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Amelia Acker - Shifting the Scale: Personal files, Population-level Data, and the Failure of the US National Data Center
Industrial shifts in scale offer opportunities for historical reflection. The transition from paper files and manual data processing to machine-readable data and automated recordkeeping is pivotal in the history of twentieth-century data archives, scientific practice, and government administration. During the move to automated recordkeeping and computerized data management in the 1950s, the ontological distinction between human-readable information and machine-readable data collected and stored in American institutions played out in a war over the meaning of “files” containing private information about citizens and data aggregation at population-level scales. Thus, the centralization of punched cards and the migration to data tape accessible to federal bureaucrats and scientists came under intense scrutiny by the public, legal critics, and Congress in the late 1960s.

In this talk, I share a two-part story wherein scientists lament the siloed data archives of the 1950s and convince bureaucrats of the benefits of centralizing data at population-level scales for government administration. But the public's fears about files and the unknown capacities of networked computing would shape data protection in the US for decades to come. The state failed to create a national data archive and in doing so opened space for corporations to achieve this aspiration through similar means. In preventing a nationalized data center, a new market emerged for privatized databanks and data integration solutions. The outcome is that today, platforms like Facebook, Amazon, and Google practice sovereign-like power by accumulating personal data at population-level scales and brokering access.

May 12, 2022 03:00 PM in Pacific Time (US and Canada)

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