Culturomics is both interesting and worrisome, says Anthony Grafton

A recent dinner conversation at the retreat prompted me to search for examples of humanists and scientists working together.  I happened upon this, Loneliness and Freedom, a scholarly letter from Anthony Grafton, the President of the American Historical Association. It’s a glowing review (with just a bit of hesitation) of the new practice of Culturomics.  The page also includes a thoughtful rebuttal from its proponents.

Culturomics is “the application of high-throughput data collection and analysis to the study of human culture,” according to its intentionally unassuming website. Their first project is a collaboration among the Cultural Observatory, Harvard, Encyclopaedia Britannica, the American Heritage Dictionary, and Google and was recently reviewed in Science.  So, it’s no small potatoes.  As Grafton describes it, they “have constructed tools that enable pretty much anyone to trace the ways in which words and phrases appear and disappear, become popular and fall into disuse, over time.”

I was reminded of another recent New York Times article by Patricia Cohen about the investments of the National Endowment for the Humanities in ‘digital humanities.’ I assume they do not mean a wide-ranging interdisciplinary study of finger and thumb, though I’m sure someone is hard at work on that right now.  It appears that more than a few scientists (perhaps more precisely, computer scientists) and historians are finding common cause in deciphering the patterns of language and culture at the warp speed the technology now affords.

Grafton is circumspect about this development, though not for the same reason it gives me pause.  He admonishes solitudinous historians to be better in teams and to embrace the tools that are the strengths of other disciplines.  But Grafton also offers up a haunting caution from Carolyn Walker Bynum, another venerable historian who “worried about how she and other master practitioners could maintain the traditional skills of their specialized fields.”

From the back deck of the retreat, I’ll admit this is my chief concern too.  Though we may be moving toward exponential leaps in understanding human language and discourse (what a wonderfully heady outcome compared to the other achievements science offers up), we also need the time-cured insight that only introspection and careful reflection can deliver.

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About Anne L'Ecuyer

Anne is a writer and consultant who stays closely connected to an international network of city leaders, cultural professionals, and individual artists. She is an expert in the creative industries and cultural tourism in the United States, as well as the contributions of the arts toward educational, social, and environmental goals.
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