What’s Missing From This Art Project?

Via Bora on FriendFeed, a cute little art project from MIT that takes a name, scans the Web for mentions of that name, and produces a color-coded bar categorizing the various mentions of that name. Here’s what you get if you put my name in:


You can click on it for a bigger image, that makes the labels easier to read (these are screencaps edited in GIMP, because in true MIT Media Lab fashion, the whol site is a Flash thing with no way to link directly to anything). It’s nice, and all, but there’s something a little bit funny about it. Something… missing. Let’s see if we can’t illuminate the problem by putting in a few more names:




(Again, click for larger versions.)

What’s missing is that there’s no category for science, or anything science-related. Which leads to absurdities like a large-ish bar corresponding to “Sports” for Richard Feynman, or “Fashion” for Niels Bohr. You can watch it processing the results, and it completely skips most scientific or science-related terms (like “electron” or “atom” or “physicist”), while assigning others to categories in an essentially random manner (“physics” gets coded as “Education” or sometimes “Medicine”; Feynman’s “Sports” bar is largely due to phrases like “winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics”).

If you want a graphical illustration of the Two Cultures problem, it’s right here. Even though this is a technological art project, from MIT no less, it doesn’t occur to the artist that science or science-related subjects ought to included in the range of subject categories for human activities. Science isn’t something that normal people do, so there’s no need to code for it.

And this is why I rant about the lack of respect for science in the rest of the academy.

(Now, to be fair, the project slights a lot of humanities disciplines as well– “Jean-Paul Sartre” also merits a substantial “Sports” bar, as does Friedrich Nietzsche, both of which I find faintly hilarious. But there are at least some halfway sensible categories into which humanities-related content can be put– “books” and “art,” for example. The total absence of science-related categories is deeply annoying, though.)