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!



3 Rivers & Lemon Cove

roadside architecture

Some great roadside architecture and special places in Tulare County, California, between Sequoia National Park and Visalia.

Pumpkin Hollow Bridge an open spandrel reinforced concrete arch was built in 1922, spans the Kaweah River in Three Rivers.

Just to the north of the bridge is the Gateway Restaurant and Lodge, which displays a great sign enticing travelers to and from the park.


Further to the west stands the The Cottonwoods in Lemon Grove with great local history. The town also includes a restored and a vacant service station.


Expect Exceptional “isms”

It’s an intensely political and multifaceted debate. But what is it?


Wow.  Today on my dog walk, I read the article by the Washington Post on President Obama’s views and those of his critics on American exceptionalism.

It’s an intensely political and multifaceted debate. But what is it?

Born out of revolution, the United States is a country organized around an ideology which includes a set of dogmas about the nature of a good society. Americanism, as different people have pointed out, is an “ism” or ideology in the same way that communism or fascism or liberalism are isms. (Seymour Martin Lipset, American Exceptionalism: A Double Edged Sword, Washington Post, 1996).

Like any “ism“, it is collectively forged by individuals with a similar set of beliefs.  These beliefs are transferred into an ideology to inform and explain behavior.

American Exceptionalism is no different.  I recognize American Exceptionalism as rhetoric, the struggle for the power of defining “truth”, and historical revisionism.

What is interesting is the debate on how the personal traits and life experiences of our political leaders increasingly shape our social worldview and sense of truth.  Kudos for President Obama for using his unique position and speaking his version of the truth for a long overdue perspective.

In case you have long dog walks and are interested, the Washington Post has several (one, two, three) articles that explain the history, uses and consequences of American Exceptionalism.