Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Culturomics

What the heck is culturomics? Don't worry, my Blogger spellchecker is asking me the same thing. According to Jean-Baptiste Michel and Erez Lieberman Aiden, "It's the application of massive-scale data collection analysis to the study of human culture." I was browsing the TED.com talks (seriously one of my favorite things to do) when I stumbled upon a talk called "What We Learned from 5 Million Books." Here's the video:

There's a transcript over at the website, which I'm not going to copy here because it's really long.

Okay, y'all back? Good.

Interesting stuff, right? Duh, it's books. Lots and lots of books. This gal loves books.

That was the first thing that struck me, and why I clicked on the talk to watch it.

But the second thing that struck me?
By Hotpix UK Tony Smith

Where are the women?

For the record, not that it will matter to anyone who has an issue with this post, I do not think that there is anything inherently wrong with an all-male project.

I do think that it's important to question why something is completely male, and what effect that might have on the outcome.

I also realize that I am making assumptions about the gender of some of those involved in the project. To me, they present as male, so I will refer to them as such. /End disclaimer.

So two guys give a talk. They worked with a team of people from all over to put together this very cool Google Ngram thingymbober that purports to track cultural changes by seeing how often certain words and phrases are used in books through the years.

It sounds like they had a bunch of people working on it. All of them were men.

Okay, that's probably not true. But you certainly wouldn't know it from the talk. Every person they mentioned was male.

The examples in the presentation? All men. You doubt me?

"Where do books come from?" chart: 3 clearly male heads, one probably male (or at least not distinctly female) head. @2:11
Thrive v. Throve debate: Steve & Thomas Jefferson. @5:07
Famous Author: Mark Twain @8:43
Censorship example: Marc Chagall @9:22

As the so-often-brilliant Melissa McEwan said just the other day, "Passively failing to seek out women's perspectives is a misogynist act."

It's enough to make you think that the analysis of human culture is really an analysis of man's culture. Woman, again, is simply a derivation from the norm.

How would this project change if women were visibly involved? Would the results change? Would the team have excluded and included different data points?

What does it say that even on a project tied so closely to the written word, where supposedly women are doing all the reading, that men become the face of the project? Where are today's Ada Lovelaces?

Again, the point of this post is not to criticize the project, or the people involved. It is just to point out the lack of visible STEM women, and raise questions about how that void might affect the work that gets done.

2 comments:

Nymeth said...

"It's enough to make you think that the analysis of human culture is really an analysis of man's culture. Woman, again, is simply a derivation from the norm."

Yes - perfectly put.

MJ said...

@Nymeth Thanks. Certainly not an original thought, but one that is worth repeating.