Abstract: Corporate Capitalism and the Growing Power of Big Data

Martha Poon


We are still searching for an accurate description of what computer scientists are doing with machine-generated traces, especially the data that purport to track and predict human behavior in real time. This is because the word ‘data’ can refer to a much wider set of practices than the ones related to personal devices and other digital infrastructures. Can business history help social scientists to understand the specific qualities of the heavily engineered, networked communication systems that are at the center of today’s political debate? And how? By drawing attention to the fact that consumer-facing corporations have long built data-driven systems that engage with people. This essay underscores the distinction between data for scientific knowledge production and data for administering business operations. It argues that big data is corporate data and needs to be analyzed as such.