem oppressive: but calls to only explain history as the result of individual actors (occasionally magically aggregated into networks) are as strong a hegemonic force, and they are just as damaging to true historical perspective. The availability of data from ship's logs is interesting in that it compels us to think about historical forces precisely as dissociated from individual experience: whatever it felt like to travel on a whaling ship, in many ways the salient fact of whaling was not that individual experience but the system of whaling which Queequegs and Ahabs were only partially aware of.

To be clear: the drive to data isn't about some supposed epistemological priority of quantitative evidence. Rather, it's about the ability of data to help us develop a vocabulary of compelling social explanations, something that scholars in most disciplines have lost in the past few decades. (In shorthand, leftist academics tend to ascribe this to 'neo-liberalism,' a pejorative that pretends to label a single school of thought. Fortunately, Dan Rodgers' Age of Fracture, which I was lucky to help research, seems to be consolidating its status as the definitive intellectual history of the drift by arguing that it's a much wider movement, from third-wave feminism to post-structuralist theories of race.)

I had a piece in the first volume of the Journal of Digital Humanities about the need for DH to put theory ahead of technique: that piece was at times irritatingly vague about just what Theory might mean. And as a purely strategic matter,  it doesn't particular matter for digital humanists what theory they espouse: indeed, a variety of contradictory philosophies should make our disagreements more interesting than "Drupal vs. Wordpress" or "Topic Modeling vs. K-means."

As a matter of content, though, it makes a good deal of difference: let me try laying those out. That essay spent much its time dancing around Theodor Adorno's Minima Moralia. Adorno gives a compelling motivation in there for Digital Humanists to think about the limits of individualistic accounts, and for traditional humanists to think about what they might get from moving away from individual experience.

This is a somewhat surprising statement, since Minima Moralia is probably the most resolutely individualistic of Adorno's works. But it's worth turning to the introduction to see Adorno's explanation of why he, unlike Hegel, was willing to privilege individual experience just a little. I'll quote at length, but the key part is in bold:
That is why social analysis can garner incomparably more from individual experience than Hegel conceded, while conversely the great historical categories, after all that has been perpetrated with them in  the meantime, are no longer above suspicion of fraud. In the one hundred and fifty years which have passed since Hegel’s conception, something of the force of protest has passed over again into the individuated [Individuum]... In the epoch of its disassembly [Zerfalls], the experience of the individuated [Individuum] as well as what it encounters contributes once more to a recognition, which it had concealed, so long as it was construed seamlessly and positively as the ruling category. In view of the totalitarian unison, which broadcasts the elimination of difference as immediately  meaningful, a measure of emancipatory social power may have temporarily withdrawn into the sphere of the individual. That critical theory tarries in it, is not only due to a bad conscience.
All this is not to deny what is debatable in such an attempt. I wrote the book for the most part during the war, under conditions of contemplation. The violence which drove me into exile simultaneously blocked me from its full recognition. I had not yet admitted to myself the complicity of those who, as if in a magic circle, speak at all of what is individual, in view of the unspeakable things which collectively occurred.
In other words: only the extreme historical circumstances Adorno found himself in justified so much attention to experience. Surrounded by totalitarian forces like the Nazi party and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, that meant retreating to the bastions where social totalities might not have penetrated—home life, childhood, the animal world—to find escapes from the social catastrophe. But it also meant doing so with a 'bad conscience'; individual experience is a place one should delve into to understand occluded social trends, but with the understanding that it's not necessarily where the real causes lie.

Indeed, as I've said before, Adorno himself didn't hew to this line as he spent more time in the United States: as I've said before, the factor analysis in the Authoritarian Personality is far more algorithmically advanced, and data-oriented, than almost anything done by those who have read the Dialectic of Enlightenment today.

So that leaves the question at: today, how disorienting is the claim that the humanities are about revealing the stories of human experience in the face of totalizing narratives? To be sure, one could probably produce a scholar or two who thinks that the regimes of power are more stultifying to the individual today than they were in 1945. But the category of the individual, at least, is far more heavily implicated in post-1980 justifications of power than it was in the totalitarian era.

Protestations about the power of the individual or the coldness of studying trends devoid of individuals can steer uncomfortably close to what used to be called 'ideology.' At the same time, collective explanations have lost some of their conformity. If the goal is to be "more Hegelian than Hegel," as Adorno put it, now seems like the time to acknowledge that the whole contains something of the true. Again.

If Digital Humanities,with its facility with data and with the promotion of pattern-oriented thinking that computers enforce on its practitioners, is going to have a theory driving it, it could, I suppose, lapse into some bad, trite, or stultifying explanations of history as particles moving in space without any human element. But the unlikeliness of that position is shown by the number of times it's trotted out as a straw man (very frequently) opposed to the how often it's actually practiced (essentially never).

But if DH doesn't have that theory, the cliches which it will espouse are likely to be the dominant ones about the effect of the Internet on society; the rhetoric of Web 2.0, the Twitter revolutions, the 'networked society.' It's problematic enough to describe our own world as best understood through aggregations billions of individual actions rather than laws, classes, genders and all the rest. But we should hesitate indeed before we spin that interpretation backward into the past—to explore the social networks of the Frankfurt School recreated from their correspondence and dinner plans, to measure the Impact Factor of the Principles of Psychology, to allow us to experience a 19th century mill town through a newly digital immediacy.

Leaving individuals out of the story altogether, in other words, better acknowledges that there are other forces at work that operate orthogonally or antagonistically to human freedom. At times, that will be less dehumanizing than forcing histories that are properly about collectives to pretend that individual actors could or did make the difference.


  1. I'm reminded of something Cosma Shalizi said about the fate of close reading if Franco Moretti's methods become dominant:

    "The small-scale details of literature and of human life have an intrinsic interest and value that is missing from the small-scale details of molecular chaos, so there is certainly all the room in the world for what Moretti would like to do and close reading, and even essayistic appreciation."

    Indeed. But I suppose it's a temperament issue which compels some people to focus on the close at the expense of the large. To me, though, there's nothing more humanizing in the world than to grasp (even if partially) the larger forces and trends of history, and to envision myself enveloped by them. What chills!

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