Does size matter? Measuring worlding

Does size matter? Measuring worlding

A lot of the hoopla around big data has revolved around a hierarchy of scale. After all, it’s called BIG data. This has had understandably gendered connotations in its promotion and reception.

I found myself thinking about this problem when I was discussing my summer reading with a friend. Every summer I try to tackle a “big” book, one that I either have never read or haven’t read in so long I might as well not have read it. Past favourites include Les Miserables, Anne Karenina, and Buddenbrooks (only the last one not read in translation, sigh). This summer I decided to read the sci-fi trilogy Remembrance of Earth’s Past by Liu Cixin, which begins with “The Three Body Problem.”

You’ll notice right away that all of these books are written by men. The novelist Jessica Shattuck has written an article about this — the bias towards favouring long books by men. Here too scale and prestige are linked and also gendered.

The reason I mention all of this is a) it is something we are testing in our lab and b) I also read a “small” novel this summer too (ok a few, but anyway) and had a very different reaction. It was the critically-hyped novel by Sally Rooney, Normal People. It’s about two high school friends in Ireland, both of whom have emotional difficulties (that sounds lame but it’s hard to put in words). And that’s about it. In other words, it isn’t “about” much at all and what it is about is hard to put into words.

I found myself scratching my head as I read it going, “is this it?” Why did critics all rally around this book? (I always wonder why critics do anything at all and why it is so communal, like did they all go to the same school or something?) Don’t get me wrong, it was fine, interesting, I didn’t want to put it down. But compared to Cixin’s creation of these insanely complex and massive worlds that were layered not only with emotional complexity but also spatial, social and temporal complexity, I was like, one of these is wayyyy better than the other one.

And I couldn’t help thinking: are those my chromosomes talking? Have I been conditioned, either through nature or nurture, to revere scale (despite my protests to the contrary)? And thus this is a terribly familiar reaction?

One of the reasons I love cultural analytics is it makes these critical conversations rather pointless. Who cares what I like? As long as I don’t pretend my judgments should be norms (hello critics!), then my biases are irrelevant. The problem of course is that the moment I start building a model of something I want to better understand, all of those biases come rushing back in and…get encoded as norms!

In other words, there’s no easy way out of this. Except to make sure that the process of model building is dialogical, open, and dynamic (i.e. changing). At its best it should be polyperspectival, like the world-complexity I admire in my favourite novels. Novels, in other words, can be excellent technologies for thinking about modelling.

So let me turn this conversation around and start to wonder how it might be possible to capture scale in narrative and modelling? In other words, how might we measure world-building or world complexity in both novels and our models used to model them? Maybe Normal People was bigger than I thought (then again, maybe not).

Being able to do so might give us an idea of which novels/narratives/models are aspiring to create more world-complexity. This arguably has political value today when one of the fundamental challenges facing humans is a problem of thinking at large scale. We’re mired in tribes when the problems facing the world are decidedly global and interconnected. Challenging our imaginations to think bigger and more ecologically might have some political efficacy (notice the emphasis on might, it’s a hypothesis).

But first, how do you measure world complexity in a novel or a model? [Insert air leaving a balloon.] Yeah, it’s a really fuzzy concept. Is it a purely spatial concept, like where does the novel/model take place? Is it a temporal one, as in, how much time is covered by the novel/model? Is it a social network problem, i.e., how many characters/agents does your novel/model have and what kind of social web do they form? A combination of all three? Am I missing something about world-making? Obviously, but what?

Here too is what I love about cultural analytics. This is all pure imagination. And it can be complementary and additive. How would you model worlding in novels and models?

This is what makes this an exciting field for me. It’s extremely creative on the one hand also deeply self-reflective. It allows for creative and critical thinking at the same time. Of course, that just may be my chromosomes talking (they are after all very chatty). But I find this all rather, dare I say it, fun.