Big Data: Big Problems, but New Opportunities

Reading over big data got me thinking about how problematic big data can be but also how highly beneficial it proves to be. As a student hoping to one day be a historian, big data is extremely useful in analyzing larger amount of text and cultural phenomena. Ngram viewer is a perfect example of big data in a simple form; however, the tool and the use of data becomes limited for the average user. Big Data projects we have gone over in class provide a new way to observe data beyond traditional methods. I found The Republic of Letters to be an excellent example of how data can be used within the humanities. However, I feel using textual analysis on top of this project will be the next step in analyzing the discussion and language used within these letters among intellectuals and political leaders. Considering big data, I think it will prove particularly beneficial to historians who are more considered with transnational history. It will provide historians the ability to observe cultural shifts within a context beyond artificial borders. While working on our website, I thought how awesome it would be to look at the language used in newspapers of Southern California to look at trends in language regarding race and class. On a side note, I would love a visual tool that showed both population shift and economic shift in Southern California to present to users a visual representation of white flight and the spatial formation of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Before even taking this class, I have pondered how social media data can be used for cultural analysis. I recall speaking to a political science professor a few semesters back about whether Facebook would prove to be a useful source for understanding the political climate; however, at the time, my professor did not consider it useful or practical. At the time that might have been true to them, but I believe big data of social media sites will become one of the most useful tools for historians who will one day be analyzing our historical period. Although I have had a love/hate relationship with Facebook and always question why I still have one, it is an interesting, and incredibly depressing, site to see cultural attitudes. I think using big data with regards to rhetoric and language on Facebook, future historians can observe language and identify it with regards to factors such as race, regional location, class, gender, and all other forms of identification.

However, the power of big data is also terrifying. Alistair’s article discussing big data as a civil right issue shows how big data is essentially a double-edged sword; unfortunately, corporations, with the exception of a few other institutions, have access to big data, and big data as a tool is widely isolated from academic in our current time. Therefore, big data, although there, is inaccessible to academia for the most part, and, instead of being used by the humanities, it is being used for economic purposes that are promoting discriminatory practices.

Facebook was accused of this not too long ago with their advertisements; Although I understand the upset over this, this is not the only circumstance in which discrimination occurs. Targeting niche audiences and demographics based on race, ethnicity, class, gender, and other identities still occurs. From an economic and marketing standpoint, this makes sense, but, from a moral and humanities perspective, this does prove to be extremely problematic. The controversy is over the “exclusion” option rather than the “inclusion” option. However, those two go hand in hand.

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