How Data Happened: A History from the Age of Reason to the Age of Algorithms (Paperback)

How Data Happened: A History from the Age of Reason to the Age of Algorithms By Chris Wiggins, Matthew L. Jones Cover Image
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“Fascinating.” —Jill Lepore, The New Yorker

A sweeping history of data and its technical, political, and ethical impact on our world.

From facial recognition—capable of checking people into flights or identifying undocumented residents—to automated decision systems that inform who gets loans and who receives bail, each of us moves through a world determined by data-empowered algorithms. But these technologies didn’t just appear: they are part of a history that goes back centuries, from the census enshrined in the US Constitution to the birth of eugenics in Victorian Britain to the development of Google search.

Expanding on the popular course they created at Columbia University, Chris Wiggins and Matthew L. Jones illuminate the ways in which data has long been used as a tool and a weapon in arguing for what is true, as well as a means of rearranging or defending power. They explore how data was created and curated, as well as how new mathematical and computational techniques developed to contend with that data serve to shape people, ideas, society, military operations, and economies. Although technology and mathematics are at its heart, the story of data ultimately concerns an unstable game among states, corporations, and people. How were new technical and scientific capabilities developed; who supported, advanced, or funded these capabilities or transitions; and how did they change who could do what, from what, and to whom?

Wiggins and Jones focus on these questions as they trace data’s historical arc, and look to the future. By understanding the trajectory of data—where it has been and where it might yet go—Wiggins and Jones argue that we can understand how to bend it to ends that we collectively choose, with intentionality and purpose.

About the Author

Chris Wiggins, an associate professor of applied mathematics at Columbia University, is the New York Times’s chief data scientist. He lives in New York City.

Matthew L. Jones is a professor of history at Princeton University and has been a Guggenheim Fellow. He lives outside Princeton, New Jersey.

Praise For…

This is the first comprehensive look at the history of data and how power has played a critical role in shaping the history. It’s a must-read for any data scientist about how we got here and what we need to do to ensure that data works for everyone.
— DJ Patil, former U.S. chief data scientist

In a tour de force, Wiggins and Jones put data in context so that we can see the values, politics, and controversies that shape our present reality. This book is truly a semester-long class bottled into a narrative fit for vacation.
— danah boyd, founder and president, Data & Society Research Institute

Sometimes the best way to understand the present and prepare for the future is to look to the past. This insight is at the core of How Data Happened, an ambitious and thoughtful work. Wiggins and Jones have worked together—as data scientist and historian—to write a book that will reshape how you will see the relationship between data and society.

— Matthew J. Salganik, professor, department of sociology, Princeton University, and author of Bit by Bit: Social Research in the Digital Age

From uncanny targeted ads to self-driving car crashes, stories about unexpected and unintended consequences of algorithmic action in a data-driven world appear in media coverage at a steady clip. How should we make sense of them? Chris Wiggins and Matthew L. Jones have delivered an essential authoritative history of the increasing power of data, how new capabilities have transformed society, and what we must do to ensure that today’s technology reflects our norms and values.
— Renée DiResta, technical research manager, Stanford Internet Observatory

A leading data scientist and a historian of science walk into a classroom, resulting in this ambitious and bold book packed with stories about the role of data in our society. Wiggins and Jones plainly and forcefully trace why we ended up with the big data mess that we have now and what we might do about it. Instead of platitudes, they argue how today’s fights over surveillance capitalism, government access to data, and big tech could shape the future of data’s power in society. How Data Happened is a must-read for everyone interested in how data is changing our lives.

— Gina Neff, executive director, Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy, University of Cambridge

Wide-ranging.… An informative dive into the history of statistics and data, providing context for the debate over information and who controls it.
— Kirkus Reviews

Trenchant and successfully illuminates the contingency of data’s privileged place in modern decision-making. Incisive and thoroughly researched, this one's a winner.
— Publishers Weekly
Product Details
ISBN: 9781324074588
ISBN-10: 1324074582
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Publication Date: March 19th, 2024
Pages: 384
Language: English