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The History and Political Economy of Personal Data over the Last Two Centuries in Three Acts

This essay uses the sociological concept of the “data double” to investigate the changing political economy of personal data in the United States in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and up to today. It reviews secondary sources and examines select primary sources to argue for the ascendance of the double over the last two centuries and establishes a three-part periodization for personal data. In the first act, personal data worked mainly in aggregated form to help construct social imaginaries. From World War I until the 1970s, the power of personal data shifted toward the use of aggregates to fit individuals into the mass. Today, in the third act, individuals generate many data doubles that are commodified, capitalized, collected, celebrated, and often out of the control of those they represent.