Most people think of big data as some amorphous cloud of information. Even a definition everyone agrees on is hard to pin down. What makes data ‘big’? Most rely on the three V’s to define it: “huge in volume, high in velocity, and diverse in variety”.
In her recent Aeon piece, Why Big Data is Actually Small, Personal and Very Human, Rebecca Lemov, an associate professor of the history of science at Harvard University, argues that what we tend to forget that big data is made of personal information, personal choices— “the literal mining of subjectivity.” Big data is made of people.
However, to really understand big data, we have to look back to the behavioral sciences of the 20th century. Big data is not something created by our new digital technologies — it’s just been transformed by them.
Scientists have been “mining intimacy,” trying to understand our daily behavior for quite some time now, just with different tools. In the past, it used to be social surveys, polling efforts and focus groups. In fact, we have already been primed to give our intimate information freely to collectors of big data.
What’s the takeaway? Lemov writes that we need to understand history to understand big data, and we need to remember that big data is people. What we purchase, where we click, how we identify sexually, which websites we navigate to — yes, these are impersonal flows of information, but they are simultaneously the intimate details of our personal lives.