Although early users of database technology were predominantly large institutions, the database was also a key technology in the populist vision of personal computing generated by microcomputer fans, researchers, hobbyists, and entrepreneurs in the 1970s and 1980s. Informed by science fiction sensitive to the authoritarian use of database technology, these personal computing advocates hoped that experience with small database systems might sharpen popular critique of mass-scale information processing efforts. As database design receded from the desktop in the 1990s, however, the populist promises were largely forgotten and the database became an exclusively institutional technology once again.
A social history of database technology situates the web’s massive databases among more than a century of mass-scale information processing systems. Evidence of popular anxiety recurs throughout this history and indicates that non-specialists often struggle to apprehend the limits of database technology and may alternately over- and under-estimate the extent of mass data collection and the types of analytic outcomes that are possible. Meanwhile, the cautious optimism of the microcomputer era points to a latent database populism that may yet be revived should users grow sufficiently frustrated by the lack of transparency among large, data-driven institutions.
From Punched Cards to “Big Data”: A Social History of Database Populism, Kevin Driscoll, 2012