A Brief History of “data”

If you haven’t yet noticed the presence of quotation marks around the word “data” in the title of this piece, please do so now. This is a story about the word “data”. But it is also, inescapably, a story about the thing(s) we have called by that name in our lifetime. So, even if you’re typically not interested in semantic discussions, there’s a small chance you will not be totally bored by the below.

tldr: It gave me an interesting perspective of change to look at who’s been using the word “data” and in what ways, over time. My observation is that “data” has gone from being personal and specific to a very small number of people, to being abstract and general to a lot of people, to now being personal and specific again, to more people than ever. To consider this (roughly 40-year) arc sheds light on Us, where we’ve been and where we are going.

Disclaimer: As with most “brief” histories, this one is almost entirely unsupported by journalistic diligence, research, or any particular expertise over the subject matter being discussed. Be on the lookout, also, for numerous questionable conclusions and unforgivably broad generalizations.

When I was a kid (watching the first Cosmos), I remember only hearing the word “data” in the scientific context. Data was the stuff you had after you conducted an experiment. Data was the stuff you “sifted” through when you were looking for undiscovered truth. “Data” was among the words in that dense, linguistic fabric in which lofty (and difficult) pursuits of the mind were always wrapped. It inspired mastery and discipline. Once upon a time, “data” was a special and rarefied term, used only by truth-seekers of a particular stripe. Scientists and mathematicians. I confess to having been seduced by it when I was in college. Business people didn’t yet use the word. Consumers never heard it.

The advent of Digital dramatically changed both the meaning of the word “data” and its place in the culture. The way people used the word thereafter changed as a result. “Data” (the word) began to have consumer applications, just as data (the thing) itself began to have new consumer relevancy and presence.

In the early 80’s, before there were consumer-level computers, Digital arrived in the entertainment technology domain. As entertainment technologies became digital, and it became necessary for marketers of those things to explain these innovations to us, the word “data” made the leap from the scientific/academic context to the mainstream. And it never went back. “Data” got bumped into a much bigger popular usage by its presence as a buzzword in consumer electronics marketing speak. Suddenly, we had to concern ourselves with fantastical things like sampling rates if we wanted to buy the latest CD player.

Before the Internet happened, “data” was instrumental in helping us all to start thinking about content differently. This was even before we had yet learned to use the word “content” in that sweeping, all-inclusive way so pervasive today.

When we first got music and movies in digital, it was like content underwent a phase change. It got new properties. When we digitized entertainment content, we were able to start thinking about it in is this new potentially fungible way, where storage capacity and transferability had become the most important attributes. In digital, the concept of storage emerged as important for entertainment because the more you could store on your “media” the higher the quality you could get, we were told. And seemingly overnight, “data” was everywhere.

“Data” was one of the key words that was used to explain these new, abstract concepts in consumer electronics to us, and it was the first time hearing it for most people.

This was a significant step because it opened the door for us to think of everything as “data”. And it also prepared us, as consumers, for new relationships we would soon enjoy with emergent providers, who would in just a few short years start delivering everything we ever wanted to our homes and devices.

By the time we got the Internet in the 90’s, and its service model focused us on point access and throughput rate (“Can I have it here, and how fast?”), we were already well prepared conceptually to latch onto the teat. The CD and DVD players of the 80’s had taught us that “data” equals entertainment and that it moves through pipes. When we got the Internet, the true fungibility of “data” became apparent to us, like flipping on the lights in a room. Everything we want reduces to data.

Enter the smart mobile era (in the 00’s), and popular use of the word “data” soars to an unprecedented zenith in the form of “data plan”, as hundreds of millions of people (literally) have one.

This also marks a zenith point for “data” on an altogether different axis. Let’s call it a Relativity Axis. On this axis we measure how people are relating to the word “data” in their daily lives, ranging from the personal-and-specific on one end of the spectrum (as in “My data”) to the abstract-and-generalized on the other end of the spectrum (as in “The Data”). And let’s call this point in the history of “data” the “Depersonalized Extreme”.

Only a few years ago, consumers almost never thought of “data” outside the framework of their relationships with ISPs, cable companies, and mobile carriers.

Then a shift began along the Relativity axis, and the way people were relating to “data” began to move back towards the personal-and-specific end of the spectrum again. This shift was caused by the explosive popularity of Facebook and other services that enabled our desire to share. As consumers widely realized that their behavior on social networks generates deeply-personal information, and that this information is stored and exploited by third parties, the word “data” began to take on a different significance. Thoughts of “data” as a depersonalized commodity you pay for were replaced by the notion of “data” as personal, implicitly yours, and private by default.

The recent revelation by Edward Snowden that the NSA is among the parties interested in our behavior propelled “data” to a new all-time popularity high. And it is also a new high-water mark for the emotion of possessiveness about “data”.

Meanwhile, in business, sweeping changes to the nature of information and to the models through which information is generated and distributed within organizations are putting the word “data” on the lips of many business people for the first time.

A new playbook for success in business was written, and “data” was elevated to a place of critical importance… where previously only the far-less-inspiring “information” had been. The message that (the proper management and utilization of) “data” is directly related to business success is propagated by every channel that reaches businesspeople: from the media, to the companies selling stuff to the enterprise, to the folks writing books for businesspeople to read.

Although the transformation to how people work with information inside companies has been underway for a long time, it was not until the word “data” hit the business scene that things really began to change. At about the same time that “CIO” dies as a title anyone wants to have anymore, “data” comes to life inside business.

The word “data” inspires a confidence and clarity in the pursuit of better ways of working that “information” never did.

It helps a lot, also, that there’s a bunch of actual technical innovation happening to drive changes to how people work with information inside companies. The word “data”, here again, facilitated change by creating new ways for people to talk and think about old things.

The advent of the Cloud gave us the gift of a theoretically unlimited place of storage where our “data” can now live. It’s so big that it has enough room for all our personal stuff as well as our business stuff. Consumers are only just starting to think of the stuff they put in the cloud as their “data”. But they will soon. Businesspeople have been enjoying the transformative effects of “data” in the workplace for a few years already. So they are grokking much more readily that the work-related stuff they have been calling by many other names can now be tidily rolled up into “data” and stored in The Cloud. In Cloud-powered business, “data” has been additionally promoted to “Big Data”, and this new term is fueling unprecedented ambitions in information management.

Both consumers and businesspeople are today in a state of transition with regard to the word “data”. Consumers are probably still occupied by the big picture privacy conversation, and peripherally distracted by all the “Big Data” noise coming out of the business side, which still looks irrelevant to them.

But quite soon consumers will jump on the “data” bandwagon with much more positivity, and start using the word in an assortment of much more exciting new contexts that are (at this very moment) being invented for them. Perhaps the most interesting future use of “data” for consumers will be when they apply the term to describe the information generated by their own bodies and life patterns. In such uses, “data” will be as far from the “Depersonalized Extreme” on the Relativity scale as we’ve ever seen for consumers.

“My data” will be proclaimed with still-greater possessiveness by consumers in the future.

Businesspeople have only fairly recently replaced “information” with “data” at a general level within their organizations. Although the change from “information” to “data” has been great for business, ushering in lots of new specificity and procedural clarity into areas that “information” left murky, for most businesspeople the term “data” still refers to something abstract, something “out there”, not to something directly mine. Most businesspeople are still not thinking possessively when they use the word “data”. Incidences of “My data” (in the possessive sense) are still infrequent (in the overall of business), but that is changing.

Here, too, the Cloud is helping move things along. By calling their files “data”, Cloud storage providers are giving individual businesspeople a way to connect and feel relevant, much more personally, to the bigger shift towards “data” happening in business all around them. And they seem to like it.

Maybe, in the Cloud, “my data” can be “big” too.

One effect for businesspeople, as they move more of their files to the Cloud, and call them collectively my “data”, is they gain the opportunity to work with them in new ways. Some of this opportunity obtains from simply putting ones files in the Cloud. The benefits of setting ourselves entirely free from the old constraints on access imposed by local file storage are probably even bigger than we imagine.

The other way in which cloud storage creates new opportunities for businesspeople is it breaks the traditional dependency on particular software titles for doing certain kinds of work. Most businesspeople are still living in the world where double-clicking on a file with a certain extension always triggers the opening of a certain “program” on their desktop. This is a relationship that inherits from old ways of thinking about the software we work with, and an old way of storing our files. Cloud storage opens the door to entirely new ways of working with our old files, because it opens the door to using apps that don’t live on our desktops.

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 This is exactly the space where we are working to create new value for businesspeople at ChartCube!
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Getting businesspeople, first, to think of their files collectively as “data”, as a prelude to moving them to the Cloud, has a dual benefit. It erodes those old mental associations between file types and software applications, and it also helps people to start thinking about working with stuff that doesn’t come in distinct “files”, stuff that comes from other (new) sources.

First you get people to think of the stuff they already work with as “data”, then you increase the scope of what “data” can include, thereby increasing the scope of the work they can do.

The arc I have attempted to describe in this brief history points to a bright future for “data”. Both consumers and businesspeople have transcended their first exposure to “data”, in which it was framed as an abstract commodity. And both are now ready to have a much more personal, much more active relationship with “data” than any time in the past.

Even as data (the thing) becomes more pervasive, more ubiquitous (flowing in the air), we will talk about it less and less in that commodity sense.

The future of “data” is mine… and yours.


Originally published at www.chartcube.com.