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Critical Digital HumanitiesThe Search for a Methodology$
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James E. Dobson

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9780252042270

Published to Illinois Scholarship Online: September 2019

DOI: 10.5622/illinois/9780252042270.001.0001

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The Cultural Significance of k-NN

The Cultural Significance of k-NN

(p.101) Chapter 4 The Cultural Significance of k-NN
Critical Digital Humanities

James E. Dobson

University of Illinois Press

This chapter turns to a lower level of computation to produce a cultural critique and historicization of one of the most important algorithms used in digital humanities and other big-data applications in the present moment, the k-nearest neighbor or k-NN algorithm. The chapter reconstructs the partial genealogy, the intellectual history, of this important algorithm that was key to sense making in the midtwentieth century and has found continued life in the twenty-first century. In both its formalized description, its exposition in the papers introducing and refining the rule and its implementation in algorithmic form, and its actual use, the k-nearest neighbor algorithm draws on dominant midtwentieth-century ideologies and tropes, including partitioning, segregation, suburbanization, and democratization. In the process of situating the k-NN algorithm within the larger field containing other residual and emergent statistical methods, the author seeks to produce an intervention within the developing critical theory of algorithmic governmentality.

Keywords:   algorithms, algorithm studies, critical code studies, algorithmic governmentality, knowledge discovery tools, Bayesian statistics, bias, k-nearest neighbor

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