The Once and Future Historian

Big data and big change await the future historian

Reading Alan Taylor’s American Colonies: The Settling of North America, Vol. 1 has been a treat.  contentGood writing – especially history – stays with you revealing patterns, providing context, challenging assumptions, and establishing a point of view.  Well researched and written, and now over a decade since published, Taylor’s book challenges many of the common myths (at least I was taught) related to the founding of America.

Scholars of each generation reinterpret the past as historical revisionism, a process that forms an important part of scholarship in history.  At the core of good history is research and analysis – sifting through data to identify trends and patterns to make connections and draw conclusions.

Being a historian and a science fiction junkie, the futurist in me wonders how historians and scholars in 50, 100, or 500 years will interpret and reinterpret the past.  A key question is how will research and analysis be conducted.  Enter the data generated by the Digital Information Revolution.

“Computers are able to measure, record, analyze and store data on a near limitless scale, with faster processing speeds and greater storage capacity improving and increasing daily… Computers have enabled us to move on from the previous method of analyzing small samples of data and drawing conclusions with varying margins of error, and basing entire theories based on those limited samples, to the current ability to analyze the entire data set thereby getting an exact insight into a given subject… Today we can load up even disorganized data and have “intelligent” algorithms find correlations we may not have even suspected.”

“Big Data: History, Development, Application, and Dangers” by the Future of Human Evolution (online).

I have arrived at similar conclusions as the Future of Human Evolution and American Historical Association’s James Grossman: the future historian will need to be a skilled algorithmist to sort through the unbelievable amount of data.

“Decontextualized data are frequently offered to potential users who quite reasonably assume that understanding patterns of behavior in the past can help to predict future activity… untangling their true meanings requires proper analysis of their context. To study these signals is to study change—to figure out how change happens—which is what historians do best.”

-James Grossman, “Big Data”: An Opportunity for Historians? in Perspectives on History (American Historical Association), March 2012 (online).

Successful historians will harness big data and be adept at information technology and computer algorithms.  This introduces much greater quantitative skills into an inherently qualitative field.

Big changes await the future historian – changes that finally put that required statistics graduate class to work!



Author: Chad Moffett

Traveler, dog lover, runner, thinker, and conversationalist. Originally from the Upper Great Lakes area - the great states of Wisconsin and Minnesota. Now enjoying the West and northern California. Leave me a message and let me know what you are thinking.

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