The Future of the Humanities

In the humanities, there aren’t a lot of numbers. The humanities are not an exact science. Actually, I sat in an anthropology class once and was blatantly told by the professor that it couldn’t be. Physics isn’t 100% accurate but we call it an exact science and I think we can get close enough to call the humanities the same. I have mentioned in an earlier post that I think that social networking sites (SNSs from here on out) will help fix this quantitative problem. The amount of data being produced by the users is massive. We now have 2% of the world’s power usage being taken up by data centers! That is an incredible number and I am sure that it will only get bigger as we share more information. I want to use this post to talk about how SNSs will change the humanities.

From Dreams to Reality
If you have been in the humanities you know what a scattered field it is. If you are a science major and your college requires general education courses, I’m sure you wanted to rip your hair out when you took sociology, psychology or economics. They can be a real pain quantitatively. Sitting in those classes drives me nuts because the data or rather the evidence is anecdotal at best and tainted at worst. Anecdotal because the professor sees it one way (then go to class 102 and you get a different theory based off the “evidence”) and tainted because humans act different when they are being watched.

This is all changing now. In 2008, in a disastrous interview, Mark Zuckerberg said something that really enthralled me. About Facebook he said, “we’re not trying to create new communities, but help people communicate with people they already would have.” What does this mean? Facebook’s goal is too create an online mirror of their users offline happenings. This is what a lot of SNSs are doing too. A couple months ago Facebook launched Facebook Places where people could check in to different locales. This means that they not only have your personal and friendship information but also now have your location information. Social information is becoming quantitative. It’s an advance that will make mirroring the offline world much easier.

The potential of SNSs is growing every year and they will expand greatly in the next decade. The information they have right now is not an exact mirror, but it will get closer. If you think we’re the Social Networking Generation, you’re wrong. I know a lot of people (myself included) that are apprehensive about using location tags. However, children growing up with these sites will see it as commonplace. They will share more information than we do and they will do it happily. In 10 years, the data found in whatever SNS dominates the market, will be a treasure trove to researchers. But how?

The Nitty-gritty
As it stands now, the human research is happening internally within these companies. Google is making search rankings reflect human rankings and Facebook has a pretty good sense of who your real friends are and who are just acquaintances. Foursquare is trying to figure out at what time you buy and what you’re buying and some ingenious people are using Twitter to predict the market. Clearly internal human prediction products are being created and with much success! With more information, they can only get better. I want to describe a couple of areas where we will get or are already getting a lot of information from users. (I won’t describe old areas like search, regular social networking and blogs).

These services have been out for a while not but are becoming more popular. If you’re on Facebook you already see friends checking-in to different establishment. These services will change the way we’re served advertisement. We will not be given random advertisements from Gap but instead you’ll get an ad from Joes’ (Your City) Café right down the block. It’s a game changer. In terms of social sciences, not only will they see human movement patterns but they will also see human interaction patters. Not interaction over the net, but offline interactions. Sociology will get a kick out of this information!

There are already a couple of online services that help you with your finances. There is and some intuit stuff but they aren’t really too social. Blippy is one that stands out in that they are recording your purchases and putting them in a Twitter like feed. This allows users to share their purchases with others and comment on the item or service. Sounds a bit strange but it might just work out. Google is doing some research of its own. With Google Checkout they are building a reservoir of financial profiles that they can use to better serve ads. This can be a boon for economists, sociologists and psychologists. Economists could track purchases made by millions of individuals and see money flow. As it stands the information is very hit or miss. If all transaction information was aggregated and digitized it would become much more certain. Sociologists and psychologists could connect information found on their Facebook and tie it their financial profiles (they might be one and the same if Facebook makes a checkout clone). This in turn can give them interesting information about how people react to certain purchases or how certain economic classes make expenditures.

In a related note, there are a ton of internal research articles found on the blogs of both Facebook and Google. Facebook just released one yesterday on the trends found among statuses. Google’s Blog has a ton of articles on the research they’ve done. The most recent involves the Ngram reader that looks at word trends found in the millions of books it has scanned. As we collect more information, we also increase the probability of finding interesting information about human behavior. Computer systems will mirror human systems.

Social networking, search, location and finance will help us make the humanities real sciences. I can think of other interesting avenues but it would make this post too long. When these other things come into play they will make the information much more rich. As it stands now, only social networking (a la Facebook) and search (a la Whoever) are coming close to mimicking the offline world. Location is definitely starting to flicker into something amazing. As years the years pass it will really be a treasure trove of information. Financial information is still a zygote. I’m not sure if it will take off in a social medium but I think that it will be tied to some social network. That is, people will make purchases using a SNS’s checkout product that doesn’t necessarily post it publicly. Instead, it may save it as a receipt of some sort. Ultimately, the company that holds most of this data will be king. But it will also be a great place to start quantifying the humanities and turning them into real sciences.


2 responses to “The Future of the Humanities

  1. The basic tenets of human nature, evident in classical studies, philosophy, literature, religion, and the arts will always outshine new technologies and gadgets that pervade society. Knowledge of humanities provides the glue that holds society together and the salve that heals its wounds. Social networking represents a remarkable tool that can further our understanding of the human condition and human nature, but we must take care not to allow this tool to encroach upon the true human to human encounters that provide the foundation for the answers. Great post!

    • I agree that there should be some “self-regulation” when using new technologies, especially when they might lead to little or no physical human contact. Optimistically, I think that mobile devices are allowing us to learn more about how and why humans interact and facilitates physical human interaction.

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