Lessons from the Avalanche of Numbers: Big Data in Historical Context
I/S: A Journal of Law and Policy for the Information Society, 2014-2015, Forthcoming
71 Pages Posted: 26 Aug 2014
Date Written: August 1, 2014
The big data revolution, like many changes associated with technological advancement, is often compared to the industrial revolution to create a frame of reference for its transformative power, or portrayed as altogether new. This article argues that between the industrial revolution and the digital revolution is a more valuable, yet overlooked period: the probabilistic revolution that began with the avalanche of printed numbers between 1820 and 1840. By comparing the many similarities between big data today and the avalanche of numbers in the 1800s, the article situates big data in the early stages of a prolonged transition to a potentially transformative epistemic revolution, like the probabilistic revolution. The widespread changes in and characteristics of a society flooded by data results in a transitional state that creates unique challenges for policy efforts by disrupting foundational principles relied upon for data protection. The potential of a widespread, lengthy transition also places the law in a pivotal position to shape and guide big data-based inquiry through to whatever epistemic shift may lie ahead.
Keywords: data governance, information privacy, big data
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