The Alliance of Geeks and Poets: Quantifying Culture

An “alliance of geeks and poets” is how Patricia Cohen describes the emergence of data-driven research in the humanities in her great piece in the New York Times.

Ms. Cohen ‘s article describes the rise of “digital humanities”. As she reports, “…researchers are digitally mapping Civil War battlefields to understand what role topography played in victory, using databases of thousands of jam sessions to track how musical collaborations influenced jazz, and searching through large numbers of scientific texts and textbooks to track where concepts first appeared and how they spread.”

The opportunities for new insight and understanding about culture, civilization and consciousness seem immense – but there are also important limitations to data analysis to be recognized here, challenges that measurement for business communications have been wrestling with for a while. Ms. Cohen quotes a Princeton professor for this perspective:

” ‘I’m a believer in quantification. But I don’t believe quantification can do everything. So much of humanistic scholarship is about interpretation.’

‘It’s easy to forget the digital media are means and not ends,’ he added.’ ”

Data, when analyzed and interpreted well, inevitably leads to better insight. For questions that begin and end with quantitative measures – financial and operational data for example – the interpretation of results from well-built models can be quite straight-forward. The problem that the digital humanities is facing with its data analysis is how to build models that account for and interpret the qualitative variables of the human condition – for example emotion, motivation, subtext and irrationality. Agent-based modeling has been attempting to account for such factors in the study of populations and their behaviors, and over time such models will merge with these new data sets to produce compelling insights into the questions of the humanities.

Marketing, public relations and other corporate communications have long been a joining point between business and the humanities. This expanding digital approach to humanities research and the rigor that comes with academic research is bound to help advance the understanding that business has of its place in the web of social engagement in the 21st century.

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