I have admired the work of Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Leigh Star for quite a while, especially their co-authored book Sorting Things Out is a major step towards understanding how systems of classification structure fields of perception and, consequently, action. The study of advanced technology is intrinsically related to information handling (in the largest sense, ranging from human cognition to information science): building categories, models, languages, and metaphors is a major part of designing information systems and with the ongoing infiltration of society by IT, the process of formalization (i.e. the construction of analytical categories that translate our messy world into manageable symbolic representations) has become a major difficulty in many software projects that concern human work settings. Ontology is ontology indeed but very often “reality as phenomenon” does resist being turned into “reality as model” – our social world is too complex and incoherent to fit into tidy data models. The incongruity between the two explains why there are so many competing classifications, models, and theories in the humanities and social sciences: no single explanation can claim to adequately cover even a small section of the cultural world. Our research is necessarily cumulative and tentative.

The categories and models used to build information systems are only propositions too, but they are certainly not (only) descriptive in nature. There is peculiar performativity to information structures that are part of software because they do not only affect people on the level of “ideas have impacts”. A scientific theory has to be understood, at least in part, in order to make a difference. When PageRank, which is basically a theory on the production of relevancy, became an implemented algorithm, there was no need for people to understand how it worked in order for it to become effective. Information technology relies on the reliable but brainless causality of the natural world to in-form the cultural world.

Why am I writing about this? The University of Vienna (my first alma mater) is organizing a workshop [german] on search engines before Google. And “before” should be read as “before digital technology” (think “library catalogue”). This is a very good idea because instead of obsessing about the “effects” that IT might have (or not) on “society” I believe we should take a step back and look at the categories, models, and theories that our information technologies are based on. And as a first step that means going back in time and researching the intellectual genealogy that is behind these nasty algorithms. The abstract I sent in (four days late, shame on me) proposes to look at early developments in bibliometrics that lead to the development of impact analysis, which is the main inspiration for PageRank.

The proposal is part of this project on mathematics and the humanities that I’m fantasizing about, but that’s a story for another day.

Post filed under epistemolgy.

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