This course helps students to understand contemporary excitement and fears about “Big Data” in a long historical context. Much is new about the way corporations, governments, and individuals use massive computational resources to search for patterns. But those who use big data draw on legacies from well before the computer age for data management, for structuring a complicated world into measurable quantities.

Course Website

The course web site is at http://benschmidt.org/bigdata. Assignments, reading responses, and readings will all be posted here. The version of the syllabus online is the definitive one: there may be changes to the schedule or readings, and the online version will be the latest and takes precedence over whatever paper copy you have.

We’ll talk about how to create an account early in the semester.

Course Themes

We will trace the long history of big data through four parallel strands:

  1. The rise of massive systems of data collection by the government in the 19th century through institutions like the census and the military.

  2. The attempts of American businesses to collect and use data to control their markets and their workers.

  3. The turn to data by the sciences.

  4. The development of computers from the 1940s on, and the ways that social forces shaped the development of computing.

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