Editor’s Choice: Big History: or the Curse of Storytelling in Human Knowledge

Language and storytelling is a stubborn trait of human nature, and, as we will see, an inherent part of History, if not science. Begin by squinting your eyes and peering just ahead: everywhere at the extremities of the Big Data space, storytelling rears its ugly, incarnate head. The signs of it are legion. Big Bang theologians, both secular and religious, endlessly dispute mathematical models of the universe’s creation, and humanity’s ultimate end. On the mucky side of the data-verse, images of human drama endlessly recur on the nightly news and in our social media feeds, like a hyperreal collective fiction, too pressing to ignore. And the Cold War era practice of computer simulation, previously content with abstract modelling, forecasting and prediction, is now taking every opportunity for human-machine interfacing with VR, the quantified self, and smart prosthetics.

In this four-part article series, I want to ask: what does Big Data portend for the making of History, and what does this means for us, the “old subjects of History”, storytellers of human events? As more and more details and domains of the human story fold into the simulation space, how shall we account for lived experience, and the memory of this lived experience? Will the “sentient” beings of the future learn the lessons of life and history from simulations? Bots, zombies, humanoids, transhumans: who will be the future protagonist of Big History? What will become of us in our great quantification experiment?

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This content was selected for Digital Humanities Now by Editor-in-Chief Jordan F. Bratt based on nominations by Editors-at-Large: Roger L. Martínez-Dávila, Maria Manuel Borges, Scott Paul McGinnis, Jeanne Gillespie, Myriam Mertens, Lindsay Hall, Andrew Piper