Big Data As A Lens On Human Culture

Institutional Higher Education never ceases to amaze me with its institutional higher form of stupidity.  Well, maybe it’s just the arts, humanities and social sciences sectors that stunt growth and spur surreal imagination to heights that ,even fools might fear to fly.  So a couple of Harvard PhDs in sociology think that they have found a way to watch in real time how culture changes from minute to minute and plot when it is going.  Sociology was always the big idea school of thought.  Guys like Weber back before the turn of the last century thought that society and culture could be studied in a scientific manner.  After all, if religion had its laws of belief why didn’t human behavior.  To understand something of the times, the real sciences; physics, chemistry, math (math is not really a science but more a language), geology, and the assorted applied sciences such as engineering, all were based on provable physical laws.  Now understand that what is meant by a law of science is really an observation of some phenomena that does not change.  Like gravity, lighter objects of mass are attracted to heaver objects of mass.  No one has ever observed a rock (an object of some definable mass) fall upwards towards the moon or stars.  And many objects have complex interactions with their physical environment.

But human beings are rather strange and willful creatures in that we really can’t be studied by the old scientific methods.  Human behavior has no set pattern that can be turned into a provable mathematical formula where one plugs in the numbers and the correct behavior appears, presto.  To physical science we are more like that micro universe of subatomic particles where our interactions depend more on statistical analysis and probability than a simple equation.  Sociology has always been the ugly red haired step child, wanting a legitimacy it can never have.  Most of its laws and theories have been debunked and yet it still strives for a place at the table of science by insisting as loudly as it can that it must have a seat.  Even social psychologists are embarrassed for it.  But now come a couple of Harvard Sociologists who claim that by using Big Data we now have the key to watching the changes in culture happen before out very eyes.  We shall be able to understand how culture changes and why.  One need only use the internet and manipulate all the data that is being collected by Google and the rest.  By data mining (a fancy way of saying that one runs a lot of regression analysis programs at the same time, more or less) one can the zipf distribution of words and view them with Google’s N-gram viewer, you know the one, looks like a cloud of words and the ones that are in the boldest colors and largest fonts are the ones most used.

Well, there you have it.  The written word will show us how culture changes and why.  But shouldn’t one understand the contents of words as they are used?  Intention, as one understand the term in philosophy has a great deal to do with meaning and with action.  You and I may rate intent of meaning or action on some scale such as one to five, but our individual ratings are just that, individual which means internal to each of us.  Our ratings of the same intent may differ greatly.  Well, back to the old problem of self report which is not in the least a scientific measurement.  But of course, as the new PhD candidates want to make their mark in academia, they lose sight of all the old work done by long passed generations.  If you want to have fun in one of your psychology classes just ask the professor what is meant by least perceptible difference and who did the initial work on the subject.  That’l get you kicked out of class quickly.  Back about 1860 psychology started out as measurement.  It was the study of the measurement of of various perceptions.  But those measurements could only be done by self report.  That is, you, the experimenter, did the experiment on yourself and reported your measurements.  There was no independent observations, no way to view what you were seeing or feeling.  And most importantly no way to duplicate your results.  Never the less, much of that old knowledge gained was of immense value to future studies in fields like ergonomics.  But psychology changed as Freud gave his own theories that could never really be tested but were accepted because they were those of a medical doctor.

So what does Big Data really look for?  A shift in values by individuals and groups.  Ah, group theory of human behavior.  Apparently they have never read Rupert Brown, how sad.  But to think that this Big Data mining technique will meet all the needs and show all the answers is to ignore a much more vast amount of data that is not so easily quantified.  What daily activities are individuals and groups engaged in every day?  What speech patterns are changing?  One that I have noticed is that women tend to place that ending lilt that suggests a question even when delivering information.  One might think it is a matter where the woman is asking for some sort of approval.  And it is a fact that language changes.  A dialect is said to be a change in one language to becoming another different language.  How does Big Data pick up the changes in American English and the various regional Spanish spoken by people of differing backgrounds and then comes to produce a dialect called Spanglish that also has regional differences?  Yet this is cultural change, cultural interaction, and how individuals interact within groups and across groups.  How can Big Data analyze art, music, and the myriad other facets of human life, the stuff that does not get transmitted on the internet?  I fear we live in an age in institutional stupidity.

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One thought on “Big Data As A Lens On Human Culture

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