Han-Teng Liao

I Did Not Know How a Researcher Can Pack Words Like Sachertorte, #Aufschrei, Wanderlust and Paradigm Shift into Five Paragraphs. And Then I Read This Text.

I spent last summer in Berlin as a visiting research fellow at Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society (HIIG) (documented here and here). They now asked me to contribute to their annual report with a short account of my experiences. The challenge: It would have to include the following words: Sachertorte, fellowship, hiig, berlin, paradigmshift, currywurst, #Aufschrei, Wanderlust. This is what I submitted. 


The visiting research fellows Han-Teng Liao (Oxford Internet Institute), Ulrike Klinger (University of Zurich), me and Giovanni Navarria (University of Sydney) (f.l.t.r.) in front of the Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society. Photo: Elena Pfautsch.


Metaphors of Data

When scientists and practitioners try to explain matters about data, they very often refer to metaphors from the physical world. Most of the terms have been established long before the digital era, they come from commerce (“data storage”, “data retrieval”, “data mining” or “data harvesting”) and nature (“data explosion”, “data is the new oil”, “Datenberg” (in German)). Han-Teng likes to speak of “data massage”. He uses the term to describe the manual effort of getting raw data (!) into the right shape before it can be further processed.

The terminology of data is full of metaphors. And – as it lies in the nature of metaphors – they are never never precise, because the words are taken out of context, they stem from another sphere of meaning and should explain entities that are difficult to understand otherwise. For instance, the “new oil” comparison is inadequate because data is (usually) not a finite resource.