Big Data and Big History

by Will Katerberg.

“Big Data” is all the rage today. We have data sets so large that current database management software can’t handle it. Think, for example, of medical records and demographic statistics and the need to identify trends and patterns in them.

The study of history is going big these days too. We teach world history. “Big History” puts the story of humanity in a cosmic context, starting with the Big Bang, almost 14 billion years ago. “Deep history” is a little more modest, putting history in the context of the evolution of early humans.

Even intellectual historians are getting in on the act, returning to histories of ideas across long timeframes—such as how the idea of  “civil war” evolved from the ancient Romans to the twentieth century. 

The crying need is for “Big Data” pioneers to think “Long Data,” as Samuel Arbesman put it in Wired, trends over decades, centuries, and millennia. We need Big Data, to be sure. “But no matter how big that data is or what insights we glean from it,” Arbesman says, “it is still just a snapshot: a moment in time.” We need “moving pictures” of how processes “unfold over time.”

“We’re a species that evolves over ages — not just short hype cycles — so we can’t ignore datasets of long timescale. They offer us much more information than traditional datasets of big data that only span several years or even shorter time periods.”

Urbanization and health patterns are good examples. So too is the story of humans and climate change, as I discussed in a post a couple of weeks ago. A historical vision with a long timeframe is a counter-cultural proposition today, when “at 10 o’clock it’s news, and at 11 o’clock it’s history,” as a local TV station advertised.

Historians have an important role to play—if we take up the challenge, as we’ve done in the past. Studies of trends over long timeframes can provide historical perspective for policy makers. Big history is interesting in its own right. But historians should consider how “long data” can lend perspective to “big data” and the goals of policy makers.

William Katerberg’s areas of focus are intellectual history, the North American West, environmental history, and world history. He is the chairperson of the History Department at Calvin College.

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