Anthropology of an Idea: Big Data

By Friedman, Uri | Foreign Policy, November 2012 | Go to article overview

Anthropology of an Idea: Big Data

Friedman, Uri, Foreign Policy

HUMANS HAVE BEEN whining about being bombarded with too much information since the advent of clay tablets. The complaint in Ecclesiastes that "of making many books there is no end" resonated in the Renaissance, when the invention of the printing press flooded Western Europe with what an alarmed Erasmus called "swarms of new books." But the digital revolution--with its ever-growing horde of sensors, digital devices, corporate databases, and social media sites--has been a game-changer, with 90 percent of the data in the world today created in the last two years alone. In response, everyone from marketers to policymakers has begun embracing a loosely defined term for today's massive data sets and the challenges they present: Big Data. While today's information deluge has enabled governments to improve security and public services, it has also sowed fears that Big Data is just another euphemism for Big Brother.

1887-1890 American statistician Herman Hollerith invents an electric machine that reads holes punched into paper cards to tabulate 1890 census data, revolutionizing the concept of a national head count, which had originated with the Babylonians in 3800 B.C. The device, which enables the United States to complete its census in one year instead of eight, spreads globally as the age of modern data processing begins.


1935-1937 President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Social Security Act launches the U.S. government on its most ambitious data-gathering project ever, as IBM wins a government contract to keep employment records on 26 million working Americans and 3 million employers. "Imagine the vast army of clerks which will be necessary to keep these records," Republican presidential candidate Alf Landon scoffs. "Another army of field investigators will be necessary to check up on the people whose records are not clear."

1943 At Bletchley Park, a British facility dedicated to breaking Nazi codes during World War II, engineers develop a series of groundbreaking mass data-processing machines, culminating in the first programmable electronic computer. The device, named "Colossus," searches for patterns in intercepted messages by reading paper tape at 5,000 characters per second--reducing a process that had previously taken weeks to a matter of hours. Deciphered information on German troop formations later helps the Allies during their D-Day invasion.


1961 The U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), a nine-year-old intelligence agency with more than 12,000 cryptologists, confronts information overload during the espionage-saturated Cold War, as it begins collecting and processing signals intelligence automatically with computers while struggling to digitize a backlog of records stored on analog magnetic tape in warehouses. (In July 1961 alone, the agency receives 17,000 reels of tape.)

1965-1966 The U.S. government secretly studies a plan to transfer all government records--including 742 million tax returns and 175 million sets of fingerprints--to magnetic computer tape at a single national 'data center, though the plan is later scrapped amid public concern about bringing "Orwell's '1984' at least as close as 1970," as one report puts it. The outcry inspires the 1974 Privacy Act, which places limits on federal agencies' sharing of personal information.

1989 British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee proposes leveraging the Internet, pioneered by the U.S. government in the 1960s, to share information globally through a "hypertext" system called the World Wide Web. "The information contained would grow past a critical threshold," he writes, "so that the usefulness [of] the scheme would in turn encourage its increased use."


1997 NASA researchers Michael Cox and David Ellsworth use the term "big data" for the first time to describe a familiar challenge in the 1990s: supercomputers generating massive amounts of information--in Cox and Ellsworth's case, simulations of airflow around aircraft--that cannot be processed and visualized. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Anthropology of an Idea: Big Data


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

    New feature

    It is estimated that 1 in 10 people have dyslexia, and in an effort to make Questia easier to use for those people, we have added a new choice of font to the Reader. That font is called OpenDyslexic, and has been designed to help with some of the symptoms of dyslexia. For more information on this font, please visit

    To use OpenDyslexic, choose it from the Typeface list in Font settings.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search


    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.