Alex Steer

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'Big data' in 1980

326 words

The paragraph below contains the earliest found usage of 'big data', which now appears in the OED's recently-added definition of the term.

Written in 1980, it's from Charles Tilly's The Old New Social History and the New Old Social History. It merits reading in full. (I've added a couple of links.)

The cliometricians "specialize in the assembling of vast quantities of data by teams of assistants, the use of the electronic computer to process it all, and the application of highly sophisticated mathematical procedures to the results obtained", (Stone 1979: 11). Against these procedures, Stone lodges the objections that historical data are too unreliable, that research assistants cannot be trusted with the application of ostensibly uniform rules, that coding loses crucial details, that mathematical results are incomprehensible to the historians they are meant to persuade, that the storage of evidence on computer tapes blocks the verification of conclusions by other historians, that the investigators tend to lose their wit, grace, and sense of proportion in the pursuit of statistical results, that none of the big questions has actually yielded to the bludgeoning of the big-data people, that "in general the sophistication of the methodology has tended to exceed the reliability of the data, while the usefulness of the results seems -- up to a point -- to be in inverse correlation to the mathematical complexity of the methodology and the grandiose scale of data-collection'' (Stone 1979: 13), For this eminent European social historian, the large enterprises which took shape in the 1960s have obviously lost their attractions.

Over-complicated, opaque, too proud of itself, and not useful enough. I leave it to you to judge how much has changed in the last 33 years.

# Alex Steer (22/06/2013)