When you live in an infoglut (course content)
In our workshop this week, I will be asking you to design a research methodology (methodology = a body/set of methods you choose to apply when answering your research question). In short: this week it’s your turn to choose your lines (plural) of evidence. And my hope is that you can find five methods from our fifteen method modules that will be useful to you in your own investigations — though I am empowering you to introduce still other methods, not listed, if you choose to do so.
The blog that follows is my attempt at addressing the questions:
- What is the context in which we are researching, and
- Why can’t we just synthesize some articles and move on already?
A cute anecdote with which to begin
In 1989 a graphic designer named Richard Wurman (you know him as the guy who founded TED talks) wrote a book titled Information Anxiety. Let me reiterate: information anxiiiiety. In 1989. Cute, right? And in that book, Wurman wrote that one weekday edition of The New York Times — again, this was 1989 — contained more information than a typical person living in England in the 17th century would have encountered in an entire lifetime (Jungwirth and Bruce 2002: 1).
Anna Haifisch 2016Street artist (CC Image courtesy of Pixabay)
Now think about us, thirty years after Wurman published that anecdote, in comparison to both the 17th century “typical” Brit and the 1989 holder of a material newspaper.
In contrast to them, and with only a few minutes of digging, I can (purportedly) access every article ever written in the New York Times from 1851 to the present. This is more than 13 million articles, according to whoever writes web copy for the NYTimes today. And I can do this from anywhere I want — as long as I have my laptop, and sure, a bit of cash in some cases.
Further, I can access decades (and in multiple cases, over a century) of articles written in thousands of newspapers globally. Just look at the Wikipedia entry for “List of online newspaper archives”, for example. There you will find links to 158 Minnesota-based newspapers ALONE, including Afro-Independent and The Negro World formerly out of St. Paul, as well as Itasca County’s Border Budget (named upon its founding in 1898 when that region was newly settled, and people still said “border” to mean the U.S.-Canadian border).
Let’s process this for a moment.
From Mexico City and in 2019, I can read all of the issues of five different newspapers from Winona, Minnesota, one of which dates back to 1855. As can you, as can my neighbors, as can anyone else with an Internet connection. (Note that we are talking about local newspapers from a town of less than 27,000 people; now fathom the vastness of newspaper content coming out of global cities, and add everything together.)
A metric crap-ton
In sum, we have access to an almost unfathomable amount of information today. And I say this to you even before I mention blogs and vlogs and journals and podcasts and the radio and t.v. and all those non-newspaper archives (of texts, audio files, photos, illustrations, technical drawings, videos, and more). Plus there are e-mails and meeting notes and websites and … social networking platforms. Oh, and now our books are online, too.
Just how much information are we talking about? Some say the Internet is 1,200 petabytes and growing, as of last year. If this, then the following:
While one edition of The New York Times in 1989 arguably contained more information than one 17th century Brit in a lifetime, the cell phone in your pocket right now (pardon the cliché) holds more information than would have been held by all 640 million people on the planet Earth in the 17th century living 1,000 lifetimes per person, combined (see FN for the awkward, assumption riddled math that got me to this figure).
Like I said: Ours is a whole lot of information.
Grown-ups of the past
Now close your eyes and picture a bunch of 1980’s grown-ups with fax machines fretting over “information anxiety.” See, you think they’re cute, too, don’t you? And these guys weren’t even the original worriers. “Information overload” was used for the first time in 1964 (19 years before the birth of the Internet!) in a book by poli-sci prof, Bertram Gross. Later, Alvin and Heidi Toffler used the phrase in their (likewise pre-Internet) 1970, worldwide bestseller Future Shock — which launched a media moral panic about the rate of social change not unlike the technology-focused moral panics haunting us today.
Later, in 1997, American author and now filmmaker David Shenk coined the term “data smog” in a book of the same title and in which he suggested: “Just as fat has replaced starvation as this nation’s number one dietary concern, information overload has replaced information scarcity as an important new emotional, social, and political problem.”
This was when computers rang, and then beeped and bleeped and sputtered as they “dialed up” the Internet. 56Kbps was a high speed modem (vs. the 983,040+Kbps we’re at now). But just like psychologists writing in the 90’s, Shenk was sincerely concerned with the then-popular idea of “Information Fatigue Syndrome” (IFS). Keep in mind that while IFS has gone outta style, now we talk about things like attention deficit, new attention, and an infoglut with the same in-the-pit-of-our-stomachs concerns about pending catastrophe.
My points so far: 1. We have access to a crap-ton of information. 2. People were freaking out about too much information, too much access, when our grandparents were kids.
And now, look at us, still freaking out. It’s as if, in this age of “authenticity crisis,” even our fears are unoriginal… Okay, but our fears are real nonetheless. So what?
So we’re screwed, right?
This is heavily debated. I’m going to say here that we’re not screwed, but feel free to disagree with me.
No, I can’t tell you information is power and, wow, we’re lucky to be here. I seriously do not know if the context in which we exist is lucky. I also cannot, in good faith, tell you that there are magic steps (or better yet, that there is an app) for managing everything around you — all that data— and that at the conclusion to this blog you’ll know exactly how to dodge info anxiety for the rest of time.
I can, however, give you some advice, advice that, paradoxically, perhaps, sounds like I’m telling you to go find more information in a world of too much information. And let me transport you to the Northwestern University Anthropology Department in 2005 to do so — for that is where and when I first received this same advice:
Multiple lines of evidence
Something my old archaeology prof, Dr. Tim Earle, used to say All. The. Time. was: “multiple lines of evidence.” As in, “Now that multiple lines of evidence have been set out, it remains to draw them together into an historical model that accounts for [the rise of chiefdoms]” (Earle 1993: 213).
Or here it is again, this time written into a proposal by one of Dr. Earle’s former grad students, a student who very clearly heard all the same lectures I heard:
…Examination of multiple lines of evidence will reveal [whether or not] people of this period were riding horses, if riding became tied to elite warriors as they sought political power, what cultural and economic significance horses held for [differently positioned members] of these communities, and… [etc., etc., etc.] (Kanne 2008, National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant (NSF DDIG))
“See how so-and-so used multiple lines of evidence to… [whatever the anthropologist we were discussing at the time did]” Earle would say in class. Also: “You need multiple lines of evidence to… [prove anything],” he used to assure us.
Maybe Katie Kanne and I were both brainwashed in grad school in these classrooms (you can decide), but what I want to suggest to you here is this: in an infoglut world, one of “alternative facts” and postmodernist (pomo) proclivities for poking holes into everything, our best shot at arriving at truths (and by truths, here, I mean, empirically informed answers, better understandings, and more accurate knowledge which we ourselves can trust rather than doubting and feeling overwhelmed all the time) lies in our abilities:
a) to ask sincere questions, the kinds with broader implications (i.e. the kinds of questions that have the potential to matter); and then
b) to investigate, and in the process, to dig up multiple lines of evidence as we attempt to answer those questions.
The thing is, one line of evidence can be misleading. Especially in the present. Multiple lines of evidence, in contrast, allow you to corroborate your findings, to cross-check, and perhaps most importantly, they encourage your audience to take your findings seriously.
You’ve read articles (especially in the blogosphere) and heard arguments built around a single source or a single anecdote before. These are easy to dismiss as somebody else’s folly. But think about how you feel when reading a well-researched, well-written, multi-layered argument.
Middle school hot zone life
I keep picturing the book The Hot Zone, fallible as it was, because it was part of the curriculum in Texas Middle Schools where I was enrolled and, also, it was my first ever experience seeing how science could be even better than a horror flick. Can you recall research-based books (or films, or t.v. series) that shocked or surprised or impressed or excited or terrified, or, or, or … you? Okay, which ones? Were they based on a single source? Go back and check, but I bet they weren’t — their tightly woven arguments, made from many threads, were and often still are part of their power over us.
By the way, using multiple lines of evidence in your research doesn’t just win you reliability in this shaky world. Research papers filled with a collage of information are, often, far more fun to read than the other types. We will talk about writing in a way that makes you fun to read — or more importantly, in a way that makes you memorable — later in this course. For this moment:
As I type the word “fun” here, I think first of anthropologist Michael Taussig who called this collage-like strategy for presenting findings (or perhaps, he just meant the strategy of writing in a way that is interesting to others) “occupying ethnography.”
In a write from 2010, on both the Occupy Wall Street movement and our need to occupy our research and communication practices, Taussig wove together participant observation and interview data, sayings from protestors’ signs, his personal text messaging with student activists meeting up with him in NYC’s Zuccotti Park, and an all-star lit review that included famous quotes from ancient philosophers and which he snuck into his essay alongside phrases from protestors’ signage (without clarifying which were from the signs and which were philosophical pearls). To this he added the title, “I’m so angry I made a sign” and thus produced one of my personal favorite reads in anthropology to date.
Summary: text messages are data (as long as you have written permission from your interlocutors to use those messages). And collage (a collage of research methods) is interesting.
One final point about using multiple lines of evidence: qualitative data, in particular, can be tricky — you are likely to find an uncomfortable amount of room for interpretation when you start digging through your own findings this semester, regardless of the methods you choose. But there’s a (partial) fix for this discomfort. Simply put, more methods = more evidence = potentially more convincing patterns within that evidence = stronger (more significant) conclusions at the end of your research phase = a super compelling final paper + presentation. This process is called triangulation.
Research = empowerment?
Insert your own transition here.
Now me, again:
Doing research makes me feel agentive rather than exhausted. There. I said it.
I’m getting too personal, I know, but here goes anyhow.
Research is one of very few things that makes me feel empowered in this world in which it is sometimes difficult to know what to believe and/or what to trust. As sociologist Howard Becker once said in an interview,
Well, it’s called “Should we believe what people tell us, or should we go look for ourselves?” It’s: data, evidence, ideas. You collect observations, in whatever way — with a questionnaire, from a book in the census or by going there and looking. And then you use those ideas as evidence. You use those data as evidence to demonstrate that this idea is better (2016).
Imagine if we forgot we are are capable of going and looking for ourselves? Imagine if we didn’t know there are these methods at our disposal, regardless of what we do and do not study in college?
Because I feel this way, my research question for this week (in the experimental research project that is this course) is: Can I get YOU, all 18 of you, by empowering you to design your own multi-method research methodologies, to FEEL AGENTIVE in this crazy world, just like I do?
Related to that: Given that you are picking the strategies for answering your own questions, can I call what we are doing this week learning how to learn? (See below.)
The Tofflers, again
Let’s go back to the Tofflers, who are, arguably, the most famous futurologists alive today (okay, Heidi’s alive; Alvin was alive until 2016 — I just Wikipedia-ed them). I like the Tofflers. Their “future shock” freak-out sounds so much like our own freak-outs of today. I mean, RoboCop (the 1987 version) makes us think: man, we’ve been worried about computers for a long time. But maybe even more than Edward Neumeier who wrote RoboCop, the Tofflers typed up some bitingly apt thoughts about society and social change and technology and the future— bitingly apt even after 50years.
In an attempt to prove my point, here is one of my favorite passages from their conclusions:
To survive, to avert what we have termed future shock, the individual must become infinitely more adaptable and capable than ever before. We must search out totally new ways to anchor ourselves, for all the old roots — religion, nation, community, family, or profession — are now shaking under the hurricane impact of the accelerative thrust. It is no longer resources that limit decisions, it is the decision that makes the resources (1970: 270).
Now the Cliff’s Notes: Get adaptable. Get capable. And anchor yourselves in whatever new ways you find. It is about to be up to you to choose your resources.
Also this one:
By instructing students how to learn, unlearn and relearn, a powerful new dimension can be added to education. Psychologist Herbert Gerjuoy of the Human Resources Research Organization phrases it simply: ‘The new education must teach the individual how to classify and reclassify information, how to evaluate its veracity, how to change categories when necessary, how to move from the concrete to the abstract and back, how to look at problems from a new direction — how to teach himself. Tomorrow’s illiterate will not be the man who can’t read; he will be the man who has not learned how to learn (1970: 271).
The Cliff’s Notes: Learn to learn — and also to unlearn and relearn and teach yourself. Part of this will be figuring out how to organize information. Part of this will be sifting through that information and determining what is and isn’t accurate.
Think about that. In 1970, the Toffler’s wrote that to survive the future, we were going to have to learn how to learn and unlearn and relearn. We were going to have to learn to evaluate veracity (truthfulness). We were going to need to know how to move between the concrete and the abstract. And now here we are in the future. A pessimistic me might describe us, the us of today, as dubious of the truth, failing to trust the concrete, and pretty thoroughly lost in the abstract, most of the time. In other words, in dire need of the Tofflers’ advice. And now here’s an optimistic me:
Can I convince you that doing real research with real scientific methodologies — as artists — is taking ownership of your own learning and, at least as importantly, taking ownership of truth-making processes? Further, can I convince you that borrowing scientific methods across disciplines is not only indicative of your adaptability but also of your commitment to expanding your own capabilities and to anchoring yourself in this (info-glut) world in new ways? And lastly, can I convince you that this (borrowing methods, doing research) will only ever empower you?
I am becoming preachy, I know, I know. But this (summarized as: putting scientific methods into the hands of artists equals power) is what I believe. And it is why I am here, albeit virtually, teaching the course you are now in.
So here’s my key point
Woven somewhat precariously throughout this blog: Good research design is about gathering multiple lines of evidence is about surviving the info-glut in which we live — and btw, we’ve been panicked about information overload for a really long time, so all this is only a little bit new. These are the points I most want to make here.
Post script: too much information (the info-glut) is one problem. Refusing to trust any and all data is another (postmodern) problem. I will come back to that one later. For now, wishing you each all the best in your research methods designing.
January 23, 2019
FN: My awkward math here is based on a series of assumptions, including
- That there are 1,200 petabytes of information on the Internet today — and ignoring the fact that there are 2.5 quintillion bytes of new data created each day — and thus, that every person holding a cell phone holds 1,200 petabytes;
- That there were 640 million people on Earth in the 17th century;
- That the world’s literacy rate in the 17th century was 7% (the first reliable global literacy rate estimate is 12% in 1820, so here I am making an uneducated guess);
- That only measurable information counts as information (thus dismissing things like lived experience); also ignoring the fact that “measurable information” is highly problematic;
- That the average lifespan of a literate person anywhere in the world in the 17th century would be similar to estimates of elite class members’ lifespans in Europe specifically — and therefore: 51 years.
- That each literate person in the world read an average of 1 page per day from the age of 12 until death at 51 (again, an uneducated guess).
- That one page of text equaled two kilobytes (though bytes obviously did not exist in the 17th century)
Now the math:
640,000,000 pop x 0.07 literate x 39 years of reading x 365 days per year x 2 kilobytes per day = 1,275,456,000,000 = 1.3 trillion kilobytes = the amount of information consumed in one lifetime each by the world’s population in the 17th century.
Using SI standard conversion rates, 1 petabyte = 1e+12 kilobytes, and therefore 1,200 petabytes = 1,200,000,000,000,000 kilobytes = 1.2 quadrillion kilobytes
Our potential access to information today: 1.2 quadrillion kilobytes
17th century global pop info access w one lifetime per person: 1.3 trillion kilobytes
1.2 quadrillion / 1.3 trillion = just under 1,000
Conclusion: If everyone on the planet in the 17th century had 1,000 lifetimes each of information, they would, combined, have as much information as is currently on our Internet — and by extension ours. (Yeah, yeah. It’s crass, I know.)