My talk takes the ubiquity of data in our own time as an inspiration to investigate data’s myriad histories. In order to present fresh perspectives on the dynamics of innovation at the historic crossroads of manual and machine data processing, in my remarks I delve into a micro-history of paperwork for census compilation in nineteenth-century Prussia. The advent of punch cards and the electric tabulating machine, invented in 1889, is typically described as a key milestone in the development of modern data processing, bringing about a fundamental and inexorable transformation of information technology.
My talk takes a stance against hurried conclusions of this nature. Rather than embrace teleological grand narratives of technological determinism, I explore the contingencies and particulars of the local, uncovering in the process precisely how the census bureau in Berlin mastered the compilation of census data. This perspective allows me to elucidate how well-tried older techniques and practices were integrated into an era defined by (ostensibly) new machinery. “Big Data’s Checkered Past” does not attempt to show that the past inexorably led to our current data moment, or, for that matter, bigger, better data. Rather, it serves to “make the familiar strange” by alerting us to how something as apparently self-evident as “data” has enveloped many surprising and unfamiliar contexts and practices.
Christine von Oertzen is a senior research scholar at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, Germany. Her work considers gender relations in society and science. Christine's most recent monograph, published in 2014, focuses on the creation and maintenance of female academic networks in western Europe and North America since the late-nineteenth century. Her current research revolves around two topics: the material culture of data processing in nineteenth-century Europe and at-home observation of infants in fin-de-ciècle North America. She is also co-editor of a forthcoming volume of Osiris entitled Data Histories (2017).
Christine is affiliated with the History and Philosophy of Science Unit at the University of Sydney, where she is teaching a six-week seminar on Darwinism, the human sciences, and the advent of childhood development studies. The title of her course is Humanity’s Baby Steps.
Image credit: Transferring enumeration data on Hollerith punch cards, U.S. census bureau, 1908. Courtesy Library of Congress, Washington D.C.
4.00pm Thursday 23 March 2017
Seminar Room, Level 4 Forgan Smith Tower
University of Queensland, St Lucia
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