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July 14, 2017

Why is this annotation interesting? Why has it Stuck with You?

This annotation is taken from The Historian's Macroscope: Big Digital History and refers to a paragraph discussing the Google Ngrams and Culturomics Project. The annotation is based off a conversation charlottemueller, sarachmcole, and I were having about how cool it would be to be able to search big data to pull out key cultural ideas through literature. Charlottemueller expressed her interest in the idea and I responded, linking it to my interests as an anthropologist. Sarahmcole chimed in, tying my thoughts to her understanding of the literary world. I found this annotation and the exchange interesting because it demonstrated how something we have taken for granted, such as regular old fiction, can be digitalised, compiled, and analysed in order to inform our research. This is exciting because the sheer amount of fiction such as what is represented in the picture below, would traditionally make such exercises next to impossible. alt text I immediately saw the anthropological implications and could imagine the technique being used to question if what we think people thought based on the written record and what people actually thought about are actually the same. For instance, Norma Mendoza-Denton's Homegirls is an ethnography examining the speech-acts of Latina youth gangs. One of her arguments is that while youth say one thing, it doesn't actually mean that, and may actually have a deeper cultural, geographical, and feminist meaning that is not noticable to observers. She draws her conclusions by participating in, recording, and analysing hours and hours of speech acts. Like digital historians, she used computer-based programs to help her analyse the data and make sense of it. What interests me about the discussion charlottemueller, sarahmcole, and I were having based on the reading is the possibility of Mendoza-Denton having access to thousands more hours of similar data to broaden her study. Just as Big Data for Dead People demonstrates, the various opportunities for cross-examining data and using it as a pivot point to discover many trends is almost endless. Perhaps in antrhropology this may mean using big data or macrodata search tools to try to apply geographical, gender, religious, ethnic, or language filters to Mendoza-Denton's work and discover many new insights. Finally, Sarahmcole's question about examining cultural norms through word frequency excited me because it caused me to question my own immediate attraction to this application of big data. For instance, if a puritan book were to be identified in the search function as containing many uses of the phase "do not", it might lead us to assume that just like Midieval priests or Lutheran communities in the 1500s, Puritans were obsessed with restricting their lives. However, taken only as word frequency, it might miss the context or next sentence which lists all the positive things Puritans could do. Therefore, it is important to contextualize these discussions in thinking like JWBaker's, as highlighted in his blogpost The Hard Digital History That Underpins My Book. As in grammar and anthropology, history must be contextualized to avoid unfortunate and confusing simplicities and mistakes. We don't club baby seals