How Data Happened

A History from the Age of Reason to the Age of Algorithms

30 April 2024

Chris Wiggins (Author), Matthew L. Jones (Author)


A sweeping history of data and its technical, political and ethical impact on our world

From facial recognition—capable of checking people into flights or identifying undocumented residents—to automated decision systems that inform who gets loans and who receives bail, each of us moves through a world determined by data-empowered algorithms. But these technologies didn’t just appear: they are part of a history that goes back centuries, from the census enshrined in the US Constitution to the birth of eugenics in Victorian Britain to the development of Google search.

Expanding on the popular course they created at Columbia University, Chris Wiggins and Matthew L. Jones illuminate the ways in which data has long been used as a tool and a weapon in arguing for what is true, as well as a means of rearranging or defending power. They explore how data was created and curated, as well as how new mathematical and computational techniques developed to contend with that data serve to shape people, ideas, society, military operations and economies. Although technology and mathematics are at its heart, the story of data ultimately concerns an unstable game among states, corporations and people. How were new technical and scientific capabilities developed; who supported, advanced or funded these capabilities or transitions; and how did they change who could do what, from what and to whom?

Wiggins and Jones focus on these questions as they trace data’s historical arc and look to the future. By understanding the trajectory of data—where it has been and where it might yet go—Wiggins and Jones argue that we can understand how to bend it to ends that we collectively choose, with intentionality and purpose.


"Sometimes the best way to understand the present and prepare for the future is to look to the past. This insight is at the core of How Data Happened, an ambitious and thoughtful work. Wiggins and Jones have worked together—as data scientist and historian—to write a book that will reshape how you will see the relationship between data and society." — Matthew J. Salganik, Professor, Department of Sociology, Princeton University, and author of Bit by Bit: Social Research in the Digital Age

"In a tour-de-force, Wiggins and Jones put data in context so that we can see the values, politics, and controversies that shape our present reality. This book is truly a semester-long class bottled into a narrative fit for vacation." — Danah Boyd, founder and president, Data & Society Research Institute

"A leading data scientist and a historian of science walk into a classroom resulting in this ambitious and bold book packed with stories about the role of data in our society. Wiggins and Jones plainly and forcefully trace why we ended up with the big data" — Gina Neff, Executive Director, Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy, University of Cambridge

"This is the first comprehensive look at the history of data and how power has played a critical role in shaping the history. It’s a must read for any data scientist about how we got here and what we need to do to ensure that data works for everyone." — DJ Patil, former U.S. Chief Data Scientist



140 x 211 mm • 384 pages


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