The History of Big Data

Data can seem ethereal, abstract, and clean; and above, all, new. But while much is novel about the way corporations, governments, and individuals use massive computational resources to search for patterns, those who use big data draw on legacies from well before the computer age for data management, visualization, and analysis.

This course helps you understand data and information management as a 500 year process, not a new discovery. By looking at the materiality of data–the slips of paper, archival ledgers, and human computers that contain it–we’ll better understand how data is created, maintained, and absorbed. By looking at the cultural systems and labor regimes that produce data, we’ll see how what it means to work with data has changed–and remained the same.

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

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

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

  3. The relationship of data to the sciences.

  4. The different eras of computing since 1940, and the ways that our other three fields of inquiry shaped the development of computing.

This class is listed as a lecture, but will be run in a hybrid lecture-discussion format. It counts within the US history course requirement of the NYU history major.