July 2013 Archives

Big Data and Surveillance

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ComputingTheFuture-Detail.jpgOn Sunday June 16, speaking as a regular panelist on Fox News Sunday, Brit Hume commented that too much "fuss" was being made over Edward Snowden because what he supposedly revealed wasn't anything new. To back up this assertion he referred to a May 2006 article in USA Today. Mr. Hume provided no additional information, but I tracked down an article dated May 11, 2006 on the newspaper's website - "NSA has massive database of Americans' phone calls" - which I added to a growing list of references on surveillance by means of computer data. I was relieved to hear someone in the media address previous coverage of data surveillance. Recent discussions have often displayed - amidst an outrage that seems to arise from both the political left and right - surprise at the existence of such practices and even at the idea that "new" technologies may have what may be described as nefarious applications. While the article to which the panelist referred addressed this specific NSA program, a perceived threat to personal privacy posed by computers and big data appears in materials dating back several decades. Such materials can be studied at the Charles Babbage Institute at the University of Minnesota Libraries' Department of Archives and Special Collections.

HiddenFaceOfTech.jpgIn 2008 the Charles Babbage Institute began a collecting initiative on Social Issues in Computing to balance the possible bias of existing holdings. Collections at CBI consisted primarily of materials by the individuals and organizations that made up the computer industry itself. Much, if not all, of what the industry wrote about itself was positive, describing the intellectual achievement and far-reaching practical application of their creations. As a center dedicated to the history of information technology, CBI recognizes the positive contributions of the industry and its reach into the daily lives of much of the world. Social Issues in Computing investigates what people outside of the industry have had to say about this fact - both what they embrace as beneficial and what they regard as threatening.

The Social Issues in Computing initiative seeks a wide array of commercially and independently published print materials - books, magazines, newsletters, flyers, "zines" - that express hopes and concerns about computing and its impact on everyday people and communities from as wide an array of socio-political perspectives as possible. The ideas found within this growing collection of materials demonstrate perceptions both optimistic and dystopic and represent both liberal and conservative political-social perspectives. Issues addressed include jobs, the economy, warfare, the environment, and privacy and surveillance. Specific areas of concern wax and wane at different points in history - and that is interesting in and of itself - but concerns about the potential application of computers for the collection and analysis of data to monitor the populace stretch throughout the collection.

Creating a Sherlock Holmes Exhibit

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What I knew was that 'the box' held the contents for the Sherlock Holmes exhibit and that Curator Tim Johnson had a story to tell. As his intern for the summer, I was to scan, describe, and eventually select the prints that spoke to the danger that awaited Holmes. I dusted off my Alteschrift (old style German script), picked up some key French prepositions, and began a journey of discovery. (Sherlock Holmes: Through Time and Place is on display in the Elmer L. Andersen Library gallery through September 27, 2013.)

Reichenbach Falls.jpgReichenbach Falls and Meiringen, Switzerland became my new destination. Upper Chute, lower falls, town scenes, along with the artists L. Rohbock and R. Dikenmann and their publishers became recognizable to my eyes and my fingers flew their names into the record. It was Hench who was still a mystery to me. It was his collection, yet I knew very little about him. What I did know came from his barely legible script on the back of some of the prints. I found my alteschrift training handy in my attempts to decipher his classic doctor's handwriting.

In my collection management class at UW Madison, I learned about providing a variety of perspectives, and to try to do it objectively. That's how I selected the prints to show Tim; a selection of prints of Reichenbach Falls, a few classics, some variety, and a couple favorites all of which gave one a sense of foreboding and danger. Quickly, I realized two things. First, I didn't know the story; I only knew pieces of it. Second, curating an exhibit is not the same as curating a collection. I needed traction on the exhibit's story in order to be more effective.

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