Rebecca Lemov


Harvard University

Dreams as the Stuff of Data: A Turning Point in Mid-Twentieth-Century Big Social Science
Saturday 22 February 2014, 09:30-10:30am, Amphimax 414

Contrary to popular depictions, big data is salient not only because it is big in terms of scale of the information compiled and available to be used, but also–and perhaps especially–because it is able to penetrate into the realm of the subjective. Big data promises access to ever-more-intimate parts of human experience. Its users can manipulate it (or so the promise goes) to describe or predict who will fall in love with whom, who will vote for whom, the preference for certain comestibles or sensations, the likelihood one may die tomorrow, or the way in which spiritual enlightenment works. This paper frames the large-scale search for ever-more-personal data historically by examining a sort of “data ruin,” an ambitious but forgotten archive from the mid-twentieth century American psycho-anthropological and social sciences that was an attempt to capture the un-capturable: more and more elusive forms of data residing at the very edge of visibility. The paper examines the network of techniques and technologies, the background of methodological zeal, and some of the scholarly institutions and research exponents that combined to make possible this unusual data clearinghouse. I will touch on the technique of the “human document,” a brief history of the microcard, and the targeting of dreams from non-literate people in large amounts, all of which suggest an ongoing operationalization of subjectivity itself.