How We (the Internet) Democratized History

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Author: Samir Nazim

Today, the sphere of discussion surrounding big data primarily focuses on two things: government spying and commercial opportunity. It took the successful social media platform Facebook to utilize both of these focuses to their advantage. Facebook’s vast database provides as an online directory for a good chunk of the human race, with the names, photos, tastes and desires of nearly a billion people (Sengupta, 2012). However, if big data is useful in surveillance and marketing, for the last few years it has spoken a new narrative: the human story.

Our knowledge of history is traced through those who made the deepest impact in mankind. Conquerors, tycoons, martyrs, saviors – their lives are used to explain a larger story. They become our markers of human progression. Yet for the rest of mankind, the everyday citizen, their existence wasn’t worth recording. However, big data is shaking down this paradigm. Through the use of dating and social media sites, the common citizen is beginning to write the history of the future. As the internet has democratized journalism, photography, comedy, and other personal endeavors, it will eventually democratize the human narrative (Rudder, 2014). Big data will not change the course of history, rather it will change how history is told. On hard drives filled with terabytes of data, there is now room for more than just the heroes. Professor Kate Crawford at University of New South Wales, and Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research New England, states that:

"Big Data creates a radical shift in how we think about research and it offers ‘the capacity to collect and analyze data with an unprecedented breadth and depth and scale’. Big Data reframes key questions about the constitution of knowledge, the processes of research, how we should engage with information, and the nature and the categorization of reality." (Boyd, 2012)

To understand Professor Crawford’s argument, we must look at the volume of data that is actually being collected. More than 1 out of every 3 American’s access Facebook every day (Rudder, 2014). Dating sites in the United States have registered 55 million members in the last three years (Rudder, 2014). These big numbers don’t prove that we have accumulated enough data to paint a clear picture of our present culture and society, rather it indicates that a picture is coming in the future.

The people using these dating sites, social sites, and news sites are living their lives as they always have. Only now - they do it on phones and laptops. As mankind’s timeline progresses, a unique archive of information is being created. Archives around the world storing years of yearning, opinion, and chaos. We are now given the ability to analyze this data in the fullness of time, but with a flexibility unimaginable from just a decade ago. Analyzing through terabytes of data, the idea is to detach our understanding of ourselves away from the narrative – and think in such a way that numbers and data become the narrative (Rudder, 2014).

References

Boyd, Danah, and Kate Crawford. "Critical questions for big data: Provocations for a cultural, technological, and scholarly phenomenon." Information, communication & society 15.5 (2012): 662-679.

Rudder, Christian. Dataclysm: Who We Are When We Think No One's Looking. First edition. Crown Publishers, 2014.

Sengupta, Somini. "Facebook’s Prospects May Rest on Trove of Data." The New York Times. The New York Times, 14 May 2012.