‘Big data is people!’

The sum of our clickstreams is not an objective measure of who we are, but a personal portrait of our hopes and desires, argues Rebecca Lemov, associate professor of the history of science at Harvard University.

When trying to understand the ramifications of the big-data trajectory, she argues, it is necessary to bear in mind that the data is not only generated about individuals but also made out of individuals. It is human data.

Preceding examples of innovative data collection already targeted inner provinces, and already engaged in subjective data-mining. They were unable to do so on anything resembling the scale today possible by use of digitally derived data streams. Nonetheless, the old imperative to mine inner worlds finds a place at the heart of today’s practices. By being arrayed in new tech, and by being incorporated in new ways into our human experiences, it is transformed. As are we. But if we really want to understand that transformation and to speak up about it – if we want to see what is truly new rather than what is bumptiously paraded as new – we will need to be anchored in the historical particulars. We need to see the human in the data machine.