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Anxiety and Algorithms

October 30th, 2012

Steve Anderson

Despite its title Stephen Marche’s article, “Literature is not Data: Against Digital Humanities,” is more against the algorithmic era we currently live in than the digital humanities. Marche writes that “algorithms are inherently fascistic,” but the concern is really about readability.

Algorithms are a tool for distant reading, as Marche states; however, the problem arises when algorithms need to be read themselves. A close reading of an algorithm is problematic, except of course for those mathematicians, computer scientists, and other professionals trained in such procedures. Overall, it is difficult to see whether Marche is really worried about the power wielded by the creators of the algorithms, or the social acceptance of relying on algorithms in general.

The irony of Marche’s misguided polemic is its underlying call for a greater understanding of the “smooth machines” that run the algorithmic code. Instead of being against the digital humanities, Marche is really pointing to a change in modern society, a detachment from the visceral world of the analog to the somewhat intangible, but very material world of the digital.

Marche’s anxiety expresses itself first through the amorphous nature of the burgeoning digital humanities. Marche then skewers academia, complains about Google, and shudders in fear of an electronic, financial armageddon. For Marche, literature is something to be handled, touched, and loved. Data, in contrast, is lifeless, meaningless, and untrustworthy.

Algorithms are not inevitable, and they are not perfect, but they are definitely part of the modern technological world we live in. The goal of the digital humanities is not to be “the next big thing,” but to understand the bigness of the algorithms that are already all around us.