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The amount of information being produced every year far exceeds the physical space of even the largest university libraries, like the University of Toronto's Robarts Library (Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail)
The amount of information being produced every year far exceeds the physical space of even the largest university libraries, like the University of Toronto's Robarts Library (Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail)

Education

Who reads four million e-mails? The NSA – and professors Add to ...

History – and the other humanities and social sciences, and the students who attend university to learn them – are all under intense suspicion. Apparently there's a pressing need to decide if we are worthwhile or not.

We know that when governments call for investment in research, they typically mean applied research - the kind that's done in "white-lab-coat" fields like sciences, engineering and medicine.

Yet there is growing skepticism of the value of social science or humanities degrees. We hear plenty of questions about the "usefulness" of university degrees. We hear less about how the changing nature of scholarship is creating a generation of graduates who are more adept than any other at juggling complex texts, information management and knowledge creation.

The essential practices of scholarship remain the essential practices of rational thought: researching, writing, publishing and communicating. In my own field of history, since the dawn of computing we have been discovering new ways to produce and understand knowledge. Digitization has had a huge impact on the demands scholars put on themselves and on each other. These are the same expectations we put on our students.

We used to describe the Web as a library where all the books, journals, and magazines had been pulled off the shelves and thrown on the floor. In 2003, researchers at the University of California at Berkeley estimated that about five exabytes of information had been created the previous year. If we printed five exabytes in traditional book form, those books would fill 37,000 libraries the size of the Library of Congress. 

Just five years later another study estimated that Americans consumed 3.6 zettabytes of information in 2008. If printed, 3.6 zettabytes would blanket the entire USA – including Alaska – to a depth of seven feet. We know the online world is big the way a fish knows the ocean is big, and today's students of the humanities and social sciences learn how to navigate that ocean.

The scope of the challenges being met becomes clearer when we think of historians. Dan Cohen, the executive director of the Digital Public Library of America, first pointed out that if a scholar wanted to write a history of the Lyndon Johnson White House, she would have to read and analyze 40,000 memos issued during Johnson's administration. But to write about the Clinton White House she would have four million e-mails to deal with. It's impossible for any person to read four million e-mails. How does she then write the history?

The situation will only get even more intellectually intense. With information being created and accumulated faster than it can be read, tomorrow's scholars will never be able to say they've done a systematic review of the available knowledge on most subjects.

For most people this is chaos: too much information and not enough time. But in academia we call it a culture of abundance. Scholars understand that when information comes to us, it needs to be sorted and indexed to make sense. Where most people lack the attention to process "too much" information, that processing ability is exactly what students of the humanities are cultivating. Software can create an index, build a concordance and relate and cluster documents appropriately. Text-mining programs can read all four million e-mails from the Clinton White House using parameters set by the researcher. Scholars using machine-learning algorithms analyze millions of books at a time.

Skilled use of these tools, and the resulting data, is an evolution of information management, global contextualization and the protection of source integrity. These are the skills shortages that hinder corporations and smaller enterprises alike.

Working against this background of abundance are the thousands of scholars attending this week's Congress 2014, the annual ideas festival that brings together Canada's top humanities and social sciences thinkers. More than 8,000 of them are meeting at Brock University, where they will  share findings and build partnerships that shape Canada's future.

If the corporate establishment's attitudes toward scholarship don't change, then our "knowledge economy" risks being set adrift on the "too much information" ocean.

Hopefully the value of a historian will be calculated before it's too late.

Kevin Kee is Associate Vice-President of Research at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., and the Canada Research Chair in Digital Humanities.

 

 

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