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We’re all living in a data world now, struggling to be more than just the sum of our data, but how and why did it become a data world? Why not “information,” “info” for short, or something else? Why this curious word “data”?

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Data’s seeming ability to influence if not determine profits, presidents, and power is a recent phenomenon. As historian Daniel Rosenberg notes, the idea of data as all-encompassing information, so fundamental to our time and economy, didn’t even merit an entry in Raymond Williams’s classic Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (1976) nor in the updated version by Bennett, Grossberg, and Morris, New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society (2005).

So “data” the word has come a long way from its origins in Latin. Rosenberg writes that the Latin data is “nothing more than the plural of the neuter past participle of the verb dare, ‘to give.’” It wasn’t an uncommon word: the late-fourth-century Latin translation of the Bible (a.k.a. the Vulgate), uses data more than fifty times. It refers to things—“gold, silver, brides, fields, and towns to rights, powers, glory, honor, and counsel”—being given.

Euclid, eight hundred years before the Vulgate Bible, used a Greek term that was then translated into the Latin data to mean “givens” in geometrical problems, “typically points, lines, angles, polygons, and segments.” This meaning of data, “things taken for granted thus not inquired after,” spread through early modern Latin and entered English via books about mathematics in the early eighteenth century.

The 1778 Encylcopaedia Britannica noted that the primary use of “data” was in mathematics, but the word was being “transplanted into other arts,” like theology, philosophy, and medicine, “where it expresses any quantity, which, for the sake of the present calculation, is taken for granted to be such, without requiring an immediate proof of its certainty.”

For early modern theologians, data were assumptions of truths for which there was no need for explanation. For instance, biblical Revelations were data (or “Data,” with the capitalization highlighting its importance). This was the antithesis of what we now hold. The transition of data from meaning what is assumed to meaning the results of observation took place during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Through the eighteenth century, too, the word was naturalized into English, mostly losing its italicization by the end of the century. It also started being used as a collective singular, like “media” is today.

“At the beginning of the nineteenth century, data was still mostly ‘afforded’ or ‘furnished,’” writes Rosenberg. “At the beginning of the twentieth century, data were ‘collected’ or ‘published.’ At the start of the twenty first century, they were ‘entered,’ ‘transmitted,’ and ‘received.’”

Data, then, has become immaterial material, coursing all around us like an invisible atmosphere. It’s out there in “the Cloud,” the global network of computers that make up the internet. It doesn’t seem to have much body, yet it must be stored—at some energy/pollution cost. And it’s very valuable, especially collectively, for it always seems to be under threat of being breached and mined. For now it’s a commodity—whether or not you have any say in the matter.

As Rosenberg notes, the multitude of phrases prefaced by “data” in the Oxford English Dictionary—data bank, data dump, data entry, data processing, data sheet, data security, and data suit are just a few—point to its definitive thingness and ubiquity. In what he calls the “turbulent materiality of the contemporary information environment,” data is not necessarily given, but it is surely taken.

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Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences, Vol. 48, No. 5, SPECIAL ISSUE: HISTORIES OF DATA AND THE DATABASE (NOVEMBER 2018), pp. 557–567
University of California Press