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The Forensic Effect

As I’ve written previously, much of the future of reading will be shaped by an increasingly computational relationship to our reading material. Whether it is recommendation engines that help determine what we choose to read; algorithmic rules that generate individualized texts based on our personal data or reading habits; or finally, scholarly tools that locate statistically significant patterns in the literary record, in all of these cases reading is changed by the computational power of digital interfaces.

What I find interesting about this is the way it has so many analogies in other fields. The Boston Globe has a nice piece in their Sunday magazine about the way quantitative analysis is changing sports management. For the first time, sports decision-making is moving away from experienced experts — either players or connoisseurs — and towards individuals with strong relationship to numeric analysis. Every kid who loves sports is a junior statistician. But this is the first time that knowing numbers more than knowing the game is having an impact in how the game is played and managed.

The Globe example is just one way that we seem to be moving from a connoisseur culture to forensic culture. The New Yorker recently ran a piece about a Montreal-based firm that was making waves in the art-identification business. Like sports, this business had been dominated by individuals who made intuitive claims to expertise — I just know that’s a Leonardo because I’m so good at seeing Leonardos (or have seen so many); I just know that LeBron James is going to be a great NBA player because I’ve seen so many NBA players, etc. Forensics shows the limitations of our intuition. What Benjamin said about the photograph — that it revealed an optical unconscious — could be said about quantitative analysis: it reveals a statistical unconscious.

Today, the same thing is happening in the field of reading. Many highly trained readers are looking at new computational models of reading and saying that they can understand more with unaided observation, that statistics are reductive, that I know better because I have read so much. But in a world of Wikileaks or Google Books, there is not simply too much to read today (there has always been too much to read). The difference is that there are now tools that allow us to test these intuitions. Or to put it with a greater sense of perspective, our intuitions will take place at a second-order level once the numbers have been run. One thing the forensic experts forget: facts don’t erase interpretation. They just move it around. Part of what we will be debating in the future as we move to more quantitative reading models is the future of interpretation.

Oh, and that Montreal-based art firm that challenged the connoisseurs? Frauds.

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