Data. A really short history

“One man’s noise is another man’s signal.” Edward Ng


Data are “givens”. They are artefacts. They don’t pre-exist in the world, but come to the world because we, the human beings, want them to do so. If you would imagine an intimate relationship between humans and data, you would say that data do not exist independently from humans. Hunters and gatherers collect the discrete objects of their desire, put them in order, administer them, store them, use them, throw them away, forget about where they were stored and at times uncover those escaped places again, for example during a blitheful snowball fight. At that time data were clearly divided from non-data – edible things were separated from inedible ones, helpful items from uninteresting ones. This selectivity may have benefited from the dependency on shifting availability of resources in a wider space.

Later onwards, when mankind went out of the forests, things became much more complicated. With the advent of agriculture and especially of trade data became more meaningful. Furthermore, rulers became interested in knowledge about their sheep and therefore asked some of their accountants to keep record of their subordinates – the eldest census dates back to 700 B.C. In the times when mathematics became a bit more complicated from the 17th (probability) and 19th (statistics) century onwards, data about people, agriculture, and trade began to heap up and it became more and more difficult to distinguish between relevant data (“signal”) and irrelevant ones (“noise”). The distinction between these two simply became a matter of the question with which the data at hands were consulted.

With the advent of the industrial age, the concept of mechanical objectivity was introduced, and the task of data creation was delegated to machines which were constructed to collect the items in which humans were interested in. Now data were available in huge amounts, and the need for organizing and ordering them became even more pressing. It is over here, where powerful schemes came into force: Selection processes, categorizations, classifications, standards; variables prioritized as signal over others reduced to noise, thus creating systems of measurement and normativity intended to govern societies. They have been insightful investigated in the book “Standards and their stories. How quantifying, classifying, and formalizing practices shape everyday life.”*

It was only later, in the beginning of the post-industrial age, when an alternative to this scheme- and signal-oriented approach was developed by simply piling up everything that may be of any interest, a task also often delegated to machines because of their patient effortlessness. The agglomeration of masses presupposes that storing is not a problem, neither in spatial nor in temporal terms. The result of such an approach is nowadays called “Big Data” – the accumulation of masses of (mostly observational) data for no specific purpose. Collecting noise in the hope of signal, without defining what noise and what signal is. Fabricating incredibly large haystacks and assuming there are needles in it. Data as the output of a completely economised process with its classic capitalistic division of labour, including the alienation from their sources.

What is termed “culture” often resembles these haystacks. Archives are haystacks. The German Historical Museum in Berlin is located in the “Zeughaus”, literally the “house of stuff”,** stuffed with the remnants of history, a hayloft of history. Libraries are haystacks as well; if you are not bound to the indexes and registers called catalogues, if you are free to wander around the shelves of books and pick them out at random, you might get lost in an ocean of thoughts, in countless imaginary worlds, in intellectual universes. This is the fun of the explorers, conquerors and researchers: Never get bored through routine, always discover something new which feeds your curiosity. And it is here, within this flurry of noise and signal, within the richness of multisensory, kinetic and synthetic modes of access, where it becomes tangible that in culture noise and signal cannot be thought without the environment out of which they were taken, that both are the product of human endeavours, and that data are artefacts that cannot be understood without the context in which they were created.


*Martha Lampland, Susan Leigh Star (Eds.), Standards and their stories. How quantifying, classifying, and formalizing practices shape everyday life. Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press 2009.
** And yes, it should be translated correctly as “armoury”.

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