Critical Awareness of Big Data

By emolina3

The article by danah boyd and Kate Crawford, “Critical questions for Big Data: Provocations for a cultural, technological, and scholarly phenomenon,” discusses the shortcomings of Big Data, specifically in correlation with social media. One of the arguments they put forth in their paper is the way in which data from Twitter is not what it appears to be. Since posts are public by default on Twitter, the “data” from the site is often analyzed or used in research, but those publishing their findings don’t always make it clear that Twitter posts aren’t necessarily representative of what they claim to be. As boyd and Crawford point out, “Twitter does not represent ‘all people’, and it is an error to assume ‘people’ and ‘Twitter users’ are synonymous: they are a very particular sub-set…Nor can we assume that accounts and users are equivalent” (2012, p. 669). As they go on to explain, some users have several accounts, or many people use the same account, or tweets on an account are generated by a bot. There are also those who use Twitter in a passive sense: rather than participate, they simply look at what others are saying. These varying types of users are indicative of the fact that Twitter cannot be relied upon as a representative sample of the population. Unfortunately, however, although some researchers do point out the inherent flaws of using data from Twitter, many news sources do not. Thus, many people don’t question the analysis of what users are expressing on Twitter, or statements relating to statistics of what is happening on the site.

It is this lack of questioning, and lack of awareness, that is worrisome. Big Data is everywhere we turn, yet many people don’t stop to think about the ways in which it is all around us. When the iPhone came out with the touchpad home button, many people didn’t think twice about turning over their thumbprint to their phones (and, as an extension, the company that makes them). Payton and Claypoole write in their book, Privacy in the Age of Big Data, “As business and government collects and benefits from all of this data, capturing data becomes an end in itself. We must have more and more data to feed the insatiable appetite for more. And yet, we are not having a serious public discussion about what information is collected about each of us and how it is being used” (2014, p. vii). This is most likely because the average person does not stop to think how creepy many of these tracking systems are; they either don’t care or don’t realize it’s happening. To return to iPhones as an example: several updates ago, location tags suddenly appeared on photos. As I am very paranoid about any possible intrusions into my private information, I immediately went to my settings and turned off location services for every single app except for Google Maps (and even then, the location is activated only while I am using the app). However, when I brought the issue up to friends, no one else seemed to care that their phones were essentially tracking them.

And yet, the joke is on me. Because GPS is not the only form of tracking on phones. Pinging between cell towers can also help determine location (the first season of “Serial” should have taught me that). It can also be tracked via WiFi, if the phone is continually searching for different networks (another default setting, although that function can of course be turned off – and it most certainly is on my phone). Not only does tracking happen through these types of relatively subtle ways, but it can also happen in the form of a game. As laid out in “Terms of Service,” the graphic novella by Keller and Neufeld, participating in social media can be highly compelling, even if it means giving away a plethora of information about yourself (apparently checking in on Foursquare enough times to become “mayor” of a space is enough to overcome any feelings of hesitation). For those who don’t participate in the technology at all, it can feel isolating: “Once enough people reveal their information, then NOT revealing your information becomes a stigma” (2015, p. 12). There is also a form of pressure that can happen when a person doesn’t have social media accounts: people may think or act like that person is weird for choosing to abstain.

Many of the services that are touted as time-saving and efficient, such as Amazon Go, are actually tracking insane amounts of data on each user. Of course, it’s clear that Amazon is on a mission to take over the world (and no one seems to be upset about it), but people should at least be on the alert about a service that is keeping tabs on users in multiple ways. Using Amazon Go would mean providing the company with data on your physical location, your buying and eating habits, and your credit card information. The convenience of it all (not having to stand in line to check out, not having to interact with another human being), as well as the novelty, is what consumers will focus on, but what if Amazon’s databases are broken into and suddenly a hacker knows everything about you? Not worth the convenience after all.

There are also, of course, the new types of technology that have recently begun to invade homes: Google Home, Amazon Echo, ivee, etc. Here are some very worrying default settings for the Echo (and the other devices work similarly): past recordings are kept to improve answers the for future questions; location services are activated, the better to suggest nearby stores and restaurants; and the microphone is ALWAYS ON (Studio One Networks, 2016). These settings can all be changed, but will the average consumer know/care to do that?

In this day and age, everyone needs to be aware of, and protective of, their privacy. It is all too easy for both corporations and the government to keep track of and use data that is collected on the average citizen. Knowing the ease with which your movements, preferences, beliefs, habits and more can be recorded and tracked, it is the responsibility of every person to, at the very least, be aware of the accessibility of their individual data. People can decide for themselves how much or how little to reveal through their use of products and websites, but it is important for everyone to question the necessity of the data they are putting out into the world. Knowledge of this, as in most cases, is power.



Boyd, D. & Crawford, K. (2012). “Critical questions for big data: provocations for a cultural, technological, and scholarly phenomenon.” Information, Communication & Society 15(5): 662–679. 10.1080/1369118X.2012.678878

Keller, M. & Neufeld, J. (2015). “Terms of service: understanding our role in the world of big data.” Al Jazeera America.

Payton, T. & Claypoole T. (2014). Privacy in the age of big data: Recognizing threats, defending your rights, and protecting your family. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Studio One Networks. 2016. Expert Q & A: How private is the new Amazon Echo? Retrieved from

The Book as a Work of Art

By emolina3

On October 4th, I went to a panel discussion at the National Arts Club entitled “The Book as a Work of Art.” The panel was made up of four professionals: Kyle Triplett, who is the Rare Books Librarian at the New York Public Library; Peter Mendelsund, associate art editor at Alfred A. Knopf; Glenn Horowitz, a rare books dealer; and Benjamin Morse, co-founder and artistic director of the digital book company Orson & Co.

Unlike many of the panel discussions I’ve attended, in which a moderator asks specific questions for each person, or an overall question meant for everyone to answer in turn, this event was more like a series of presentations. The moderator was Karla Nielsen, who is the Curator of Literature at Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library. She started off by announcing to the audience that she and the panel had decided on the format of the discussion beforehand: each person had brought in an object that they would introduce to the audience, and then the four would give mini presentations on the theme (the book as a work of art).

Kyle Triplett went first, with a slide that contained a picture of an enlarged period from a book printed in 1665. He wanted the audience to realize that books have presence in a sculptural sense, and to lead them away from the idea that a period is simply a circle. Mr. Horowitz was next; he started by proclaiming that he approached books differently than the others on the panel, as his was from a financial point of view (the same could be said of both Mr. Morse and Mr. Mendelsund, but no matter). He had brought two volumes to show to the audience: William Faulkner’s first book, a copy of a collection of poetry, with an inscription to his father (which, according to Mr. Horowitz, was very rare – most of Faulkner’s inscribed books are made out to his mother), and One Hundred Years of Solitude, inscribed from Gabriel García Márquez to the son of the people to whom he dedicated the book. Mr. Morse displayed the cover of one of his ebook creations, and Mr. Mendelsund brought a “visual emblem” with which to represent his work: the copy of Joyce’s Ulysses that was published by Sylvia Beach. He said it inspired him when he was recently commissioned to create a new cover for the novel.

It was then time for the presentations by each panelist. Mr. Triplett introduced the audience to four different versions of Euclid’s Elements: from 1484, 1570, 1847, and 2014. He showed how the each subsequent copy had borrowed or imitated attributes from the ones that came before. Mr. Morse presented History of a Pleasure Seeker, an ebook with the specialized features unique to Orson and Co, including interlaid photographs of the places mentioned in the book and audio narration (represented by a gramophone). Mr. Morse and his partner have deemed their creations “elumes,” a name and style inspired by illuminated manuscripts. Mr. Horowitz, who was the only speaker that didn’t use the assistance of projected slides,held forth about his experience as a bookseller. Unfortunately, as Mr. Morse had just used the room’s audio to display his ebook, the speakers were projecting a clicking noise throughout Mr. Horowitz’s entire speech; this, combined with the lack of visuals, made it hard to follow what he was saying. This was a shame, because his experience as a bookseller in New York is a fascinating history. He started his business at age twenty-four, and has recently been in charge of selling Bob Dylan’s estate (it was jointly acquired by the University of Tulsa and another foundation in Oklahoma). He said the book that had meant the most to him was the copy of Virginia Woolf that he had found on a dusty back shelf in a bookstore in London; when he started flipping through it, he discovered, among other notes made by her, an inscription on the fourth page from Ms. Woolf to her sister. He bought it for five dollars. Mr. Mendelsund went last, with a powerpoint detailing the many book covers he has created; he believes that since books live with people on their shelves, it is important for the covers to communicate what the book is about.

Although the topic could have been really interesting, the event felt very disjointed. This, I felt, was mostly because of the lack of a moderator to ask questions and lead the discussion. Since the panelists were coming from such different backgrounds and work experiences, they needed a guiding force to achieve cohesion. The mini presentations were interesting, but the event would have been taken to a whole new level if there was more crossover: the bookseller would have answered questions from such a different perspective than the librarian, and the designer of ebooks might have felt similarly or vastly different from the designer of book covers.

In terms of design, I felt especially curious about Mr. Morse’s evident disdain for ordinary ebooks, and the decision to call his electronic books “elumes.” He credited his high regard for illustrated manuscripts as the reason for the name, but I’m not sure that the average person would make that connection. The amount of time his company spends perfecting the features of the books are obvious, and there are some characteristics that are highly appealing: in the example he gave, History of a Pleasure Seeker, the use of photographs from the time period in which the book is set is very compelling. The choice of using a gramophone icon that the reader can press to hear special audio features reminded me of the Ecological Approach outlined by Rogers (2004), in which designers create “interface objects so as to highlight the importance of making ‘what can be done to them’ obvious” (p. 100). Except, in this case, Orson & Co decided to stay in the old fashioned realm and have the image be a gramophone, rather than a speaker. Which is a bit like having a “save” button represented by a floppy disk; that is a carry over from when floppy disks were actually used, however, and this is clearly a design decision meant to be in keeping with the rest of the book’s theme.

The event seemed to underscore, without meaning to, the commonly held belief of the sexiness of ebook and book cover design with the drab and dreary world of book collectors and librarians. It came to a head with Mr. Horowitz’s presentation, which was directly after the elume demonstration by Mr. Morse, and was plagued by technological difficulties (clicks of the microphone, lack of a visual presentation, etc.) Looking back, it makes me think of the Luddite rebellion example that was described in Sayers (2014), in which demonstrators broke wide-frame looms to try and stop the new technology from spreading. Not that Mr. Horowitz gave any indication of trying to halt the spread of ebooks, but the juxtaposition of the two professions (book dealer vs. ebook company owner), their ages (old vs. young), and the presentation styles (dry lecture vs. interactive electronic format) all seemed to emphasize the distance between their worlds.

Lastly: I keep harkening back to Mr. Morse, but his wish to make electronic books works of art, reminiscent of illuminated manuscripts, again reminded me of Sayers: “In our so-called digital age, many people would assume that interventions in technological processes are accessible to more people than ever before” (p. 5). His company’s use of technology to create the most beautiful and high-brow form of ebooks possible makes me think that the type of audience he is envisioning are those who are privileged, sophisticated, and whose sensibilities are more refined than the “average” ebook user.



Rogers, Y. (2004) “New theoretical approaches for human-computer interaction.” Annual Review of Information Science and Technology 38, 87–143.

Sayers, J. (2014). “Technology.” In B. Burgett & G. Hendler (Eds.), Keywords for American Cultural Studies, (2nd ed.). New York, NY: New York University Press. Retrieved from

Oral Histories

By emolina3

I recently visited the Brooklyn Historical Society to conduct an interview with Brett Dion, whose official title is Oral History Project Archivist. Dion received his library science degree from Pratt, and began working at the New York Transit Museum during his final semester in school. He was there for seven years, at first in the archives and then as a registrar (which involved maintenance of the collection and loan paperwork). During his last couple of years at the Transit Museum, Dion began taking workshops at the New York Writers Coalition, and ended up volunteering with StoryCorps. As Dion describes, StoryCorps is a mutated version of oral history, because of the editing and streamlining process: often, when relating a story, people jump around and meander along in the telling. While from the oral history perspective, the narration should be left in its original state, StoryCorps condenses and edits to create a more straightforward version.

When Dion heard of an opening at the Brooklyn Historical Society in the oral history department last October, he jumped at the chance to interview. He wanted to expand his experience in collections, as he had never worked with audio recordings before. He was hired to stay on for two grant-financed projects; he is still working on the first, which must be 70% complete by this upcoming spring in order for the funding to continue. Much of the work done to preserve or archive collections at BHS is funded by grants, so much so that there is a staff member whose sole job is to apply for funds and write proposals. The project Dion is working on now is with legacy oral histories, which date back to 1973 and are stored on audio cassette. He is digitizing, doing conservation work for the tapes that are falling apart, and making the histories more available than they’ve ever been before. Using a system called the Oral History Metadata Synchronizer (OHMS), developed at the University of Kentucky libraries, Dion will put them online and make them accessible in a novel way: the audio will be synched with the transcripts. When uploading an MP3 and a file of the transcript, it is possible to lock them in place and match up the words that occur at every one-minute mark. This entails Dion (or one of his two interns) listening to each oral history within the system. At every fifty second mark, a bell goes off to tell the listener to pay attention; another bell goes off at sixty seconds, which is when Dion or the intern must highlight the word that is being spoken at that exact time. It then jumps to the next fifty second mark, and so on. Dion says that after an adjustment period, the process can go pretty quickly. Before matching up the audio, there must first be an evaluation of the transcripts themselves, which were created when the histories were recorded, back in the 1970s and 80s. Dion and his interns listen to each recording while carefully going over the accompanying transcript, to make sure that the initial transcription was accurate, and to correct any misspellings. Often the narrators of the histories will share their birthdate, but that information must be bleeped out, as a protection against identity theft. The Oral Historian at BHS, Zaheer Ali, wants the year to be left in, so that listeners can have context about what was happening in the world at the time, so only the day and month are removed (in both the transcripts and the audio).

The tapes are composed of sixty-seven interviews (starting in 1973) of Puerto Ricans, most of whom were born in the 1880s, and emigrated to Brooklyn in the 1920s and 30s. As a result, many were trying to get jobs just as the Great Depression was hitting; not only did they have this going against them, but they were very badly mistreated by other immigrants at the time. Dion says the tapes have survived remarkably well, but that as he is doing the transcription and audio work, he is often struck by the scripted quality of the interviews. He notes that it seems clear the interviewers have some purpose in mind, and are guiding the narrators to tell a specific story. This, of course, made me think of “The Ethics of Fieldwork,” by PERCS, and how one of their specifications is to not ask leading questions (p. 6). I was not able to hear the recordings Dion has been working on, but his description led me to believe that the interviewers at the time were not being as ethical as one may have hoped (of course, at that time, the ethics of fieldwork were much less defined than they are now). We can also only hope that the participants were not chosen to be interviewed because they were seen as “exemplified or erotic,” (p.8) and that it was simply because they were new residents of Brooklyn. Zaheer Ali’s philosophy is much more within the ethical framework PERCS lays out: he usually has a certain theme in mind, which dictates who he conducts the interviews with, but his strategy consists of letting those he speaks with tell him about their lives in whichever way they choose. One such theme revolves around the neighborhood of Crown Heights; in 1991, a riot broke out between the Hasidic Jews and African Americans who lived there. Fatalities occurred, followed by days of violence and unrest. BHS went to the area two years later, to find out how people were healing and recovering. As it is now the 25th anniversary of those riots, BHS is collecting new oral histories, and making the 1993 recordings available to the public.

I see oral histories as giving voice to those who are not always heard, and undermining what Kincheloe and McLaren describe as discursive practices, which they write are “defined as a set of tacit rules that regulate what can and cannot be said; who can speak with the blessings of authority and who must listen; and whose social constructions are valid and whose are erroneous and unimportant” (2002, p. 94). This might be a romanticized view, as the decision of who to interview and why is up to the organization collecting the oral histories; as a result, one person (or, more likely, a committee) is deciding who is worth interviewing. This means that many groups who may greatly benefit from being heard may never get that chance.


Elon University. Program for Ethnographic Research & Community Studies. The ethics of fieldwork module. Retrieved from percs/EthicsModuleforWeb.pdf

Kincheloe, J. L. & McLaren, P. (2002). Rethinking critical theory and qualitative research. In Y. Zou & E. T. Trueba (Eds.), Ethnography and schools: Qualitative approaches to the study of education (87-127). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

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