From Punched Cards to "Big Data"

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.

 

The emergence of modulation

“THE EMERGENCE OF MODULATION” (UNCODING DIGITAL, 2013)

“One very notable effect is that individuals, when using digital media, are always ‘seen’ and, as such, are subject to examination on a constant basis. In the case of a frequent flyer program, for example, a customer’s actions – especially those that generate points such as grocery shopping, flying, using their phone through a specific provider, and so on – are constantly observed and recorded, and the customer is constantly tested to check if they pass the test for moving up or down a rank, of which they are constantly reminded. In the context of digital technologies, in other words, no action is not subject to constant examination in some respect”

 

What is the social in social media?

WHAT IS THE SOCIAL IN SOCIAL MEDIA? (Lovink, 2012, E-Flux)

“[…] These algorithmic calculations run in the background and measure every single click, touch of the keyboard, and use of a keyword. For Baudrillard, this “positive absorption into the transparency of the computer” is even worse than alienation. The public has become a database full of users. The “evil genius of the social” has no other way to express itself than to go back to the streets and squares, guided and witnessed by the multitude of viewpoints that tweeting smartphones and recording digital cameras produce. In the same way that Baudrillard questioned the outcome of opinion polls as a subtle revenge of the common people on the political/media system, we should question the objective truth of the so-called Big Data originating from Google, Twitter, and Facebook. Most of the traffic on social media originates from millions of computers talking to each other”

 

Uncoding the digital

UNCODING THE DIGITAL (Savat, 2013)

“In my view, the mechanisms and instruments that Foucault identified as critical to the functioning of the disciplinary machine have not ceased to exist or broken down. In fact, the modes of observation by which discipline as a mode of power functions now operate more forcefully than ever, whether this be through the use of social media like Facebook, GPS location via mobile phone, radio frequency identification (RFID), or the collection of consumer data in our day-to-day activities” 

 

More parts than elements

MORE PARTS THAN ELEMENTS. HOW DATABASES MULTIPLY (Mackenzie, 2010)

“Databases can be understood as the pre-eminent contemporary doing, organising, configuring and performing thing-and-people multiples in sets. Participation, belonging, inclusion and membership: many of the relations that make up the material social life of people and things can be formally apprehended in terms of set-like multiples rendered as datasets. Mid-twentieth century database design derived different ways of gathering, sorting, ordering, and searching data from mathematical set theory. The dominant database architecture, the relational database management system (RDMS), can be seen as a specific technological enactment of the mathematics of set theory. More recent developments such as grids, clouds and other data intensive architectures apprehend ever greater quantities of data” 

 

 

Life in code and software

LIFE IN CODE AND SOFTWARE. MEDIATED LIFE IN A COMPLEX COMPUTATIONAL ECOLOGY (edited by David Berry, 2012)

 

“This book explores the relationship between living, code and software. Technologies of code and software increasingly make up an important part of our urban environment. Indeed, their reach stretches to even quite remote areas of the world. Life in Code and Software introduces and explores the way in which code and software are becoming the conditions of possibility for human living, crucially forming a computational ecology, made up of disparate software ecologies, that we inhabit”.