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Big data in the nineteenth century

Initially, they had envisaged dozens of them: slim booklets that would handily summarize all of the important aspects of every parish in Ireland. It was the 1830s, and such a fantasy of comprehensive knowledge seemed within the grasp of the employees of the Ordnance Survey in Ireland. These fantasies were, in fact, to be found all over Europe and its colonies – it was a time of confidence in the availability of the world to be turned into facts (to be gathered in maps, censuses, encyclopedias, and statistical reports), and in the capacity of humankind to describe that whole world. Nineteenth-century Europe saw the invention of big data as a tool of effective government. But the fantasy of comprehensive knowledge found its limit in the colonies, and nowhere more clearly so than in Ireland.

As part of the improving zeal of the British government in 1820s, a parliamentary commission was set up to investigate the necessity of re-surveying the island of Ireland, with a view to establishing new and more accurate land values (The classic study of the Survey in Ireland is J.H. Andrews, A Paper Landscape: The Ordnance Survey in Nineteenth Century Ireland, OUP 1975. Much of the historical detail below comes from this book). The commission tasked the Ordnance Survey, a branch of the British Army, with making an accurate and comprehensive map of Ireland at a scale of six inches to one mile, or 1:10,560. The scale might seem unexceptional to anyone alive now who grew up with the Ordnance Survey’s maps of Ireland and Britain, but at the time it was nothing short of revolutionary – it called for enormous maps of frequently sparsely inhabited areas, and at a level of detail never before seen across such a vast expanse of land. How was the Survey to gather the information to fill in such detailed maps? The answer was to task a crew of fieldworkers, not only to map the physical features of the landscape, but to record every possible aspect of the landscape from its placenames to its productive economy.

With all of these data being gathered, there was no room and no protocol for putting them onto a map. There was simply too much information – a placename might be included, but not its etymology; a mill might find its way onto the map, but not its history and ownership. The solution was to publish a series of printed gazetteers to accompany the map, which would record all of the extra information that the Survey officers would be able to gather in the course of their fieldwork. Col. Thomas Larcom, in laying out instructions to the officers about what kind of information to collect for just one of the many sections of their reports, asked them to note:

Habits of the people. Not the general style of the cottages, as stone, mud, slated, glass windows, one story or two, number of rooms, comfort and cleanliness. Food; fuel; dress; longevity; usual number in a family; early marriages; any remarkable instance on either of these heads? What are their amusements and recreations?

While not all officers filled out these reports, and some were more thorough than others, it is easy to see how the anticipated slim volumes generated a mountain of information, at a scale that was practically impossible to manage. Reports on the geology, meteorology, history, archeology, literature, and culture of parishes created scenes straight out of the fiction of Jorge Luis Borges, as the available information rapidly eclipsed the Survey’s capacity to edit and publish it. One Survey officer wrote that, to study the placenames of Ireland alone was “to pass in review the local history of an entire country” – a paradox of scale, and almost a parody of the fantasy of comprehensive knowledge that drove the British colonial administration in Ireland. How could a Survey be both intensive and extensive at once?

In the end, only one publication emerged from the whole project, covering just one parish (Templemore) in Co. Derry. At 350 pages in length, the ‘memoir’ as it was now called, had ballooned in size, and cost more than three times the estimated budget for the entire county. Begun in about 1834, it wasn’t finished until November 1837. Though praised by many as a volume of true scholarship, the memoir was so large and so expensive and so slow to emerge that it sank the whole project – shortly after it was published the entire scheme was cancelled, and despite many years of attempts to have it restarted, the money was never found. Among the reasons for its cancellation was one that is rather ironic, given the Ordnance Survey’s later reputation in Ireland as a force destructive of Irish history and culture – it was objected that the Templemore memoir stoked nationalist pride, and that the topographical department of the Survey (which had charge of the historical and archaeological reports) was a hotbed of nationalist feeling and agitation. This prime example of scientific rationalism and colonial governmental efficiency was seen as having stoked up anti-imperial feeling. Big data, it seems, had some very serious unintended consequences.

It wasn’t the end of big data in Ireland – the first ever complete national census took place there in 1841. But the Survey’s woes highlighted the tensions between noise and speech, between information and knowledge, giving pause to those who presumed that it was within the reach of human capacity to capture and record “the local history of an entire nation.” The assumption of many proponents of big data is that we can have it all, but sometimes it’s all just too much.

Featured image credit: The Long Room of Trinity College Old Library by Diliff. CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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