What to do with all this data? There’s now so much digital information being produced (about a terabyte per capita per year worldwide) that a major industry has arisen in response, promising to mine it for insight. A widely cited paper published in 2011 by the World Economic Forum and Bain & Company called personal data “the new oil.” According to its many boosters, Big Data—the neologism refers both to the bounty of information and to its analysis—is on the cusp of revolutionizing health care, scientific research, education, insurance, public health, energy policy, and national security.
The humanities are also jumping on the Big Data train. With museum archives, ancient manuscripts, and whole libraries being digitized, some researchers argue that data analysis will let studies of culture finally claim some of the empirical certainty traditionally associated with “hard” sciences like chemistry and physics. In their new book, Uncharted: Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture, Erez Aiden, a mathematician and geneticist, and Jean-Baptiste Michel, a data scientist, echo that argument, expressing total confidence that “Big data is going to change the humanities, transform the social sciences, and renegotiate the relationship between the world of commerce and the ivory tower.” Access to unprecedented amounts of information, they contend, will give rise to “culturomics,” a new form of cultural history that wrings its insights from sophisticated data analysis.