Highlighted Selections from:

From Punched Cards to ‘Big Data’: a Social History of Database Populism


Driscoll, Kevin (2012) "From Punched Cards to "Big Data": A Social History of Database Populism," communication +1: Vol. 1, Article 4. Available at: http://scholarworks.umass.edu/cpo/vol1/iss1/4

p.6: Gillespie notes that charges of censorship assume that the underlying communication system is otherwise functioning justly. Therefore, when Occupy supporters accused Twitter of censorship, they revealed a certain faith in the fairness of the opaque mechanics of the Trending Topics system. -- Highlighted mar 11, 2014

p.6: The inability of Occupy protesters to articulate their frustration with the Trending Topics algorithm exemplifies one type of fear that has long accompanied massscale information processing systems. As users entrust opaque institutions such as Twitter to responsibly steward their intimate communication, they make themselves vulnerable to a remote technical system that exceeds their discursive capacity to express expectations and grievances. -- Highlighted mar 11, 2014

p.6: Is Twitter ethically bound to explain its internal algorithms and data structures in a language that its users can understand? Conversely, are users ethically bound to learn to speak the language of algorithms and data structures already at work within Twitter? -- Highlighted mar 11, 2014

p.9: This three-part narrative is not a comprehensive chronicle of database theory and technology nor does it address the political economy of most database management systems. Rather, it should provide a foundation for future inquiry into the social impact of mass-scale information processing. -- Highlighted mar 11, 2014

p.10: Early applications of information processing by the state tended to use information for “the active control of individuals.” 1 ” 19 Fingerprinting for the incarcerated, psychological screening for draft inductees, and income tax for working people were all semiautomated information processing systems in place in the U.S. before 1920. -- Highlighted mar 11, 2014

p.11: Poor archival practices lead to a terrible loss when the only copies of the handwritten records were destroyed in a fire in 1921. This avoidable calamity highlights one of the dangers of ignoring the differences among various data management systems. To many members of the 1890 census team, the production of punched cards from handwritten forms was taken for granted as a straight-forward transfer—rather than a transformation—of the data. In Dorman’s words, “the punched cards became, in effect, not only a copy of the information, but its principal medium.” 2 -- Highlighted mar 11, 2014

p.12: In terms of raw throughput, the Social Security system monitored twenty-six million people and processed approximately 500,000 punched cards per day during its first years. -- Highlighted mar 11, 2014

p.12: Fear and anxiety marked much of the popular response to database technology in this early period. For some, the punched card provided material evidence of the dehumanizing power of the bureaucracy. Rather than communicate with individuals, in all their messiness, large bureaucracies preferred inscrutable slips of perforated paper. -- Highlighted mar 11, 2014

p.13: As the antiwar movement began to take shape across the U.S., draft card burning represented the material destruction, however symbolic, of the state’s information processing apparatus, and at many universities, protesters held demonstrations outside of campus computing facilities to disrupt military-funded information processing research. 3 . 34 As the caption to a comic strip in Mad would later put it, “the punch cards are stacked against you.” -- Highlighted mar 11, 2014

p.17: Readers of the hobbyist press, meanwhile, were presented with pragmatic visions of small, personal databases alongside commentary about the industrial and governmental use of mass-scale database technologies for social control. Often appearing in the same publications, this combination of the pragmatic and the political provided readers with a larger social context within which to understand and pursue their passion for technical mastery. -- Highlighted mar 11, 2014

p.22: Jim Gray from IBM called SQL an “intergalactic dataspeak” which enabled interoperability among tools and software at a time when most systems were wholly incompatible with one another. -- Highlighted mar 11, 2014

p.27: The focus on pleasure in Dean and Ghemawat’s presentation suggests that the passion of the NoSQL movement may be driven more by the affective than the technical aspects of communicating with a database. Indeed, in a blog post from 2010, Stonebraker argued that abandoning SQL was not necessary to create a database capable of efficiently processing mass-scale “big data” 84 so any perceived technical limitations are insufficient to explain the widespread enthusiasm for its exclusion. It may be the case that intermediary programmers advocate for NoSQL systems principally because writing code in the style of MapReduce is more fun than composing queries in SQL. -- Highlighted mar 11, 2014

p.29: In a puzzling press release announcing new privacy features, Facebook included a quote from CEO Mark Zuckerberg that encouraged people to continue giving up their privacy, “When people share more,” he wrote, “the world becomes more open and connected.” 88 The abstract value of “openness” is also found in military-sponsored research that promises increased safety and security. Early in 2012, the Department of Defense announced that it is placing a “big bet on big data” as a means to anticipate and identify “cyber threats” through massive processing of online communication data. -- Highlighted mar 11, 2014

p.30: The database populism envisioned in the hobbyist literature of the 1970s, however, represents a balanced view. For participants in the microcomputing counter-culture, hands-on experience with small databases provided a practical foundation for an informed critique of the mass-scale data processing systems in society. -- Highlighted mar 11, 2014

p.30: As Date remarked in 1983, the database “is very much a human problem, not a system problem.” -- Highlighted mar 11, 2014