Archive for Ted Striphas

Cultural Informatics

In my previous post I addressed the question, who speaks for culture in an algorithmic age?  My claim was that humanities scholars once held significant sway over what ended up on our cultural radar screens but that, today, their authority is diminishing in importance.  The work of sorting, classifying, hierarchizing, and curating culture now falls increasingly on the shoulders of engineers, whose determinations of what counts as relevant or worthy result from computational processes.  This is what I’ve been calling, “algorithmic culture.”

The question I want to address this week is, what assumptions about culture underlie the latter approach?  How, in other words, do engineers — particularly computer scientists — seem to understand and then operationalize the culture part of algorithmic culture?

My starting point is, as is often the case, the work of cultural studies scholar Raymond Williams.  He famously observed in Keywords (1976) that culture is “one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language.”  The term is definitionally capacious, that is to say, a result of centuries of shedding and accreting meanings, as well as the broader rise and fall of its etymological fortunes.  Yet, Williams didn’t mean for this statement to be taken as merely descriptive; there was an ethic implied in it, too.  Tread lightly in approaching culture.  Make good sense of it, but do well not to diminish its complexity.

Those who take an algorithmic approach to culture proceed under the assumption that culture is “expressive.”  More specifically, all the stuff we make, practices we engage in, and experiences we have cast astonishing amounts of information out into the world.  This is what I mean by “cultural informatics,” the title of this post.  Algorithmic culture operates first of all my subsuming culture under the rubric of information — by understanding culture as fundamentally, even intrinsically, informational and then operating on it accordingly.

One of the virtues of the category “information” is its ability to link any number of seemingly disparate phenomena together: the movements of an airplane, the functioning of a genome, the activities of an economy, the strategies in a card game, the changes in the weather, etc.  It is an extraordinarily powerful abstraction, one whose import I have come to appreciate, deeply, over the course of my research.

The issue I have pertains to the epistemological entailments that flow from locating culture within the framework of information.  What do you have to do with — or maybe to — culture once you commit to understanding it informationally?

The answer to this question begins with the “other” of information: entropy, or the measure of a system’s disorder.  The point of cultural informatics is, by and large, to drive out entropy — to bring order to the cultural chaos by ferreting out the signal that exists amid all the noise.  This is basically how Google works when you execute a search.  It’s also how sites like Amazon.com and Netflix recommend products to you.  The presumption here is that there’s a logic or pattern hidden within culture and that, through the application of the right mathematics, you’ll eventually come to find it.

There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with this understanding of culture.  Something like it has kept anthropologists, sociologists, literary critics, and host of others in business for well over a century.  Indeed there are cultural routines you can point to, whether or not you use computers to find them.  But having said that, it’s worth mentioning that culture consists of more than just logic and pattern.  Intrinsic to culture is, in fact, noise, or the very stuff that gets filtered out of algorithmic culture.

At least, that’s what more recent developments within the discipline of anthropology teach us.  I’m thinking of Renato Rosaldo‘s fantastic book Culture and Truth (1989), and in particular of the chapter, “Putting Culture in Motion.”  There Rosaldo argues for a more elastic understanding of culture, one that refuses to see inconsistency or disorder as something needing to be purged.  “We often improvise, learn by doing, and make things up as we go along,” he states.  He puts it even more bluntly later on: “Do our options really come down to the vexed choice between supporting cultural order or yielding to the chaos of brute idiocy?”

The informatics of culture is oddly paradoxical in that it hinges on a more and less powerful conceptualization of culture.  It is more powerful because of the way culture can be rendered equivalent, informationally speaking, with all of those phenomena (and many more) I mentioned above.  And yet, it is less powerful because of the way the livingness, the inventiveness — what Eli Pariser describes as the “serendipity” — of culture must be shed in the process of creating that equivalence.

What is culture without noise?  What is culture besides noise?  It is a domain of practice and experience diminished in its complexity.  And it is exactly the type of culture Raymond Williams warned us about, for it is one we presume to know but barely know the half of.

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Who Speaks for Culture?

I’ve blogged off and on over the past 15 months about “algorithmic culture.”  The subject first came to my attention when I learned about the Amazon Kindle’s “popular highlights” feature, which aggregates data about the passages Kindle owners have deemed important enough to underline.

Since then I’ve been doing a fair amount of algorithmic culture spotting, mostly in the form of news articles.  I’ve tweeted about a few of them.  In one case, I learned that in some institutions college roommate selection is now being determined algorithmically — often, by  matching up individuals with similar backgrounds and interests.  In another, I discovered a pilot program that recommends college courses based on a student’s “planned major, past academic performance, and data on how similar students fared in that class.”  Even scholarly trends are now beginning to be mapped algorithmically in an attempt to identify new academic disciplines and hot-spots.

There’s much to be impressed by in these systems, both functionally and technologically.  Yet, as Eli Pariser notes in his highly engaging book The Filter Bubble, a major downside is their tendency to push people in the direction of the already known, reducing the possibility for serendipitous encounters and experiences.

When I began writing about “algorithmic culture,” I used the term mainly to describe how the sorting, classifying, hierarchizing, and curating of people, places, objects, and ideas was beginning to be given over to machine-based information processing systems.  The work of culture, I argued, was becoming increasingly algorithmic, at least in some domains of life.

As I continue my research on the topic, I see an even broader definition of algorithmic culture starting to emerge.  The preceding examples (and many others I’m happy to share) suggest that some of our most basic habits of thought, conduct, and expression — the substance of what Raymond Williams once called “culture as a whole way of life” — are coming to be affected by algorithms, too.  It’s not only that cultural work is becoming algorithmic; cultural life is as well.

The growing prevalence of algorithmic culture raises all sorts of questions.  What is the determining power of technology?  What understandings of people and culture — what “affordances” — do these systems embody? What are the implications of the tendency, at least at present, to encourage people to inhabit experiential and epistemological enclaves?

But there’s an even more fundamental issue at stake here, too: who speaks for culture?

For the last 150 years or so, the answer was fairly clear.  The humanities spoke for culture and did so almost exclusively.  Culture was both its subject and object.  For all practical purposes the humanities “owned” culture, if for no other reason than the arts, language, and literature were deemed too touchy-feely to fall within the bailiwick of scientific reason.

Today the tide seems to be shifting.  As Siva Vaidhyanathan has pointed out in The Googlization of Everything, engineers — mostly computer scientists — today hold extraordinary sway over what does or doesn’t end up on our cultural radar.  To put it differently, amid the din of our pubic conversations about culture, their voices are the ones that increasingly get heard or are perceived as authoritative.  But even this statement isn’t entirely accurate, for we almost never hear directly from these individuals.  Their voices manifest themselves in fragments of code and interface so subtle and diffuse that the computer seems to speak, and to do so without bias or predilection.

So who needs the humanities — even the so-called “digital humanities” — when your Kindle can tell you what in your reading you ought to be paying attention to?

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Book Rentals — A New Road to Serfdom?

Last week I blogged about the proliferation of book rental programs, particularly those focused on college students and their textbooks.  I raised questions about their promises of savings over traditional purchase and buyback, and asked whether most college students ever truly bought their textbooks, anyway.

But there’s more at stake in book renting — beyond the possibility of manipulation by advertising, or even the mutation of a business model.  There are broader social, economic, and attitudinal considerations that arise when people like you and me cease being the owners of books and instead become their lessees.

The last time book renting really caught on was during the Great Depression of the 1930s.  I’ve blogged about this before; it’s how the now-defunct Waldenbooks chain got its start.  What’s interesting to me is the context out of which book rental first emerged: a severe economic crisis — a time when the gap between rich and poor became a chasm, and disposable income all but dried up for ordinary people.  While I don’t believe the present-day renewal of interest in book renting is reducible to the economic meltdown of 2008 (and beyond), I cannot help but be struck by the similarity in the timing.

Indeed, in the United States, we’ve been hearing report after report about how the income of the wealthiest Americans — a tiny minority — has been growing, while that of the majority has been slipping.  Right now the wealthiest 20% of the population controls a whopping 84% of the nation’s wealth.  In crude terms, we’re moving in the direction of a society consisting of “haves” and the “have-nots,” or, more to the point, of people who can afford to own property (broadly construed) and those who cannot.

Now, I don’t mean to deny the benefits that come from book renting.  Realistically, most people don’t want to own every book they read, and for good reason.  Not all books are keepers; they’re also heavy and consume valuable space — the paper ones, anyway.  Beyond that, when books become too expensive for people to own outright, it’s good to have some type of affordable option (in addition to libraries) to keep people reading. Rental may be something of a boon from an environmental standpoint, finally, because you can produce fewer goods and consume fewer resources in the process.

But there’s also a major downside.

Renting books, as with rental more broadly, means you no longer get to set the terms of your relationship with these goods.  Can you underline, highlight, or annotate a book you’ve rented?  What about dog-earing important pages?  Legally speaking, can you loan a rented book to a friend?  Can you duplicate any of the pages, assuming they’re for personal use?  In a traditional ownership situation, you’re the one who provides the answers to these questions.  You’re in control.  When you lease, the answers are dictated by the property owner, or rentier, who naturally puts her or his interests ahead of yours.

Renting is, then, a type of power relationship in which the rentier holds all of the cards — or, at least, the really goods ones.  And here I’m reminded of a passage from the cultural studies scholar Raymond Williams, who, in his magnificent essay “Culture Is Ordinary” (1958), talks about how the coming of power and consumer goods to the impoverished Welsh countryside transformed people’s senses of themselves.  The ability to own consumer goods, Williams said, heightened the “personal grasp” his friends and family felt over their lives.  The presence of these items and their ability to use them however they saw fit made them less beholden to wealthy, outside authorities.

Today, the tide seems to be shifting the opposite way.  Economic conditions are such that rental is becoming a more attractive option again — and not only for books.  And with it slips that sense of personal grasp Williams talked about.  Often, signing a lease is an exercise in having to accept terms and conditions someone else has laid out for you.  More disturbingly, doing so over and over again may well reinforce an attitude of deference and resignation among we, the lessees.

With apologies to Hayek, renting books could be a pathway leading us down the road to serfdom.

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Rent This Book!

I’ve been struck this start of the school year by the proliferation of textbook rental outfits here in Bloomington, Indiana and elsewhere.  Locally there’s TXTBookRental Bloomington, which brokers exclusively in rented course texts, as well as TIS and the IU Bookstore (operated by Barnes & Noble), both of whom sell books in addition to offering rental options.  The latter also just launched a marketing campaign designed to grow the rental market.  Further away there’s Amazon.com, which isn’t only offering “traditional” textbook rentals but also time-limited Kindle books.  These are “pay only for the exact time you need” editions that disappear once the lease expires.

There’s been a good deal of enthusiasm about textbook rentals.  Many see them as a welcome work-around to the problem of over-inflated textbook prices, about which many people, including me, have been complaining for years.  Rentals help to keep the price of textbooks comparatively low by allowing students the option of not having to invest fully, in perpetuity, in the object.  Indeed, the rental option recognizes that students often share an ephemeral relationship with their course texts.  Why bother buying something outright when you need it for maybe three or four months at most?

My question is: are textbook rentals simply a boon for college students, or are there broader economic implications that might complicate — or even undercut — this story?

I want to begin by thinking about what it means to “rent” a textbook, since, arguably, students have been doing so for a long time.  When I was an undergraduate back in the early 1990s, I purchased books at the start of the semester knowing I’d sell many of them back to the bookstore upon completion of the term.  Had I bought these books, or was I renting them?  Legally it was the former, but effectively, I believe, it was the latter.  I’d paid not for a thing per se but for a relationship with a property that returned to the seller/owner once a period of time had elapsed.  That sounds a lot like rental to me.

So let’s assume for the moment that the rental of textbooks isn’t a new phenomenon but rather something that’s been going on for decades.  What’s the difference between then and now?  Buyback.  Under the old rental system you’d get some money for your books if your decided you didn’t want to keep them.  Under the new régime you get absolutely nothing.  Granted, it wasn’t uncommon for bookstores to give you a pittance if you decided to sell back your course texts; more often than not they’d then go on re-sell the books for a premium, adding insult to injury.  Nevertheless, at least you’d get something like your security deposit back once the lease had expired.  Now the landlord pockets everything.

Some industrious student needs to look into the economics of these new textbook rental schemes.  Is it cheaper to rent a course text for a semester, or do students actually make out better in the long run if they purchase and then sell back?

If I had to speculate, I’d say that booksellers wouldn’t be glomming on to the latest rental trend if it wasn’t first and foremost in their economic self-interest — even if they’re representing it otherwise.


Coming next week: textbook rentals, part II: what happens when books cease being objects that ordinary people own and accumulate?

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A Second Age of Incunabula

What a difference a few years can make.  I’m talking about the proliferation of e-reading devices among my Indiana University undergraduates — devices that were virtually non-existent in their lives not so very long ago.  Let me explain.

In 2006, I piloted a course based loosely on The Late Age of Print called “The Cultures of Books and Reading.”  We ended, predictably, with a unit on the future of books in an age of digital media.  We read (among other things) a chapter or two from Sven Birkerts’ Gutenberg Elegies, in addition to Kevin Kelly’s provocative essay from The New York Times Magazine, “Scan This Book!“  The materials provoked some intriguing thoughts and conversation, but it seemed to me as if something was missing; it was as though the future of books and reading wasn’t palpable yet, and so most everything we talked about seemed, well, a little ungrounded.  Remember — this was about a year before the first Kindle landed, three years before the Barnes & Noble Nook, and a full four years before the release of the iPad.  We’re talking ancient history in today’s technological terms.

When I taught the course two years later, things had changed — somewhat.  There was genuine curiosity about e-reading, so much so that a group of students asked me to bring in my Kindle, hoping to take it for a test drive.  I did, but didn’t realize that the battery had died.  The demonstration ended up being a bust, and worse still, it was the last day of class.  In other words, no do-overs.  Still, that didn’t stop some of the students from writing papers about the possibilities e-readers held for them and their peers.  While I appreciated the argument — and indeed, the earnestness — I ended up being a little disappointed by those papers.  On the whole they were flatly celebratory.  The lack of critical perspective was, I believe, a function of their having had little to no actual interaction with e-reading devices.

Now it’s 2011, and I’m teaching the course once again.  Boy, have things changed!  On day one I asked the group of 35 if any of them owned an e-reader.  I expected to see maybe a few hands, since I’m aware of the reports stating that these devices have had more uptake among older users.  Much to my surprise, around half the class raised their hands.  We’re talking mostly 20 year-olds here.  I had to know more.  Some told me they owned a Kindle, others a Nook, and still others said they were iPad people who read using apps.  In a couple of instances they owned more than one of these devices.  They especially liked the convenience of not having to lug around a bag full of heavy books, not to mention the many public domain texts they could download at little or no cost.

There I was, standing in front of a group of students who also happened to be seasoned e-book readers.  Because they’d self-selected into my class, I knew I needed to be mindful about the extent to which their interest in electronic reading could be considered representative of people their age.  Even so, it was clear on day one that our conversations would be very different compared to those I’d had with previous cohorts in “The Cultures of Books and Reading.”

At the end of class a student approached me to ask about which version of Laura Miller’s Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption, one of the required texts, he should buy.  Old analog me assumed he was referring to cloth or paper, since I’d brought in my hardback copy but told the group I’d ordered paperbacks through the bookstore.  My assumption was wrong.  He told me that he wanted to purchase the Kindle edition but had some hesitations about doing so.  How would he cite it, he asked?  I said he should go ahead and acquire whichever version most suited him; the citations we could figure out.

A very different conversation indeed — one that I expect will become much more the norm by the time I teach “The Cultures of Books and Reading” the next time around.  For now, though, here go the 36 of us, slouching our way into a moment in which analog and digital books commingle with one another.  It reminds me a little of the first 100 years of printing in the West — the so-called “age of incunabula,” when manuscripts, printed editions, and hybrid forms all co-existed, albeit not so peaceably.  I wonder if, at some point in the future, historians will begin referring to our time as the second age of incunabula.

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And…We’re Back!

It’s been awfully quiet around here for the past six weeks or so.  I’ve had a busy summer filled with travel, academic writing projects, and quality time with my young son.  Blogging, regretfully, ended up falling by the wayside.

I’m pleased to announce that The Late Age of Print is back after what amounted to an unannounced — and unintended — summer hiatus.  A LOT has gone in the realm of books and new media culture since the last time I wrote: Apple clamped down on third parties selling e-books through the iPad; Amazon’s ad-supported 3G Kindle debuted; Barnes & Noble continues to elbow into the e-book market with Nook; short-term e-book rentals are on the rise; J. K. Rowling’s Pottermore website went live, leaving some to wonder about the future of publishers and booksellers in an age when authors can sell e-editions of their work directly to consumers; and much, much more.

For now, though, I thought I’d leave you with a little something I happened upon during my summer vacation (I use the term loosely).  Here’s an image of the Borders bookstore at the Indianapolis Airport, which I snapped in early August — not long after the chain entered liquidation:

The store had been completely emptied out by the time I returned.  It was an almost eerie site — kind of like finding a turtle shell without a turtle inside.  Had I not been in a hurry (my little guy was in tow), I would have snapped an “after” picture to accompany this “before” shot.  Needless to say, it’s been an exciting and depressing summer for books.

Then again, isn’t it always?  More to come…soon, I promise.

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…in translation

Great news, y’all. About a month ago I received a copy of the Korean translation of my book, The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture From Consumerism to Control! I’m thrilled, needless to say, and even a bit surprised. Last summer the publisher of the English language edition, Columbia University Press, let me know that the translation was in the works, but honestly I didn’t expect it to surface for…oh, I don’t know, a few years, I suppose. And yet, here it is, now. Can’t you tell how giddy this makes me?

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The picture appearing above is of the new cover, which a former student of mine was kind enough to translate into English. A big thanks to him, as well as to Columbia U.P., the Korean Publishing Association, and the translator (whose name, unfortunately, is partially cut off from the annotated cover) for all their dedication to the project.

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A World Without Oprah

Most of you probably already know that the final broadcast of The Oprah Winfrey Show aired Wednesday, May 25, 2011.  After 25 years of hosting the popular syndicated talk show, Oprah decided it was time to move on.

Of course, what that also means is the end of Oprah’s Book Club, which some credit with having “changed the way America reads.”  Others go further, suggesting that the Club “changed America” during its 15 year run, from 1996-2011.  I offer a more measured view in Chapter 4 of The Late Age of Print, where I focus on the strategies Oprah used to connect novels and some nonfiction works with actual and potential readers.

Whatever way you cut it, we now live in a world without daily appearances by Oprah.  I’m sure that upsets a great many people — individuals who, like my mother, dutifully tuned in most weekday afternoons to watch her show.  For them it’s as if an old friend has moved away.

Others, though, are overjoyed to finally see her go.  I could point you in the direction of any number of books and internet sites that hate on Oprah.  (Mostly they accuse her of having popularized therapy culture in the United States.)  Instead, I thought a little Late Age of Print back-story might provide a different perspective on why certain people aren’t saying “goodbye” to Oprah as much as “good riddance.”

I was fortunate to have had a bunch of generous souls read drafts of my book before Columbia University Press published it in 2009.  The feedback was rich and varied, and it certainly helped to improve the manuscript.  One strange thing kept cropping up, though.  The reviewers either loved or hated Chapter 4.

The two who most disliked it went as far as to recommend that I drop it from the book.  Essentially they were asking me to write about the past and present of popular book culture in the United States as if the Club never existed.  What they wanted was a world without Oprah.

Needless to say, I thought the suggestion was absurd.  The Oprah chapter was and is integral to the “consumerism” part of my “consumerism to control” argument, plus it sets up and is a foil of sorts to the next chapter, on Harry Potter protectionism.

What’s telling is that both of the readers who suggested cutting Oprah keyed into my discussion of the Jonathan Franzen and James Frey controversies but completely overlooked the bulk of Chapter 4; mostly I explore how people featured on the Oprah show — the vast majority of whom were women, and many, women of color — read and responded to the Book Club selections.  In the end, I believe the reviewers’ objections to the chapter had less to do with my arguments and analysis and more to do with their lingering disdain for all things Oprah.

Thankfully my a-m-a-z-i-n-g editor at Columbia, Philip Leventhal, had the good sense to let me keep the chapter.  The many positive reviews I’ve since received of the book, and of the Oprah chapter in particular, would seem to confirm that I did manage to say something worthwhile there.

The funny thing is, despite the focus, Chapter 4 isn’t fundamentally about Oprah or her Book Club.  It’s more of an attempt to answer the question, What gets people excited about books and reading today?  That’s something everybody invested in book culture ought to be asking, from authors, publishers, and booksellers to librarians, teachers, parents, and beyond. Whether you like Oprah or not is beside the point.

Still, what made Oprah’s Book Club fascinating for me were the clever ways Winfrey and her producers responded to that question: by making book reading a more social — and sociable — activity; troubling generic distinctions between literature and life; touring viewers around bookstores; strategizing how to squeeze reading time into busy schedules; and varying the degree of difficulty of the selections so as not to alienate anyone.  They came up with these ideas, incidentally, by listening closely to readers and their needs.

Would that our English teachers (or reviewers) listened so well.  Farewell, Oprah, and thank you.  Your talk show may be gone, but you’ll always be a part of my world.

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The Billion Dollar Book

About a week ago Michael Eisen, who teaches evolutionary biology at UC Berkeley, blogged about a shocking discovery one of his postdocs had made in early April.  The discovery happened not in his lab, but of all places on Amazon.com.

While searching the site for a copy of Peter Lawrence’s book The Making of a Fly (1992), long out of print, the postdoc happened across two merchants selling secondhand editions for — get this — $1.7 million and $2.2 million respectively!  A series of price escalations ensued as Eisen returned to the product page over following days and weeks until one seller’s copy topped out at $23 million.

But that’s not the worst of it.  One of the comments Eisen received on his blog post pointed to a different secondhand book selling on Amazon for $900 million.  It wasn’t an original edition of the Gutenberg Bible from 1463, nor was it a one-of-a-kind art book, either.  What screed was worth almost $1 billion?  Why, a paperback copy of actress Lana Turner’s autobiography, published in 1991, of course!  (I suspect the price may change, so in the event that it does, here’s a screen shot showing the price on Saturday, April 30th.)

Good scientist that he is, Eisen hypothesized that something wasn’t right about the prices on the fly book.  After all, they seemed to be adjusting themselves upward each time he returned to the site, and like two countries engaged in an arms race, they always seemed to do so in relationship to each other.  Eisen crunched some numbers:

On the day we discovered the million dollar prices, the copy offered by bordeebook [one of the sellers] was 1.270589 times the price of the copy offered by profnath [the other seller].  And now the bordeebook copy was 1.270589 times profnath again. So clearly at least one of the sellers was setting their price algorithmically in response to changes in the other’s price. I continued to watch carefully and the full pattern emerged. (emphasis added)

So the culprit behind the extraordinarily high prices wasn’t a couple of greedy (or totally out of touch) booksellers.  It was, instead, the automated systems — the computer algorithms — working behind the scenes in response to perceived market dynamics.

I’ve spent the last couple of blog posts talking about algorithmic culture, and I believe what we’re seeing here — algorithmic pricing — may well be an extension of it.

It’s a bizarre development.  It’s bizarre not because computers are involved in setting prices (though in this case they could have been doing a better job of it, clearly).  It is bizarre because of the way in which algorithms are being used to disrupt and ultimately manipulate — albeit not always successfully — the informatics of markets.

Indeed, I’m becoming  convinced that algorithms (at least as I’ve been talking about them) are a response to the decentralized forms of social interaction that grew up out of, and against, the centralized forms of culture, politics, and economics that were prevalent in the second and third quarters of 20th century.  Interestingly, the thinkers who conjured up the idea of decentralized societies often turned to markets — and more specifically, to the price system — in an attempt to understand how individuals distributed far and wide could effectively coordinate their affairs absent governmental and other types of intervention.

That makes me wonder: are the algorithms being used on Amazon and elsewhere an emergent form of “government,” broadly understood?  And if so, what does a billion dollar book say about the prospects for good government in an algorithmic age?

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Culturomics

I learned last month from Wired that something along the lines of what I’ve been calling “algorithmic culture” already has a name — culturomics.

According to Jonathan Keats, author of the magazine’s monthly “Jargon Watch” section, culturomics refers to “the study of memes and cultural trends using high-throughput quantitative analysis of books.”  The term was first noted in another Wired article, published last December, which reported on a study using Google books to track historical, or “evolutionary,” trends in language.  Interestingly, the study wasn’t published in a humanities journal.  It appeared in Science.

The researchers behind culturomics have also launched a website allowing you to search the Google book database for keywords and phrases, to “see how [their] usage frequency has been changing throughout the past few centuries.”  They follow up by calling the service “addictive.”

Culturomics weds “culture” to the suffix “-nomos,” the anchor for words like economics, genomics, astronomy, physiognomy, and so forth.  “-Nomos” can refer either to “the distribution of things” or, more specifically, to a “worldview.”  In this sense culturomics refers to the distribution of language resources (words) in the extant published literature of some period and the types of frameworks for understanding those resources embody.

I must confess to being intrigued by culturomics, however much I find the term to be clunky. My initial work on algorithmic culture tracks language changes in and around three keywords — information, crowd, and algorithm, in the spirit of Raymond Williams’ Culture and Society – and has given me a new appreciation for both the sociality of language and its capacity for transformation.  Methodologically culturomics seems, well, right, and I’ll be intrigued to see what a search for my keywords on the website might yield.

Having said that, I still want to hold onto the idea of algorithmic culture.  I prefer the term because it places the algorithm center-stage rather than allowing it to recede into the background, as does culturomicsAlgorithmic culture encourages us to see computational process not as a window onto the world but as an instrument of order and authoritative decision making.  The point of algorithmic culture, both terminologically and methodologically, is to help us understand the politics of algorithms and thus to approach them and the work they do more circumspectly, even critically.

I should mention, by the way, that this is increasingly how I’ve come to understand the so-called “digital humanities.”  The digital humanities aren’t just about doing traditional humanities work on digital objects, nor are they only about making the shift in humanities publishing from analog to digital platforms.  Instead the digital humanities, if there is such a thing, should focus on the ways in which the work of culture is increasingly delegated to computational process and, more importantly, the political consequences that follow from our doing so.

And this is the major difference, I suppose, between an interest in the distribution of language resources — culturomics – and a concern for the politics of the systems we use to understand those distributions — algorithmic culture.

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