Valuing noise

Social anthropology has one trick up its sleeve: the deliberate attempt to generate more data than the investigator is aware of at the time of collection. Anthropologists deploy open-ended, non-linear methods of data collection which they call ethnography…Rather than devising protocols that will purify the data in advance of analysis, the anthropologist embarks on a participatory exercise which yields materials for which analytic protocols are often devised after the fact. In the field the ethnographer may work by indirection, creating tangents from which the principal subject can be observed (through the “wider social context”). But what is tangent at one stage may become central at the next. --Marilyn Strathern Commons and Borderlands: working Papers on Interdisciplinarity, Accountability, and the Flow of Knowledge. Oxon, UK, Sean Kingston Publishing. 2004.

An essential and even primary goal of digital infrastructure in the sciences is to separate signal from noise. Through a series of exclusions, extractions, and condensations, Big Data is converted into Small (or at least A Lot Less Big) Science. And the scope of most cyberinfrastructure, even that for cultural heritage projects, is always limited in advance: data on global textile trade, for example, has no place in a digital platform documenting and analyzing indigenous Andean weaving. Ethnographers have a long history of fieldwork methodologies that insist they attend to more of the world than they think they are supposed to, that insist they collect more data on more people and things and their relationships than they think they need. PECE is designed to facilitate projects with ever expanding and evolving groups of collaborators, who contribute different data sets and different interpretive habits and goals. PECE allows for and encourages the continual addition of new types of data, representing new topics and domains, not previously defined as significant or pertinent. PECE is also designed to present a researcher, at various moments of the research process, with data or analyses from other researchers working in a different area. Someone researching the development of immunological theories of asthma, for example, might have their attention drawn to an interview with an atmospheric chemist who studies ozone levels in Houston. PECE leverages or augments the alterity already present in alt-ontology, in other words, always collecting more data than it knows what to do with, asking researchers to invent new analytics for this “noise” (signal’s future anterior).

Design Logic