Big Data – A 19th Century Problem

Recently, I was reading an article entitled “Big data problems we face today can be traced to the social ordering practices of the 19th century.”  It led me to think a bit about this history of scholarly communication project which I think is very related to the larger issues they’re discussing.  The first reaction, at least from a historian’s point of view is that the “Big Data” conversation is not the second time this has happened but (at least) the third.  The first arguably would be what Ann Blair has discussed in Too Much to Know, which dealt with the large amount of information produced with the explosion of print also led to new ways of thinking about information management.  Additionally, Peter Burke’s two volume Social History of Knowledge traces some of the same trends over an even longer period of time.  All of that said, the link Robertson and Travaglia make here that I think is unique is the connection between the explosion of data and the political implications.  For the first time, managers felt the need to tie the information society collected to things like performance, productivity, and other metrics, particularly through statistical methods of analysis.  This development of measuring people via statistically sampling data, is certainly true today, and I would agree that in some ways it almost seems like an extension of these earlier trends.

I wanted to comment specifically however on the implications of the larger issues the article discusses with scholarly communication, some of which they actually mention briefly by stating “In some ways growing academic specialisations created a situation in which what was gained through a narrowing of focus and growth in sub-disciplinary activity was also lost in generalisability. This distinctly Victorian problem endures to the present day despite interdisciplinary projects of various kinds.”  They then continue on to suggest that nineteenth century ideologies (including some that are distinctly contrary to modern notions of equality) have continued into the analyses of present day big data issues, and that those underlying ideologies need to be changed.

One of the ideologies not specifically mentioned, but I think very relevant, is a “Whiggish” view of historical progress.  To put that another way, in the early nineteenth and even into the twentieth century, there was a view that the world will continually progress into something new and better.  One of the other strands of historical argument that has played into this Whiggish notion of progress is a belief in technological determinism which posits that technological change drives such progress.  Though such ideas are mostly anathema now, I think one can see the discussions we currently have about the university and its purpose might be tied to these Whiggish views.  For instance discussion that we should eliminate humanities departments and to increase STEM education seem at least to me to fit into these notions of Whiggish and technologically deterministic history.

What does this have to do with scholarly communication?  As Robertson and Travaglia suggest, disciplinarity and the ways universities developed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, arguably play into these very notions of creating a method for continuing progress.  The fields of history, history of science, and other disciplines have moved on to other philosophies of interpreting the past, and may even be using big data to prove theories about why technological determinism and whig history are wrong.  How do we bring this discourse into the conversation, especially since policy makers even now may be using discredited Whig notions to decide the future of university education and the production of knowledge?



One thought on “Big Data – A 19th Century Problem

  1. Pingback: » Engines of Knowledge in the First Information Age: Botany and the Garden Part 1 The Sociological Imagination

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