4.3 Challenges and questions
Big humanities data
We are beginning to see the emergence of humanities ‘big data’ (see Week 3, Session 2): datasets too large to be humanly navigable. At the time of writing (June 2020), 500 hours of footage are added to YouTube each minute, and 6,000 tweets are sent per second. The challenges of studying these materials are enormous, both in terms of navigation and of handling.
Another challenge is the changeability of digital data. While enormous effort is expended in conserving artefacts through digitisation, digital files are easily lost through technological failure, corruption, obsolescence, or deliberate alteration. Support for software ends, operating systems change, and cloud storage subscriptions expire leaving data stranded. Ensuring the consistent availability of digital materials in the long-term is the concern of a field known as digital preservation, and archival institutions are now engaged with this in their core operations.
Activity 7 Digital data and loss
Make a note of all of the digital devices you own that produce data. Are they backed-up? Have you ever lost documents, photographs, texts, or other important information when you have lost a device, or it has been broken or damaged? Roughly how much do you think you have lost?
Empathy and ethics
We all form a part of the digital record; we are contributors to and subjects of the very same datasets that we use. With this comes an enhanced awareness of our ethical responsibilities including intellectual property rights, data protection and good practice.
Humans and the humanities
The greatest challenge that confronts us is how to draw out human experience from such a vast quantity of data. With all of the commercial and state interests at play on the internet, and all of the self-styling and appearance-managing that individuals and organisations participate in, the question of how we find, explore, analyse and narrate to produce rich histories of human experience is far from simple to answer.