‘Big Data:’ A New and Exciting Reality or A Terrifying Nightmare

If you told me a year ago that I would be taking a class where we discuss historians use of ‘Big Data’ to analyze their primary sources, I would have told you that you were out of your mind.  Yet I, a self-confessed technological novice found myself enjoying reading this material and partaking in using these technologies. For instance, our fearless leader, Professor Graham scraped the data from John Addams’ diaries and put it into a spreadsheet and we put this document into Voyant and Overview. So what did we learn about Mr. Addams by looking at the frequency of the words he used? Well, he liked to write about the weather and spent a lot of time eating and drinking, as all upstanding gentlemen in Early American society did.

I am still trying to figure out the whole Twitter thing, which I am pretty embarrassed to admit, but these tools are also great for looking at the words we use in our tweets. Furthermore, it is weird that people actually read and respond to what I have to say, I am used to keeping what I have to say within the confines of the classroom. Even though it is 2014, I am slow to join the digital universe.

Digital humanist, Tim Hitchcock’s discussion about ‘distant reading’ versus ‘close reading’ was very thought provoking. This is especially true for the case study of Sarah Durrant, which Hitchcock used to demonstrate how historians can use programs that examine ‘Big Data’ to study the lives on ordinary individuals. Furthermore, he also calls on historians examining “Big Data” to not accept the results generated from programs like Voyant or Overviews as the “truth, “ but to go beyond these datasets and question what they mean. This was a discussion that was had by many of us in Hist5702x.  How do we incorporate these technologies into our own work in a meaningful way? In addition, I think I am still at the point where these technologies are a shiny toy that I enjoy reading about and playing with, but not incorporating into my research processes. I think this is because of the type of research I do and my hesitation to do something new. Yet, I appreciate the potential it holds.

For my own research, which relies heavily on oral histories, these technologies are not very useful because analyzing audio recordings are not within their current capabilities.  Yet, in the future, if this becomes possible, it would make analyzing interviews much easier, especially if a researcher is using a large number of interviews. Nonetheless, if I transcribe my research, these technologies could be extremely useful to analyze the types of language my interviewees use, as well as the patterns that exist between the words they use and the topics they are describing.

The other issue in joining this community of digital humanists is how do we get them to take our work seriously? From our discussions about digital publishing and ‘Big Data’, I have learned that many digital projects expect us to use untraditional methods to make our work available. In an ideal world, every potential employee would appreciate the ingenuity and creativity of this work, but how do we convince old school historians to take 3d modelling seriously. Yes, they may be amazed by its capabilities, but I am not sure if they will see it as an important contribution to academia due to these untraditional formats. These are not new problems that no one has thought about in the past. No doubt you will find people writing about them all over the Internet. However, these are what I am struggling with at this point in my journey.