NYT Discovers Data-Mining

For some odd reason, the New York Times has an article declaring that data-mining has now gone mainstream:

…a wave of sophisticated computing and mathematical analytics that is moving into the mainstream. Fueling the trend are the digitization of information, ever faster and cheaper computing, and the explosion of online networks and data collection.

Sorry, Gray Lady, this isn’t some new thang. This has been going on or quite a while.

This is probably best argued in James Beniger’s The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society. In this detailed history of the rise of technologies of communication and information processing, Beniger argues that modern information technologies, and with them the “information society,” began to take shape as long ago as the 1830s with the introduction of railroads, and fully materialized after 1880 with the onset of widespread industrialization. Because industrialization involved the large and fast flows of goods, it could not be managed without a high level of information technology (in which Beniger includes things like product standardization, bureaucracy and advertising, as well as the usual mechanical devices); and without proper management, it simply could not work. This need for large-scale management brought about the “Control Revolution”:

The Control Revolution developed in response to problems arising out of advanced industrialization: a mounting crisis of control at the most aggregate level of national and international systems, levels that had had little practical relevance before the mass production, distribution, and consumption of factory goods. (Beniger, 1986, p. 278)

Resolution of the problems created by advanced industrialization demanded new means of information processing and communication to control an economy shifting from local segmented markets to increasingly higher levels of organization – what Beniger labels the growing “systemness of society” (p. 278).

The growing “systemness of society” meant information began to replace industrial capital as the material base for our modern economy, and, well before the 20th century and digital computing, brought about our Information Society. According to Beniger, mass industrial processes and technology began to coalesce in the mid to late 1800s, beginning with landmark inventions such as the telegraph, typewriter, and telephone, extending into the early 1900s with the radio and, eventually, television. More recent developments such as computers, telecommunications, and presumably, the Internet, Beniger would likely argue, are not the radical milestones or emblems of the Information Society that the New York Times might suggest, but merely examples of the smooth continuation of the Control Revolution which began a century earlier. In other words, we have been submerged in this Information Society – replete with advanced information processing and data-mining – for quite a while now.

UPDATE: While the NYTimes seems to be celebrating the rise of data-mining in this article, they simultaneously publish an article warning that companies are selling vast these databases of personal information to thieves, despite evidence their services are used for fraud:

Vast databases of names and personal information, sold to thieves by large publicly traded companies, have put almost anyone within reach of fraudulent telemarketers. And major banks have made it possible for criminals to dip into victims’ accounts without their authorization, according to court records.

The banks and companies that sell such services often confront evidence that they are used for fraud, according to thousands of banking documents, court filings and e-mail messages reviewed by The New York Times.

Although some companies, including Wachovia, have made refunds to victims who have complained, neither that bank nor infoUSA stopped working with criminals even after executives were warned that they were aiding continuing crimes, according to government investigators. Instead, those companies collected millions of dollars in fees from scam artists.

This is criminal.

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