The database before the computer?

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Are characteristic practices of modern data-driven science—the compiling of databases, quantitative analysis of large data sets, standard graphical representations of data patterns—a product of the computer era? I explore this question through a comparative analysis of nineteenthand twentieth-century data approaches in paleontology. Drawing on examples of large-scale quantitative data collection and analysis of both paper-based taxonomic compendia and eventual electronic databases, I argue that, in fact, paleontologists engaged in what we might call “databasing” long before computers arrived on the scene. The arrival of computers in paleontology, I argue, fits closely into a pattern that Jon Agar has described whereby preexisting practices and epistemologies are adapted to new technologies. However, I also attend to the ways in which changes in the technology and material culture of data between the nineteenth and later twentieth centuries affected the “moral economy” of data. Each era faced particular challenges for coping with “data friction,” and new technologies and materialities of data had consequences for the professional division of labor in data-driven taxonomic sciences.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)175-201
Number of pages27
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2017
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


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