Order of Multitudes

Does big data have a history?

Big data promises an intellectual revolution, but it also brings us back to the fundamental questions at the heart of the human sciences. Whenever we sift through information, we make an argument about what is significant and what is not. Whenever we impose systematic order, we create a story about how individual contents relate to each other and to a larger whole.

The atlas, encyclopedia, and museum are examples of earlier attempts to represent the world. These three forms condense the world into smaller units that are more easily accessible to most people. In order to do this, atlases, encyclopedias, and museums are necessarily imperfect, and each excludes certain things in order to remain at a manageable size.

These three terms, each of which conjures the idea of universal knowledge, have a rich and complicated history. This history includes, among many other factors and agents, cultural exchanges within medieval Africa and Eurasia; the intellectual flourishing of ninth-century Baghdad and in the early days of the Qing dynasty in China; the legacies of the European Renaissance and Enlightenment, and their oft-problematic extensions in imperial politics; and postcolonial and decolonial thinkers’ deeply critical revisions of Western paradigms such as the “global,” the “human,” and the “universal” (which are assumed to cover all human beings at all times, but are often weighed down with modern and Western cultural baggage).

As ways of organizing knowledge, atlases, museums, and encyclopedias all provide tentative classifications and links rather than complete and ultimate explanations.

But though these tentative classifications create tension between the systems we create to make sense of our world, and the particulars that always reveal exceptions to these systems, this tension is not a bad thing. It can be intellectually productive, because this tension can be the starting point for discussing alternative modes of history. In the face of the current big data explosion, these historical precedents open up a space for reflection about how best to model the worlds we wish to explain to ourselves.


Ayesha Ramachandran

Associate Professor of Comparative Literature, Yale University

View Bio

Ayesha Ramachandran

Ayesha Ramachandran is an Assistant Professor of Comparative literature at Yale University. She works primarily with the English, French, and Italian literary traditions; however, her interests have extended to Portuguese, Spanish, Neo-Latin, Persian and early modern South Asian materials. Her work examines early modern maps, the history of science and technology, empires, and the rich visual archive of illustrated books. Her first book, The Worldmakers: Global Imagining in Early Modern Europe (University of Chicago Press, 2015), charts transnational encounters and the early mechanisms of globalization from the late fifteenth to the early eighteenth centuries. It was awarded the MLA’s Scaglione prize in Comparative Literary Studies (2017), the Milton Society of America’s Shawcross Prize for the best book chapter on Milton (2016), and the Sixteenth Century Studies Association’s Founder Prize for the best first book manuscript (2015). Her current book project, Lyric Thinking: Humanism, Selfhood, Modernity, argues for the central importance of lyric form and language in shaping new intellectual possibilities for the self. Moving from Petrarch to Descartes, while also considering their afterlives in modernist writing, it draws together scholarship on theories of mind, cognition and meditation.

Deborah Coen

Professor of History and History of Science and Medicine, Yale University

View Bio

Deborah Coen

Deborah R. Coen is a Professor of History and Chair of the Program in History of Science and Medicine at Yale University. Her first book, Vienna in the Age of Uncertainty: Science, Liberalism, and Private Life (University of Chicago Press, 2007), focused on an extraordinary scientific dynasty, the Exner-Frisch family. Vienna in the Age of Uncertainty won the Susan Abrams Prize from the University of Chicago Press, the Barbara Jelavich Prize from the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies, and the Austrian Cultural Forum Book Prize. Her latest book, Climate in Motion: Science, Empire, and the Problem of Scale (University of Chicago Press, 2018), won the 2019 Pfizer Award from the History of Science Society in recognition of an outstanding book dealing with the history of science. Climate in Motion is the first study of the science of climate dynamics before the computer age. It argues that essential elements of the modern understanding of climate arose as a means of thinking across scales of space and time. More recently, Coen is interested in the physical and social science of climate change. Her goal is to acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to bring history to bear on some of the implicitly historical questions that anthropogenic climate change raises.

Marta Figlerowicz

Associate Professor of Comparative Literature and English, Yale University

View Bio

Marta Figlerowicz

Marta Figlerowicz is an Associate Professor of Comparative Literature and English at Yale University. Her research articulates a counter-tradition to aesthetic individualism in Western art and literature. Her work connects this history from the seventeenth century to our contemporary digitally-mediated moment. Her first book, Flat Protagonists: A Theory of Novel Character (Oxford University Press, 2016), discusses an odd group of characters found across the long history of the French and British novel whose construction simplifies in the course of a narrative, instead of deepening or expanding. Her second book, Spaces of Feeling: Affect and Awareness in Modernist Literature (Cornell University Press, 2017), studies representations of intersubjective affective awareness in American, British, and French fiction and poetry. She is currently developing two new projects: a scholarly examination of the non-individualist phenomenology of contemporary digital media called Myths of Obscurity: The Self in the Age of Integrated Media and a popular audience book on global histories of selfhood. She also writes literary and cultural criticism for publications such as The Washington Post, n+1, Cabinet, Jacobin, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Yale Review, Logic, and Boston Review.

Upcoming Events

No events today!


Meet scholars, artists, scientists who confront the question of big data.

Load More Conversations


These are the intellectual puzzles that animate our inquiry. Find out More

Share This Page...