Wednesday, August 30, 2006

From Reality Studies to Data Studies

One of the most fascinating changes that we are experiencing in the world of research is the move from reality studies to data studies. This is, of course, a result of the ongoing, expanding and accelerating digital transformation. In all areas of human activity the sum of digital material is growing. This growing amount of digital material is supposed to help us understand, control, and oversee the world we live in. But, there seems to be no way to keep up with the rate that this transformation is taking place. It seems as if the amount of digital material is growing faster than we can make use of it. And, we are only at the very beginning of this digital transformation.

One of the intriguing consequences of this development is that we can see a shift from reality studies to data studies. This shift manifests itself as an increasing interest in dealing with the digital material itself, leaving the "source" and the "real" reality outside the focus of study. One example is the field and growth of bioinformatics, where the studied "material" are the many databases of genes and proteins. Bioinformatics makes scientific contributions not by experimenting with real biological material, but with searching and manipulating data. Other areas are, for instance, "virtual astronomy". This area is focused on the study of the huge and unexplored databases collected from telescopes around the world. Since it is possible to say that the whole university exists in the astronomical databases, why continue to look at the real sky, when the digital sky is easier and cheaper to explore and study. Social studies of the internet can be done by searching how people have searched and communicated on the net, without having to interfere with real people. We can see this development in many disciplines. The reasoning is of course convincing and rational, the data (material) is there, it is organized, it is easy to search and mine, it is cheap and available.

But what does this shift lead to? Are there any significant differences in doing reality studies versus data studies? As far as I know, this questions is almost non-existing today, unless we see it as a classic problem of representation. The question of representation and interpretation is an issue studied by philosophy for centuries. Some of the common questions are if data can tell us anything else than what it was supposed to tell us, i.e., in relation to how they where collected, what the question was, how someone formalized the information, who did it and for what purpose? Reflecting upon these classic philosophical questions raises many questions for the future of data studies. Are we really exploring and examining reality?

As a side note, this development also have consequences for interaction design. Interaction design is about designing ways to interact with the "data world". We need new tools and instruments to make it possible to explore and interact with the world of digital material.

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