Here’s a very imaginative way to get a little primer on the power of metadata. In the discussions of recent revelations about surveillance, it is sometimes suggested that concerns about privacy are overblown, because “it’s only metadata;” in other words, it’s “only” who you called, not what you talked about.
But here we see that some basic info can be manipulated to generate powerful findings–in this case about the role of Paul Revere in the Revolution that has been obscured by the “midnight ride” story. But, as the author alludes to, the more nefarious next step is making leaps of “guilt by association.”
The writing here, setting the post in the 1770s, is really quite clever. I particularly like “At this point in the eighteenth century, a 254×254 matrix is what we call “Bigge Data”. I have an upcoming EDWARDx talk about it. You should come.”
But there are other interesting things at play here, too. I have been fascinated since my undergraduate days by historiography–how one does history. And this use of modern sociological tools to get at historical knowledge is pretty cool, I think.
And finally, the always interesting question of how history is told–great man, social forces, etc.– is illuminated in the article noted at the end of the blog post:
It is impossible not to notice the elaborately sculpted hills of the founding fathers in the historiographical landscape of the American Revolution. Overshadowed by those hills in the backdrop are the vast heath of the Unknowns and the occasional glades of the middling characters that had played various supporting roles. Such selective memory, after all, has always been the way in which histories are written. However, failing to be evenhanded in allotting historical recognition is one thing; missing the underlying historical process is another (Fischer 1970; Stinchcombe 1978).