Big Data and the Humanities

Last week Columbia University held a daylong symposium titled “From Big Data to Big Ideas,” as part of the launch of its Institute for Data Science and Engineering. Despite the emphasis on technology that the Institute’s name implies, several of the participants brought up the need to include the humanities in this new world of Big Data that we as a society are embracing.

Steve Lohr of the New York Times was there. In his Sunday blog, “The Potential and the Risks of Data Science,” he says that during presentations by Columbian professors and computer scientists from various companies, including Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Bloomberg, issues around the misuse of Big Data – such as privacy and surveillance – were mentioned only in passing.

Lohr reports however, that concerns were expressed by a panelist from a company that has pushed the limits of Big Data collection and use: Google.

My concern is that the technology is way ahead of society,” said Ben Fried, Google’s chief information officer. There is danger, he suggested, if only a technical elite understand Big Data and its implications, with the risk of a runaway technology or a public rejection. “I think it is a mistake if conversations about this technology leave out the humanities,” he said. Broader social concerns, he explained, should be a guide and will affect the spread and use of Big Data technology.”

Evidently one of the Columbia professors is planning to make the humanities part of Big Data. Mark Hansen, director of the Institute’s New Media Center, is teaching his students from the University’s Graduate School of Journalism how to do some programming and understand the algorithms underlying Big Data. “Software algorithms, he (Hansen) said, are not impartial,” writes Lohr. “They are written by people, and can embody human values and biases.”

In their book, Big Data, Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier, devote several chapters to the perils of Big Data misuse and possible solutions. What they envision goes far beyond training journalists – whom Hansen calls “society’s explainers of last resort.”

The authors call for the creation of a new professional, what they call the “algorithmist.” These algorithmists would be experts in computer science, mathematics, and statistics and would act as reviewers of Big Data analyses and predictions.

And, given the tenor of the discussion at the Columbia symposium, it probably wouldn’t hurt if these new Big Data watchdogs had some training that included a smattering of the humanities – such as readings in the philosophy of the Enlightenment, the history of the Roman Empire, or what the Lake Poets of the 19th century were all about.

“Getting and spending we lay waste our powers,” cautioned William Wordsworth. Take heed.

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