Reaview of “Raw Data” is an Oxymoron,
ed. Lisa Gitelman,
MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2013
As part of the Infrastructures series edited by Geoffrey Bowker and Paul N. Edwards, and with a provocative and engaging title that addresses what the editor of the book, Lisa Gitelman, defines in her acknowledgements as the emerging field of data studies, it is no wonder that expectations of this book run undoubtedly high. Organised and curated as a collection of eight essays and ten colour plates, the book brings together an impressive array of thoroughly researched articles and visual contributions from a range of disciplinary backgrounds – historians, literary critics and media and information scholars – in order to prompt our thinking about the unstable ontological and epistemological status of data, throughout history and up to the present day.
The book includes chapters on the digital historicity of the words data/datum, evidence and fact back to the seventeenth century (Daniel Rosenberg – Chapter 1); early modern arithmetic (Travis D. Williams – Chapter 2); the emergence of economic models based on naturally occurring data in the late nineteenth century (Kevin R. Brine and Mary Poovey – Chapter 3); the entanglement of disciplines in the production of accurate solar eclipse data (Matthew Stanley – Chapter 4); the repurposing of newspapers as databases in the creation of American Abolitionist books (Ellen Gruber Garvey – Chapter 5); Niklas Luhmann’s card index understood as a machine of knowledge production (Markus Krajewski – Chapter 6); a critique of contemporary dataveillance and counterveillence practices (Rita Raley – Chapter 7); and the extraction and manipulation of data about rivers in contemporary Baltimore (David Ribes and Steven J. Jackson – Chapter 8). The introduction, written by Gitelman and Virginia Jackson, and the afterword delivered by Geoffrey Bowker, serve as a conceptual grounding for the eight chapters, all of which cover a range of materials and historical periods. Although the book presents a challenging and eclectic number of essays, Gitelman’s non-prescriptive conceptual framing and thematic organisation provides a suitable template for readers to navigate the book based on a number of lines of enquiry which show how data in itself – old and new – can become a fascinating and quite diffractive object of study.
Despite the book’s title, the oxymoronic ontology of raw data is not necessarily the most interesting of the multiple conceptual trails to follow. As Gitelman and Jackson themselves acknowledge in the introduction, science studies has already established a long-standing tradition of bringing the artefactual character of science and fact making to our attention, and some branches within the discipline have been particularly insistent on making visible the different articulations and differentiations that can be established between data and facts: think for example no further than Latour and Woolgar’s “widespread inscriptions” 1 and Latour’s “circulating references”. 2 Although a reminder of such tradition is, as the book suggests, very much needed within the humanities (particularly, I think, in the midst of strongly held positions for and against the digital turn, 3 readers well-versed in science studies might find the claim elicited by the book’s title indistinguishable from the vast work already undertaken by the discipline in this subject, at least since the publication of the early laboratory ethnographies. 4
The book however, albeit perhaps more timidly than might be warranted, shows how much the humanities and other disciplines might have to offer science studies in the study of data in itself, particularly if they are to contribute to grounding a theoretical and conceptual framework for such an endeavour. As Gitelman and Jackson claim, ‘data are everywhere and piling up in dizzying amounts,’ 5 no longer circumscribed by laboratory life but active and alive in what cultural theory has recently started problematising as the “becoming topological of culture.” 6 The becoming topological of culture entails, amongst other things, the intensification of calculation and quantification procedures operating in the background of everyday life; an infinitude of infrastructural operations that – as Rita Raley clearly describes in Chapter 7 – are performative of experiences, bodies, identities, space and time apprehensions and so on. 7 If the history of data is not necessarily the same as the history of objectivity, as Gitelman and Jackson point to in the introduction, and both Chapters 1 and Chapter 2 clearly expose, then data as an entity in the world, but also as an object of study in itself, emerges in the interstices of multiple phenomena and disciplines. After all, we might also want to also explore the oxymoronic and contested conditions of beautiful, relational, open, personal, anonymous, or proprietary data.
If data is becoming predominant (but also perhaps always was, as is shown particularly well in Ellen Gruber Garvey’s illuminating essay on the repurposing of data for the slave abolitionist cause) in the configuration of phenomena that fall outside the realm of what science studies has traditionally understood as ‘scientific’, the book works as an important prompt to suggest how much interdisciplinary conceptual work is still required to gain analytical purchase on our entrance into what Geoffrey Bowker rather playfully and hyperbolically describes in the afterword as the ‘dataverse’ – and its entrance into us. 8 Interdisciplinarity is required not only for the advancement of the different knowledge claims we can pursue in relation to the dataverse, in particular with regards to how it might enact different and new social, cultural and subjective forms of life. As Gitelman and Jackson suggest too, interdisciplinarity might become inevitable because of the ways in which data shapes the way disciplines intrude into, differentiate from and mingle with one another, an insight that emerges fully fledged in Chapter 3 on the history of economics and its data forms, and Chapter 4 on the conflation of astronomy, psychology and literary critique in the epistemic definition of solar eclipse observations. As the introduction suggests, ‘one productive way to think about data is to ask how different disciplines and their objects are mutually conceived.’ 9 Or, as put by David Ribes and Steven J. Jackson, ‘data has domesticated science not only in the sanitized environments of the industrial data center, but also at every stage, moment, and site of scientific activity.’ 10
There are further paths implied in the arguments and structure of the book worth tracing, some quite explicit (‘data are abstract’, ‘data are aggregate’ and ‘data are mobilized graphically’ as Gitelman and Jackson point, and the colour plates illustrate), and some relatively underdeveloped in the editorial organisation of the book as a whole. These latter are, nonetheless, traceable in the individual papers or the thematic organisation of the chapters established by Gitelman. As I suggested above, the distinction between data and facts and the intra-relations between data and disciplines are indeed two interesting, important, but also highly problematic lines of enquiry that should stimulate the reader’s thinking about data.
Another important question that the book asks is how computational materiality and design as well as annotation technologies have always been predominantly implicated in the stabilisation of data’s ontology, and the epistemological consequences such stabilisation carries. This is clearly shown in Chapter 1 by Daniel Rosenberg who not only investigates the historical semantic emergence of the words data and datum but also reflects upon the use of Google’s Ngram Viewer and the Eighteenth-Century Collections Online (ECCO) for his own elaboration of ‘data about data’. Markus Krajewski’s voyeuristic look at Niklas Luhmann’s system of notes on the other hand shows how the medium that first made combinatorial academic quotation possible were ‘not the quill or the typewriter, but rather the “paper machine.”’ 11 In making different pieces or extracts of knowledge combinatory, the paper machine or card system enabled the emergence of social theory unforeseeable before such relations were made materially possible. Also, a number of chapters also demonstrate how productive it can be to advance an understanding of data as performative, as doing things in and to the world rather than treating data as a representation or reflection true or false – of the world as such. This is something that Rita Raley engages with fully in her essay on contemporary dataveillance and counterveillance practices, but it is also echoed in Ellen Gruber Garvey’s chapter as well, as she shows how data-activisms, such as those pursued by the activists Grimkes and Weld in their writing of American Slavery as it Is, affect the world and how we engage with it.
This is a playful collection of essays, all thoroughly researched, well written and clearly articulated which stimulates important lines of enquiry for the study of new and old forms of data. It should be read as an invitation to the humanities to engage in the subject of data for and of itself, but also as a prompt for other disciplines to revisit, rearticulate and develop conceptual and theoretical frameworks around this emerging field of study. For readers already working in the field of so-called data-studies, ’Raw Data’ is an Oxymoron offers a number of engaging but at times elusive arguments to consider, as long as the title of the book is not taken as a literal indication of its contents. In fact, one could argue that the only problem this book has is its catchy title. For the rest, it does a good job of reminding us to think about data as an object of study in itself and certainly sets the ground for undertaking further interdisciplinary research.
Knorr-Cetina, Karin, The Manufacture of Knowledge: An Essay on the Constructivist and Contextual Nature of Science. Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1981.
Latour, Bruno and Woolgar, Steve, Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979.
Latour, Bruno, Pandora’s Hope: Essays on The Reality of Science Studies. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1999.
Lunenfeld, Peter, Burdick, Anne, Drucker Johanna, Presner Todd and Schnapp Jeffrey, Digital_Humanities. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2012.
Lury, Celia, Parisi, Luciana and Terranova, Tiziana, ‘Introduction: The Becoming Topological of Culture’, Theory, Culture & Society 2012, 29(3): 4-34.
Lynch, Michael, Art and Artifact in Laboratory Science: A Study of Shop Work and Shop Talk in a Research Laboratory. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985.
Thrift, Nigel, ‘Movement-space: The Changing Domain of Thinking Resulting from the Development of New Kinds of Spatial Awareness’, Economy and Society 2004 33(4): 582–604.
Ana Gross is a PhD Candidate at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies, University of Warwick and a visiting student at the Centre for the Study of Invention and Social Process (CSISP), Goldsmiths College, University of London. Her doctorate is currently funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). A.GrossATwarwick.ac.uk
- Latour, Bruno and Woolgar, Steve, Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979. ↩
- Latour, Bruno, Pandora’s Hope: Essays on The Reality of Science Studies. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1999 ↩
- Lunenfeld Peter, Burdick Anne, Drucker Johanna, Presner Todd and Shcnapp Jeffrey, Digital_Humanities. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2012. ↩
- Latour and Woolgar 1979; Lynch, Michael, Art and Artifact in Laboratory Science: A Study of Shop Work and Shop Talk in a Research Laboratory. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985; Knorr-Cetina Karin, The Manufacture of Knowledge: An Essay on the Constructivist and Contextual Nature of Science. Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1981 ↩
- p.1 ↩
- Lury, Celia, Parisi, Luciana and Terranova, Tiziana, ‘Introduction: The Becoming Topological of Culture’, Theory, Culture & Society 2012, 29(3): 4-34 ↩
- Thrift, Nigel, ‘Movement-space: The Changing Domain of Thinking Resulting from the Development of New Kinds of Spatial Awareness’, Economy and Society 2004 33(4): 582–604 ↩
- p.167 ↩
- p. 7 ↩
- p. 152 ↩
- p.108 ↩