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BY-NC-ND 4.0 license Open Access Published by De Gruyter Oldenbourg 2021


“Understanding the World Through Data” as an Everlasting Revolution

From the book Digital Roots

  • Erik Koenen , Christian Schwarzenegger and Juraj Kittler

“Understanding the World Through Data” as an Everlasting Revolution



In this chapter we set out to historicize and trace the pre-digital roots of the concept of datafication of communication and society. Collecting and processing data as well as governing data storage and access to it are not to be seen as a particularity of the digital era. Data and datafication produced, already long before the digital revolution, exclusive arrangements of infrastructures and knowledge orders and they can hence be seen as building blocks of culture and society. We illustrate this argument in four steps using different historic examples. We first provide a glimpse into the beginnings of datafication in ancient times. We then present data as early social science instruments in the modern welfare states since the mid-nineteenth century used for social control and to grasp facets and consequences of social modernization. Thirdly, data were also crucial in the service of oppression during the National Socialist era, in which cutting-edge data technologies contributed to the planning and implementation of the Holocaust. Finally, the shift of data from the numerical to the digital information age in the second half of the twentieth century and its consequences for a “datafication of everything” is discussed.

© 2021 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Munich/Boston
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