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An experiment in writing in public, one page at a time, by S. Graham, I. Milligan, & S. Weingart

The Joys of Big Data for Historians

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Previous Section: Who are we and how did we get into Digital History?

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 In this chapter, we look at the emergence of the idea of ‘big data’ for historians, examining some case studies in the broader field of the digital humanities. We discuss the limits of big data in terms of historical practice, and make an argument for why all of us – whether we employ the methods discussed in this book or not – need to be aware of why this matters.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 A macroscope is a bit like a microscope or a telescope, but instead of allowing you to see things that are small or far away, the macroscope makes it easier to grasp the incredibly large. It does so through a process of compression, by selectively reducing complexity until once-obscure patterns and relationships become clear. Often, macroscopes produce textual abstractions or data visualizations in lieu of direct images.[1]

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Pointed at human history, the macroscope offers a stark contrast to what has become standard historical practice. Rather than through compression, good historians, like good detectives, test their merit through expansion: the ability to extract complex knowledge from the smallest crumbs of evidence that history has left behind. By tracing the trail of these breadcrumbs, a historian might weave together a narrative of the past. A historian’s macroscope offers a complementary, but very different, path to knowledge. It allows you to begin with the complex and winnow it down until a narrative emerges from the cacophony of evidence.[2]

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 In this, an important distinction needs to be made between our understanding of the micro and macroscope versus micro and macro-history; the two do not dovetail perfectly together. Microhistory involves the rigorous and in-depth study of a single story or moment in history, whereas macrohistory susses out long-term trends and eddies, such as Fernand Braudel’s longue durée. A macroscope, by studying large quantities of data, could fit into microhistory; imagine the parsing of hundreds of thousands of tweets around a single American presidential debate, for example. Yet it also helps us understand macrohistory: tracing fluctuating word and topic frequency over decades, or even centuries. Macroscopes are not bound by time, but rather quantity. They also draw upon a rich heritage of computational history, stretching back to early cutting-edge work done with censuses in the 1960s.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 As history becomes digitized in ever-increasing scales, historians without the ability to research both micro- and macroscopically may be in danger of becoming mired in evidence or lost in the noise. This book is aimed at those historians who aspire to turn the macroscope on their own research, an increasingly important skill in our historical moment.[3] It is neither exhaustive in scope nor terribly deep in any one methodology; instead, we have filled this book with the first stepping-stones for many different roads. We hope interested readers will follow those paths into areas yet unexplored.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Next Section: Big Data


8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 [1] On visualizations and abstractions, Lorraine Daston has written “these techniques aim at more than making the invisible visible. They aspire to all-at-once-ness, the condensation of laborious, step-by-step procedures into an immediate coup d’oeil, […]. What was a painstaking process of calculation and correlation—for example, in the construction of a table of variables—becomes a flash of intuition.” See Lorraine Daston, “On Scientific Observation,” Isis 99.1 (March 2008): 97-110. This is the goal of the macroscope: to highlight immediately what often requires careful thought and calculation, sometimes more than is possible for a single person.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 [2] We are neither the first to coin the term macroscope, nor the first to point its gaze toward human history. It was originally used by Joël de Rosnay, The Macroscope: A New World Scientific System (New York: Harper & Row, 1979) to discuss complex societies, and has most recently been popularized by Kay Börner, “Plug-and-Play Macroscopes.” Communications of the ACM 54, no. 3 (March 1, 2011): 60, in the context of tools that allow one to see human activities at a distance. Macroscopes have been brought up in the humanities as well, such as by Tim Tangherlini (see his ‘Tracking Trolls: New Challenges from the Folklore Macroscope, eHg Annual Lecture, Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, December 12 2013 http://www.ehumanities.nl/ehg-annual-lecture-tim-tangherlini-ucla/) to similar effect. In literary criticism and history, similar concepts have been called “distant reading,” as articulated by Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History (London; New York: Verso, 2007 or “macroanalysis” in Matthew L. Jockers, Macroanalysis: Digital Methods & Literary History (Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2013). In their recent Uncharted: Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture (New York: Riverhead, 2013) on culturomics, Erez Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel wrote of their intent “to build a scope to study human history.” (18)

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 [3] Jo Guldi and David Armitage effectively argue the importance of Macroscopic thinking in their monograph The History Manifesto (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

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Source: http://www.themacroscope.org/?page_id=595