In a recently released edition of the Journal of Field Archaeology, Brown Assistant Professor of Anthropology Parker VanValkenburgh and several colleagues detailed new research they conducted in the former Inca Empire in South America using drones, satellite imagery and proprietary online databases. Their results demonstrate that big data can provide archaeologists with a sweeping, big-picture view of the subjects they study on the ground — prompting new insights and new historical questions.
Using the data they collected, VanValkenburgh, Wernke and Saito created a comprehensive map of every known Spanish-founded colonial settlement, or reducción, stretching from Ecuador to Chile, allowing those who study the region to understand the ebb and flow of social life on a multi-country scale. (1)
People moving around. Like ants. Big Data will reveal things and details. Analysis will show patterns and will reveal motives. But it will never reveal anything for the baker who wakes up in the morning to bake bread. It will not show anything about the children playing in the dirt. Big Data will not show anything about a man dying and his wife crying next to him.
Big Data can show everything.
But at the same time they show nothing.
Why care about revealing new information for past civilizations? Will we be wiser if we know patterns which were not even consciously known even to the people at that era? Civilizations are not built on data, patterns or systems analysis. They are built on cries and laugher. They are built on blood and despair.
And Big Data will never show anything for these things.
Take a good look at the laptop running the analysis.
But do not be fooled by its tiny size.
It kills whole civilizations in seconds.
And as researchers laugh in excitement.
Beyond the buzz of the hard drive…
Thousands die in agony a thousand years ago…