FROM PUNCHED CARDS TO “BIG DATA”: A SOCIAL HISTORY OF DATABASE POPULISM (Kevin Driscoll, 2012)
Since the diffusion of the punched card tabulator following the 1890 U.S. Census, mass-scale information processing has been alternately a site of opportunity, ambivalence and fear in the American imagination. While large bureaucracies have tended to deploy database technology toward purposes of surveillance and control, the rise of personal computing made databases accessible to individuals and small businesses for the first time. Today, the massive collection of trace communication data by public and private institutions has renewed popular anxiety about the role of the database in society. This essay traces the social history of database technology across three periods that represent significant changes in the accessibility and infrastructure of information processing systems. Although many proposed uses of “big data” seem to threaten individual privacy, a largely-forgotten database populism from the 1970s and 1980s suggests that a reclamation of small-scale data processing might lead to sharper popular critique in the future.