Defining Data for Humanists: Text, Artifact, Information or Evidence?

Fred and I got some fantastic comments on our Hermeneutics of Data and Historical Writing paper through the Writing History in the Digital Age open peer review. We are currently working on revising the manuscript. At this point I have worked on a range of book chapters and articles and I can say that doing this chapter has been a real pleasure. I thought the open review process went great and working with a coauthor has also been great. Both are things that don’t happen that much in the humanities. I think the work is much stronger for Fred and I having pooled our forces to put this together. Now, one the comments we got sent me on another tangent. One that is too big of a thing to shoe horn into the revised paper.

On the Relationship Between Data and Evidence

We were asked to clarify what we saw as the difference between data and evidence. We will help to clarify this in the paper, but it has also sparked a much longer conversation in my mind that I wanted to share here and invite comments on. As I said, this is too big of a can of worms to fit into that paper, but I wanted to take a few moments to sketch this out and see what others think about it.

What Data Is to a Humanist?

I think we have a few different ways to think about what data actually is to a humanist. I feel like thinking about this and being reflexive about what we do with data is a really important thing to engage in and here is my first pass at some tools for thought about data for humanists. First, as constructed things data are a species of artifact. Second, as authored objects created for particular audiences, data can be interpreted as texts. Third, as computer processable information data can be computed in a whole host of ways to generate novel artifacts and texts which themselves open to interpretation and analysis. This gets us to evidence. Each of these approaches, data as text, artifact, and processable information, allow one to produce/uncover evidence that can support particular claims and arguments. I would suggest that data is not a kind of evidence but is a thing in which evidence can be found.

Data are Constructed Artifacts

Data is always manufactured. It is created. More specifically, data sets are always, at least indirectly, created by people. In this sense, the idea of “raw data” is a bit misleading. The production of a data set requires a set of assumptions about what is to be collected, how it is to be collected, how it is to be encoded. Each of those decisions is itself of potential interest for analysis.

In the sciences, there are some agreed upon stances on what assumptions are OK and given those assumptions a set of statistical tests exist for helping ensure the validity of interpretations. These kinds of statistical instruments are also great tools for humanists to use. However, they are not the only way to look at data. For example, most of the statistics one is likely to learn have to do with attempting to make generalizations from a sample of things to a bigger population. Now, if you don’t want to generalize, if you want to instead get into the gritty details of a particular individual set of data, you probably shouldn’t use statistical tests that are intended to see if trends in a sample are trends in some larger population.

Data are Interpretable Texts

As a species of human made artifact, we can think of datasets as having the characteristics of texts. Data is created for an audience. Humanists can, and should interpret data as an authored work and the intentions of the author are worth consideration and exploration. At the same time, the audience of data is also relevant, it is worth thinking about how a given set of data is actually used, understood and how data is interpreted by audiences that it makes its way to. That could well include audiences of other scientists, the general public, government officials, etc. In light of this, one can take a reader response theory approach to data.

Data are Processable Information

Data can be processed by computers. We can visualize it. We can manipulate it. We can pivot and change our perspective on it. Doing so can help us see things differently. You can process data in a stats package like R to run a range of statistical tests, you can do like Mark Sample and use N+7 on a text. In both cases, you can process information, numerical or textual information, to change your frame of understanding a particular set of data.

Data can Hold Evidentiary Value

As a species of human artifact, as a cultural object, as a kind of text, and as processable information data is open to a range of hermeneutic processes of interpretation. In much the same way that encoding a text is an interpretive act creating, manipulating, transferring, exploring and otherwise making use of a data set is also an interpretive act. In this case, data as an artifact or a text can be thought of as having the same potential evidentiary value of any kind of artifact. That is, analysis, interpretation, exploration and engagement with data can allow one to uncover information, facts, figures, perspectives, meanings, and traces which can be deployed as evidence to support all manner of claims and arguments. I would suggest that data is not a kind of evidence; it is a potential source of information which could hold evidentiary value.

Read My Article On Civ Modders in the Journal Simulation & Gaming

I am excited to announce that an article I wrote about how the game Civilization modders, players that edit and alter the game’s code, is now available as OnlineFirst through Sage. The project was a ton of fun and I hope it sparks some good conversations. You can find the abstract bellow.

Sid Meier’s CIVILIZATION has been promoted as an educational tool, used as a platform for building educational simulations, and maligned as promoting Eurocentrism, bioimperialism, and racial superiority. This article explores the complex issues involved in interpreting a game through analysis of the ways modders (gamers who modify the game) have approached the history of science, technology, and knowledge embod- ied in the game. Through text analysis of modder discussion, this article explores the assumed values and tone of the community’s discourse. The study offers initial findings that CIVILIZATION modders value a variety of positive discursive practices for devel- oping historical models. Community members value a form of historical authenticity, they prize subtlety and nuance in models for science in the game, and they communicate through civil consensus building. Game theorists, players, and scholars, as well as those interested in modeling the history, sociology, and philosophy of science, will be inter- ested to see the ways in which CIVILIZATION III cultivates an audience of modders who spend their time reimagining how science and technology could work in the game.

For those of you outside the great paywall, I have a copy of the article here on my personal website.

Evolution in Spore: A Case Study in Player Agency

Spore is not a good game for learning about evolution. As many have eloquently articulated the games mechanics clearly place the player in the role of intelligent designer. With that said, I think this case provides an interesting moment to explore the relationship between the role the game puts players in and what players do with that role.

While I would agree that the game does not teach people about evolution, I haven’t seen anything about how players are actually understanding and interpreting the game. This is indicative of a trend across game criticism and scholarship. Instead of exploring how games are understood by their players, they are most frequently analyzed with the assumption that any perceived in adequacies in the mechanics of a game will transfer uninterrupted into the minds of the games players.

To underscore the problems that arise in this kind of thinking I present an extreme case. Below is Youtube user, KyoraMishiso’s interpretation and presentation of the game. Kyora is a young aspiring cartoonist who reports her favorite artist as Enriquo Rermi. Two years ago she posted this video, titled. “Spore Evolution” Below is her video.

In this example Kyora has used the game as a platform for telling a story. She is using the game, not the other way around. She took the mechanics of the game and filled in the gaps in the games treatment of evolution with her own knowledge. She then created this video, which has now been watched more than 60,000 times, to articulate her interpretation of the game. While I see no reason to accept her understanding of the game as anything more than a personal one, quite frankly, an understanding of how one individual engages with the game is more than most analysis of the game which I have seen.

I offer this example to illustrate one way in which a player has engaged with the game. With that said, this sort of example should provide a wake-up call to individuals that think understanding games does not require understanding how players understand, interact with, and make use of their game play experiences. While analysis of the game as artifact can provide valuable information about it’s creator’s intentions those intentions are just one layer of a games meaning. Each player brings their own experience into dialog with the artifact to make their own meaning, and I think this example helps illuminate the need to understand the meaning players make as they co-construct their experiences in games.

I think cases like this point out how frequently those interested in studying games start out by asking the wrong questions. Instead of asking, what does a game mean; we should be asking what does a game mean in a given context? We should be looking at how are players using the game and what kind of agency they are expressing through interaction with the game. What argument is the games creator making and how are it’s players understanding, misunderstanding, agreeing with, rejecting, or otherwise complicating that meaning?

Autotune for science, or when youtube got smart

When I first stumbled across  Carl Sagan – ‘A Glorious Dawn’ ft Stephen Hawking (Cosmos Remixed) I thought I would find a quick laugh, instead I found something profoundly moving. This autotuned mash-up of documentary footage ends up leaving viewers feeling much of the awe which so much of formal science education fails to communicate. The video and song capitalize on the sing-song voice, poetic statements, and dramatic style Carl Sagan, and many other astronomers are known for, and use them to develop engaging and moving video and music.

I was delighted to see that the feelings this piece evoked in my wife and I was not just our own funky science geek tastes. Since September 17th the video has been viewed 1,550,136, and those viewers have left their thoughts and feelings about the work in the comments. While youtube comments are notoriously  the lowest form of communication, these comments reflect and reiterate my own feelings about the piece. The National Science Foundation is always looking for ways to get the public excited about science. I say they should give that money to melodysheep. Think about it, how many of the 1.5 million people that viewed this video would have viewed the two documentaries which the video drew from?


For his follow up piece, which underscores that this is not just a singularity, see Symphony of Science – ‘We Are All Connected’ (ft. Sagan, Feynman, deGrasse Tyson & Bill Nye)