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"The Next Big Thing in Humanities, Arts and Social Science Computing: Cultural Analytics." Interview by Kevin D. Franklin and Karen Rodriguez'G, ICHASS.
July 29, 2008.


HPC Wire: What is your vision with regards to links between your work and supercomputing?

Lev Manovich: As I already mentioned, people in humanities usually deal with the past culture as opposed to the present. However, while we certainly can find large data sets in the past - for instance, 800,000 art images available in digital format at Artstor - only in contemporary culture do we find really big data sets that truly justify the use of supercomputers. I am talking, of course, about the phenomenon of user-generated content (or "social media").
The numbers of people participating in social networks, sharing media, and creating user-generated content are astonishing, at least from the perspective of early 2008. (In 2012 or 2018 they may seem trivial in comparison to what will be happening then.) MySpace, for example, claims 300 million users. Cyworld, a Korean site similar to MySpace, claims 90 percent of South Koreans in their 20s and 25 percent of that country's total population (as of 2006) use it. Hi5, a leading social media site in Central America has 100 million users and Facebook, 14 million photo uploads daily. The number of new videos uploaded to YouTube every twenty-four hours (as of July 2006): 65,000.

If these numbers seem amazing, consider a relatively new platform for media production and consumption: the mobile phone. In early 2007, 2.2 billion people had cell phones; by the end of 2008 this number is expected to be 3 billion. Obviously, people in an Indian village sharing one mobile phone are probably not making video blogs for global consumption. But this is today. Think of the following trend: Flickr, founded in 2004, had already 2 billion images by November 2007, with a few million images being uploaded daily. The number of cultural objects created by the people in the past and preserved in museums, libraries and archives is fixed. We can't make it any bigger. Once the idea of using supercomputers to analyze this data becomes popular, soon all this past data will be analyzed. In fact, given the size of this data and the continuously growing computer speed, we can also expect that rather soon a researcher will be able to process all of human cultural heritage (more exactly, the part of it available in digital form) on her laptop or phone - without any supercomputers.

However, given the current trends, we can expect that user-generated media - Web sites, blogs, user-generated photos, videos, maps, and other types of media - will continue to expand at a rapid pace. Similarly, as the numbers of cultural professionals and students in the world keep increasing, professionally produced content will also keep growing. The following are just some of the Web portals, which collect work from around the world: - motion graphics and animation; Coroflot - over 90,000 design portfolios; Archinect - projects by architecture students; Infosthetics - information visualization projects. Therefore I feel that it is contemporary culture - including works created by both professional and non-professionals - that will keep supercomputers busy in years to come.

Finally, I should add that, in my view, the phenomenon of "social media" means not only the media objects created by normal people and pro-ams, but also conversations between people around these objects. People discuss each other's photos on Flickr, leave comments on YouTube, write movie reviews, and so on. The size of this "conversation data" also continues to grow. It is important for two reasons. On the one hand, for the first time in history we can empirically study the reception of culture by looking at opinions, comments, and ideas of lots and lots of people. And on the other hand, this already enormous conversation data provides another reason for use of supercomputers for cultural analysis.

2008  Interview