“If you make the margins too narrow,” McLoughlin adds, “I’ll mark you down a grade.”
Needless to say, nobody got an A on that paper. There may have been a B or two, the good professor informed us. Not me. It was all I could do to contain my flowery opening paragraph to a single page. Some of us recovered slightly on paper two, in which we committed “The Age of Lincoln and Calhoun” to three, double-spaced pages. Some retreated to organic chemistry and other more reasonable challenges.
Little did I know, but I had just been introduced to Big Data—though it would take another generation to earn that name. Take an endless, insurmountable, seemingly disconnected pile of information, separate the grain from the chaff (or, as my engineering friends might say, signal from noise), and tell a concise, compelling story about what it all means.
For the last year, you may have noticed, it’s been hard to escape stories about “Big Data.” In a world where everything can be measured—from your location to how well you sleep to how long you brush your teeth, Big Data has arrived with a vengeance.
Some historians wrestle with Big Historical Data their entire careers. Me, I headed to business school and ended up trying to build successful companies. In the process, I spent an awful lot of time pondering questions about product, customer, competitor, and strategy.
There's a funny thing about strategy. It goes something like this: Take an endless, insurmountable, seemingly disconnected pile of information, separate the grain from the chaff, and tell a concise, compelling story about what it all means. Sound familiar? I’ve had to do that kind of thinking in everything from baby products to pet food to music to the global perishable supply chain. I thank my lucky stars every day for Professor McLoughlin.
We're being told now, in the emerging world of Big Data, that there will be more and more piles of information being collected. If so, is there any group in the world better trained to make sense of it all—to wade confidentially into the sea of Big Data—than historians?
Tom Friedman, author of The World Is Flat, believes that integration is the new specialty—that someone with a renaissance view of the world is more likely to spark an innovation than a siloed thinker. If you are learning the craft of history, that could very well be you.
I do not know exactly what Big Data jobs will look like over the next generation, but I couldn’t predict a decade ago that there would be thousands of “app developers” or positions called “Chief Evangelist” or professional bloggers. But this I believe: God blesses the storyteller, and always has; it is he or she who makes data human, and our only real chance to use it like a tool instead of a club.