Big Data Problems We Face Today Can Be Traced to the Social Ordering Practices of the 19th Century

  • 2016-01-07
  • The London School of Economics and Political Science

In the 19th century, changes in knowledge were facilitated not only by large quantities of new information pouring in from around the world but by shifts in the production, processing and analysis of that information. Hamish Robertson and Joanne Travaglia trace the connections between the 19th century data revolution and the present day one, outlining the implications this may have for the politics of big data in contemporary society. Two centuries after the first big data revolution, many of the problems and their solutions persist down to the present era.

This is not the first ‘big data’ era but the second. The first was the explosion in data collection that occurred from the early 19th century – Hacking’s ‘avalanche of numbers’, precisely situated between 1820 and 1840. This was an analogue big data era, different to our current digital one but characterized by some very similar problems and concerns. Contemporary problems of data analysis and control include a variety of accepted factors that make them ‘big’ and these generally include size, complexity and technology issues. We also suggest that digitisation is a central process in this second big data era, one that seems obvious but which has also appears to have reached a new threshold. Until a decade or so ago ‘big data’ looked just like a digital version of conventional analogue records and systems. Ones whose management had become normalised through statistical and mathematical analysis. Now however we see a level of concern and anxiety, similar to the concerns that were faced in the first big data era.

This situation brings with it a socio-political dimension of interest to us, one in which our understanding of people and our actions on individuals, groups and populations are deeply implicated. The collection of social data had a purpose – understanding and controlling the population in a time of significant social change. To achieve this, new kinds of information and new methods for generating knowledge were required. Many ideas, concepts and categories developed during that first data revolution remain intact today, some uncritically accepted more now than when they were first developed. In this piece we draw out some connections between these two data ‘revolutions’ and the implications for the politics of information in contemporary society. It is clear that many of the problems in this first big data age and, more specifically, their solutions persist down to the present big data era.

Image Credit: Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images