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Method without Methodology: Data and the Digital Humanities

In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

—Suárez Miranda, Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro IV, Cap. XLV, Lérida, 1658

In this one-paragraph short story by Jorge Luis Borges, “On the Exactitude of Science” (1946), the fictional Suárez Miranda recounts the rise and fall of an imperial project to make a map the same size as the territory it describes. As soon as the awkwardly scaled artifact is complete, however, its prospective users recognize its absurd inadequacy and abandon it to be absorbed back into the ground it was intended to figure.

Borges’s image of these threadbare vestiges—the reference to which became something of a postmodern proverb in the second half of the twentieth century—stands as a warning against confusing a thing with its representation. The results are more than impractical; they are dangerously fantastical. It is a fantasy to think we can stand apart from reality and grasp it with the proper, total prosthetic. There is no ontological outside from which our vantage is secure and sacrosanct. Nevertheless, there is today a renewed attempt to conflate the map and the territory. From the NSA’s deliberate stockpiling of data and Google’s relentless collection of incidental personal archives like old emails, Facebook posts, and website cookies, “Big Data” is information amassed to the point of incalculability. Not quite map and not quite territory, these archives are as vast and unwieldy as the phenomena they seek to chart and define.

Big Data therefore contains a contradiction. On the one hand, it reduces individuals to quantifiable bits of information—demographics, consumer choices, passport-ready identity markers. On the other hand, Big Data exists as an endless stream of unprecedented scale, aggregating flows of people, their places, things, and activities into ever larger undifferentiated masses. Big Data therefore instantiates Borges’s oscillation between map and territory as a permanent feature of society. It is a concrete instance of the social as such, a manifestation of the longstanding and active ambivalence in the categories, concepts, and ideas that arbitrate the relationship between individuals and the social world. This ambivalence is especially clear in the rapidly developing field of the “Digital Humanities,” an uneasy hybrid of the humanities and the sciences that negotiates the relationship between map and territory, self and society, by appealing to the Janus-faced enigma of data.

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