Literature As Data

The Friday link list is on hiatus until next week. Instead I’d like to share this insightful article about literature’s inability to be converted to data, as Stephen Marche argues is the effect of the Google’s book-digitization project.

Marche’s piece, Literature is Not Data: Against Digital Humanities {los angeles review of books; via andrew sullivan}, begins by tracing the original idea & concept for the Google Books project (what Marche describes as a series of “intellectual failings.” Then he goes on to make the distinction between literature and data, concluding that “literature is the opposite of data”:

Take my favorite line of Shakespeare’s, from Macbeth: “Light thickens, and the crows make wing to the rooky wood.” What is the difference between a crow and a rook? Nothing. What does it mean that light thickens? Who knows? The lines, as data, are more or less nonsense. And yet they illuminate their moment radiantly.

He ends with the possible implications of this shift, some of which have already been realized:

The implications of literature as resistance to data extend well beyond the mostly irrelevant little preserve of literature and literary analysis. Algorithms are inherently fascistic, because they give the comforting illusion of an alterity to human affairs. “You don’t like this music? The algorithms have worked it out” is not so far from “You don’t like this law? It works objectively.” Algorithms have replaced laws of human nature, the vital distinction being that nobody can read them. They describe human meanings but are meaningless.

It’s a great thought-provoking article about the shift of reading to digital devices and our greater reliance of algorithms to tell us what we should pay attention to. Read the whole thing here.