Close and Distant Reading: A Look Into the Future

One of the core values of the humanities, especially the part that focuses on literature is “close reading”.  Close reading is a careful interpretation of text with emphasis on particular details such as individual words, syntax, and the order in which sentences and ideas unfold as they are read. This practice helps the reader get a better understanding of the meaning of a text. But how should one analyze all the writings of an author or all the books written in a specific time period? There is not enough time to carefully read that much text. Digital humanist have made efforts to enable the understanding of literature not by studying particular texts, but by aggregating and analyzing massive amounts of textual data. Search engines and various digital tools give us the ability to learn more about literature by letting the computer process the texts. This practice is called “distant reading” and it is sometimes criticized for distancing the human from the reading. Distant reading can’t interpret the semantics of a verse in a sonnet like a human would, but it can measure the occurrence of certain words or phrases in over a million sonnets in an instant.  Distant reading is not completely distancing the human because it still needs humans to make sense of the computer’s work. The second criticism to distant reading is its reliability and bias. Context is everything and current text mining tools still need to work on that aspect of data analysis. According to Ted Underwood, text mining is a “focused form that only shows you what you already know to expect.” I believe that we need distant reading because we can’t read all the books in the world but we also need to develop better technologies that will allow us to make distant reading more intuitive and human-like. We need artificial intelligence (AI).

AI technology would merge close and distant reading. Imagine we teach a machine to think like a human. It would read a sonet and understand its meaning, metaphors, themes. It would appreciate its beauty and language. Most importantly it would do all of this in a split second and be able to actually “close read” all the sonnets in human history before a human would finish reading even one. The distant reading of the future would not distance the human from the reading. It would put the human – its creator – at the very center of it. This would only be possible if the AI is given a human-like consciousness, where it’s self-improving and developing, learning (mimicking) from others – like a human but much faster with no physical constraints of a fragile human being. Of course, having real AI technology raises a whole new set of issues (see The Terminator). Stephen Hawking said: “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race”. We can, however, use the concept of AI to improve our current distant reading technology and make distant reading less distant but equally or even more efficient. This is already happening. Last year inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil joined Google to breathe intelligence into Google Search. He is leading a project aimed at creating software capable of understanding text as well as humans can. More information about this project can be found on the MIT Technology Review or on The Guardian.

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