Lisa Gitelman – “Raw Data” Is An Oxymoron


The MIT Press, ISBN-13: 978-0262518284, 192 pag, 2013, English

The fascination with “big data” – usually referring to a huge quantity of digital data and an attendant piece of powerful software that trawls it looking for new correlations – is in full effect and is not going to slow down anytime soon. This snappy two-word definition is intended to express the power of data accumulation, management and exploitation, but it also serves to obscure the golden rule that data is what you do with it, no matter how big it is. Media historian Gitelman brings the hype back to Earth, finally giving it some perspective. Eight texts by different authors have been edited in this anthology, discussing different episodes in the history of data, dating back to pre-digital eras. Coming from different disciplines (and therefore using quite different tools and strategies) the various contributions nevertheless cohere brilliantly, from Garvey’s description of digging in thousands of early 19th century newspapers for antislavery strategies, to Raley’s informed discourse about web cookie dataveillance. To counterbalance “the sheer existence of so much data” (in Gitelman’s words), the petabytes (destined to become exabytes soon) stored in a constellation of data-centres around the world, it’s important to understand the ‘construct’ of data. Its social functionality and its partiality (in any data set there’s data included and data excluded) induce the need for better contextualization of analytical strategies. This collection achieves this aim admirably, serving as an important critique of big data.