Radical Contextualization

 

Radical Contextualization

Tim Hitchcock gave a lovely talk at the British Library at the end of last year on "Big Data, Small Data, and Meaning," that contains the following reflection that I found galvanizing this morning as I was listening to him speak on youtube (also embedded here):

There are any number of research council initiatives, European funding calls, and twitcy private sector start-ups out there, ragging at the edge of established practise. We are advised to seek ‘disruption’, and to pursue the shiny. But it is important to remember that the institutions we have inherited – libraries and museums in particular - were created in service of a deeper purpose. It is not simply that we value them because they are ancient and august. Instead, we value them as a means of preserving memory, and acknowledging worth. And as importantly, we value them as part of a complex ecology of knowledge discovery, dissemination, and reflexion. So while disruption and the shiny, are all good; it remains important that libraries, continue to serve the fundamental purposes for which they were created.

And then also here, near the end:

To do justice to the aspirations of a macroscope, and to use it to perform the humanities effectively – and politically – we need to be able to contextualise every single word, in a representation of every word ever. Every gesture contextualised in the collective record all gestures; and every brushstroke, in the collective knowledge of every painting.
Where is the tool and dataset that lets you see how a single stroll along a boulevard, compares to all the other weary footsteps? And compares in turn to all the text created along that path, or connected to that foot through nerve and brain and consciousness. Where is the tool and project that contextualises our experience of each point on the map, every brush stroke, and museum object?

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